Reassessing the value of time: what 20 minutes really is

I was reading one of 1,000,000,000 productivity articles the other day and there was one statistic that stood out to me because I fall victim more times daily than I care to admit to myself: it takes on average 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get refocused after a distraction.

That sounds absurd at first but when I start to think about what happens when I open an email off a notification from my desktop (especially from Quora, dear god help me), it starts to sound pretty terrifyingly accurate. Four of those distractions a day and I’ve lost an hour.

It’s always perplexed me how we’ve managed to end up with shorter days despite massive improvements in convenience in nearly every area of our lives. I grab an instant breakfast, with instant coffee, and send a message to my family instantly. Everything takes less time, yet our output seems to be declining compared to generations of the past who didn’t experience nearly this level of convenience.

How can I possibly be getting less done?

Information and instant access to the world is our greatest double edge sword.

I start to think about the 20 minutes I lose with each notification and I think about all the other times I lose “just 20 minutes” to something else like laying on my bed surfing articles after getting home from work or waking up in the morning.

What else could I do in those 20 minutes that would make them much more than “just 20 minutes”?

Here’s an honest, quick list of what I could do in 23 minutes and 15 seconds:

  • Write 500 words and answer a question, solve a problem for someone.

  • Send out 4 emails to prospective clients.

  • Get through 3-4 coding exercises.

  • Watch 4 video modules from an online course I bought.

  • Get through 10 pages of the Kindle book I’ve been meaning to finish.

Can you imagine if I replaced the four times (it’s likely so much more) I get distracted by an email notification or choose to “just” waste 20 minutes with any one of these things off my list?

To really put this in perspective, each of my clients, or my entire income, were acquired through actions that took me no more than 23 minutes and 15 seconds. 

The value of that 23 minutes and 15 seconds becomes real, money and income stability real for a freelancer like me.

It takes honesty and conscious thinking and engagement to avoid the seemingly intrinsic action of falling into a wormhole online. If you really want to scare yourself, try Toggl to see where you spent your time for an aggressive intervention. It will make you hate yourself now and love yourself later.

We, I, need to stop looking at time as something without an inherent value and remember what 23 minutes and 15 seconds could really create.