Death by 1000 Papercuts

This past week I had two different clients who have very different job settings, but they have the same problem.

One leads a remote team in a small start-up and one works independently as a virtual assistant with multiple clients. Despite the different settings, I think this is a problem that crosses job descriptions or workplaces, so maybe it’s bugging you too?​


Both of them get interrupted with little questions or requests at all hours.  Legitimate things, but constant, niggling interruptions popping up like whack-a-mole.​

The interruptions create a feeling of both never being able to get anything done, and yet also not being available enough. 

It’s like death by 1000 papercuts. This constant stream of interruptions is cutting into their productivity and making them feel like failures. 

On top of that, because interruptions kept them from finishing their tasks during work hours, work is flowing over into nights and weekends, which means they were working all the time.


On one hand, we’ve created a digital work culture where you can work anytime, any place. On the other hand, we’ve also created a work environment where there is no expected “off”.

It’s a common problem in the modern work world, and the solutions offered are often flimsy and don’t get to the heart of the problem, like “Oh, turn off your notifications and ignore it.”

This doesn’t work that well for two reasons:

1. Most of my clients, incredibly conscientious high achievers, feel like they’re failing when they aren’t responsive to clients or team members.

2. We are hardwired as humans to protect our relationships. When we know there are potential situations that could affect our standing with others,  we WANT to check. There is part of our brain still thinking about checking, even when notifications are off. We still know they are there.

So, if simply turning off the notifications won’t work, what will? 

The first step: check in with your values. 

The whole reason that you freelance is so that you are the boss. Otherwise, why not have a regular job? Lord knows it would be simpler.

Yes, when you freelance you do work for others, but ultimately this is your business. You get to decide how it runs. If you’re feeling buried under a mountain of notifications and last minute questions, it’s time to make a change. 

Second step: strategize solutions that keep your inbox and notification bar clean. 

Instead, let’s think of the problem in a new way. How can we make the inbox or the notification bar less interesting, less important? If we know the stuff that’s going to appear there is not so fascinating or urgent, we want to check less. 

BUT, you might be asking, just how do I do that? And how do I deal with clients and co-workers who expect me to be available 24/7? 

It is possible. It just takes some strategy and forethought. 

I just ordered Cal Newport’s new book “A World Without Email” after hearing him on Ezra Kline’s podcast.

Here is a snippet of the solution he offers, and one that may be helpful for you:

As you design processes with clients about how you’ll work, create workflows with this goal in mind:

How can we set up our work in a way that, as much as possible, consolidates communication and minimizes interruptions? 

Set up processes and workflows that as much as possible, allow you to do your work independently, or if you’re HIRING freelancers, that allows them the same.

What might that look like? Consider setting up a weekly meeting with a client and ask them to bring all their requests, comments and little questions to that meeting, rather than firing off an email or a slack message whenever something pops up. 

​It could look like setting expectations with clients – that you let them know that you will only be checking Trello on Wednesdays and Fridays, and that you’ll look forward to responding to their requests at that time. Instead of making it sound like you’re ignoring them, now it looks like you’re setting aside dedicated time devoted just to them. 

Set the boundary up front that you don’t do 24-hour turnarounds on work requests (or plan to charge a premium for it). I’ve also found that many entrepreneurs use freelancers because they don’t want to take the time to figure out systems themselves, which is why they dump lots of last minute stuff on freelancers they hire. 

Some clients might be put off by these boundaries, but you’re doing them a favor by forcing them to be more intentional in their own workflows.

Because we live in the era of instant communication, we’ve gotten lazy about communication, just sending off a ping here or there whenever something comes up in our minds. But half the time, if we waited, many of these requests or notifications would resolve themselves by your Wednesday meeting, and those that don’t aren’t actually as urgent as we think they are. In the meantime, your brain space is dedicated to a single task, letting you operate more efficiently. 

Many will feel relieved and reassured when you offer them the structure of a good process, even if it means they have to plan ahead more. You’ll end up with a less urgent inbox, less interruptions, more ease with which to focus.

Then there’s more time (and energy!) for fun! My mission for every solopreneur.

I think you’re amazing.



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