The High Cost Of Distractions And Wasted Time

To be effective and creative, we need to be able to focus for extended periods. Every time you are distracted and interrupted it costs more than you know.

Vitaliy Katsenelson, CEO at Investment Management Associates, Inc., | Courtesy Photo
Vitaliy Katsenelson, CEO at Investment Management Associates, Inc., | Courtesy Photo

I am anything but an expert on time. In fact, as you’ll see, time management is something I fail at. I am trying to fail less. This is why it’s a topic that has been very important to me as of late.

I recently read Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, two former Google engineers who worked on Gmail and YouTube. The book is written by geeks for geeks like me.

Jake and John provide very insightful tips on how to (you guessed it) “make time.” Also, the book made me look at technology companies and the concept of time from a slightly different perspective.


Remember when consumers paid with dollars instead of time?

Think about Proctor & Gamble, Hershey, Nestlé – the CPG giants of the late 20th century. If you were an engineer or chemist working for one of those companies, you probably loved your job and creating products consumers were delighted to spend more and more money on; be it laundry detergent, cosmetics, instant coffee, TV dinners, or exotic chocolate flavors. The more successful you were, the more consumers purchased (i.e. more dollars they spent).

Photo: Dimitar Belchev, Unsplash
Photo: Dimitar Belchev, YFS Magazine

Today, however, the majority of products sold by Silicon Valley companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google are not sold in stores; and even more importantly, consumers don’t pay for them with dollars but rather with time. It is seemingly the cheapest commodity of all and ironically – the scarcest commodity.


The Dilemma: Privacy, unlimited access and the currency of time

The business models of Google, Facebook, and Twitter are not much different from TV networks. They provide “free” content and you pay for it with your time, thus allowing Proctor & Gamble to pitch you its new unicorn soap.

However, there are two distinct differences between TV networks and Silicon Valley giants:

First, there’s the question of privacy – technology companies know hundreds of times more about you than traditional mass media companies once did. And secondly, TV networks likely have limited access to you (an hour or two in the morning and four hours in the evening) but Google, Facebook, and Twitter are on your mobile device. They are with you 24/7 – and even follow you into the bathroom.

I don’t buy into rhetoric that companies like Facebook are evil. Not at all! These companies are one ego trip away from turning into Myspace (a social network that has largely lost its cultural cachet and barely resembles the site that captured the world’s attention years ago).

Photo: Rawpixel, Unsplash
Photo: Rawpixel, YFS Magazine

They are certainly not as evil as Coca-Cola, which has long made a name for itself based on its “you’ll feel like a million bucks and become a social butterfly” subliminal messaging in its advertising. Meanwhile, turning the masses into caffeine and sugar addicts and contributing to the global diabetes epidemic. But the Silicon Valley giants who employ engineers (who love what they do) desperately want to create products you will find quite addicting.

How much you use is up to you – well, almost. The better the product, the more time you’ll spend on it and the deeper you’ll get hooked. (Again, the currency here is your time).


A case for budgeting your money and your time

I recently wrote an article about financial budgeting where I discuss that the core ideaology of budgeting is simply prioritizing what is important to you.

Instead of mindlessly spending your money on autopilot, budgeting lets you proactively and mindfully prioritize what matters the most. For one person it’s an overseas vacation each year; another may purchase a new car every three years.

Our income, no matter how much money we make, can always be exceeded by our insatiable and ever-growing desires. Yet, if you are thoughtful about how you spend money, it may actually bring you happiness. The kind of happiness that is derived from accomplishing goals and fulfilling dreams.

Budgeting our time is no different, except that time is even more scarce than money. If you allow your life to run on “default settings” set by enthusiastic tech companies, your time will turn into the digital equivalent of consuming Hershey Kisses as a meal replacement for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.


Do you truly know how you’re spending your time?

After I read Make Time, I looked at the Screen Time app on my iPhone to see how much time I spend on it. The number is too embarrassing for me to commit it to writing.

My biggest app time hog was not Facebook but Twitter, and another huge culprit was email. Though my notifications were off, I checked email on my phone non-stop. If I simply took this time I wasted and spent it on reading books, I’d be able to read an extra book or two each week.

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Instead of trying to fight temptation – an act that consumes immense energy – I followed the Make Time authors’ recommendation:

I uninstalled all the time and attention hogging apps from my iPhone – no more social networks or news, and more importantly, no email.

I thought I’d miss it all. For a few days I caught myself reaching for my phone, just to realize that there was no need for me to do that since I had nothing to check. A week later I am completely liberated.


No longer a slave to wasted time – especially email

In reality, If I don’t reply to emails instantly, nothing in my life or the life of a sender is going to change. Instead, I set a time twice a day to read email on my laptop or desktop where it is less accessible. I even removed Gmail shortcuts from my browsers’ toolbar.

The authors of Make Time argue that you should never reply to emails right away. This way you condition people who email you to stop treating email like an instant messenger app. I think they’re right.

At IMA, we have set a company-wide policy to answer emails from clients the same business day. At the very least we acknowledge receipt of an email, even if we don’t have an answer yet. I get very few emails from clients. Thus answering the same day is not an issue for me. At the same time I don’t owe a quick reply to every email, so I reply when I can … sometimes weeks or months later (if you are still waiting for a response, my apologies).

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Then there is the issue of internal communications at my company. Over time we’ve found it is easier to find talent globally, not just locally. We have as many remote employees as we do at our Denver HQ.

We also discovered that email is horrible for interoffice communication. So in 2018 we switched to Slack – a modern, post-Microsoft communications platform. Yes, very millennial of us, I know. Slack allows us to divide our communications into channels. Channels are basically group chats for specific company functions. We have a record of all pertinent communications stored in one place.


Reclaim your time

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, discusses creativity’s biggest enemy: time fragmentation.

To be effective and creative (two linchpins of success), we need to be able to focus for extended periods. Every time you are distracted and interrupted from what you are doing, even for thirty seconds, its costs you ten to twenty minutes. That’s the time it takes to get back on the concentration track.

The default setting for a typical office environment maximizes time fragmentation. I have a friend who runs one of the largest investment firms in Canada. After reading Newport’s book she created a company-wide “Do Not Disturb” policy from 9:00 AM to 11:30 AM. This is when employees can focus without being interrupted.

We are going to try to implement a version of this at IMA … another personal and professional step towards reclaiming my time.


Vitaliy Katsenelson is the CEO at Investment Management Associates, Inc., which is anything but your average investment firm. Vitaliy has authored two books on investing, published by John Wiley & Sons and translated into eight languages. In a brief moment of senility, Forbes magazine called him “the new Benjamin Graham.” Connect with @vitaliyk on Twitter.


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