Getting work done is directly related to focus.

Getting work done is directly related to focus.

The discussion of hyper-connectivity and the techniques to combat the downside of hyper-connectivity has convinced me that in many cases we are dancing around the bigger workplace issue of how can you stay focused on delivering real business value in an environment that seems to be designed to promote making incremental progress on lots of projects rather than getting any one of them done. For those that are not steeped in the theory of lean, that translates to making progress on lots of tasks without finishing the bigger project to which the tasks belong. This focus on activity might be an artifact of workplace cultures that have been downsized and are attempting to get more done with less or the management by objective type behaviors that foster generating silo behaviors. Regardless of workplace I have observed this type of behavior different national cultures. For example, in conversations with Brazilian and Indian friends they have told me the same story of having to juggle multiple priorities and finding it difficult to stay focusing. The causes of the problem include: the after effects of downsizing, a belief in multitasking, lack of prioritization or plain poor management. These are important to understand for a long-term solution, however in the short-term, tactics are needed to generate focus in order to get into the flow! A few of the techniques I use or have been shared to help generate focus include:

  • Organize your workspace to avoid distractions – Clutter is not your friend. My desk is a hodgepodge of pictures, magazines waiting to read, piles of paid bills, several monitors, hard drives, microphones and an audio mixer. All sorts of cool and interesting stuff that screams for attention. I don’t do work that requires focus in my office anymore. The dining room table that no one uses provides an austere environment that promotes focus. I go back to my office to play.
  • Prepare to focus – A friend that writes for a living suggested that you have what you need close at hand before you start on a task. In other words, get that cup of coffee, tea or water before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Preparation includes making sure you laptop is plugged in or has a charge and literally visiting the bathroom upfront.
  • Have a routine – Frameworks like Scrum or Kanban have a very specific, built-in routine. Each project, release, sprint and day begin with a planning exercise. Time management technique like Getting Things Done (GTD) include planning specific next steps as soon as the previous step is completed. In recent Slate Working Podcast titled The “How Does a Cartoonist Work?” Edition, David Plotz interviewed Washington Post cartoonist, Tom Toles. Mr Toles said that he learned early on that routine was required to continually generate creative content. Routine liberated him from have to think deeply about mundane decisions that needed to be made on a day basis, allowing more time to be work on what really delivered value.
  • Plan – A corollary to having a routine. Plan and re-plan as needed. If nothing else, spend the first few minutes of every day planning the day ahead, and then re-plan as “stuff” happens.
  • Share your “rules” – If you work in a team and you are going to try techniques like the 20 minute sprint or the two email rule, let your friends, co-workers and boss know what you are doing. Also consider asking for their support in enforcing the techniques (thanks to Mauricio Aguiar for the addendum).
  • Airplane mode – While listening to an introduction to a speaker at the Brazilian Metricas 2014 conference, the conference chair suggest to the audience that turning their phones on airplane mode was a better choice than setting their phones to silent.  Airplane mode would ensure they were not interrupted so that they could pay proper attention.  Point well made.

In a response to Hyper-connectivity and The Illusion of Progress, Gene Hughson stated “The illusion of importance also applies in that the need for constant connection can be a conceit – “I’m too important to be out of touch, even for a minute”.” That conceit can lead to a reduction in productivity and effectiveness that hurts everyone. Re-focusing on focus requires sacrificing some of the distractions that make us feel that we are at the center of the importance universe (at least for 20 minutes at a time).

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