blurry reflection in a mirror

Are you in focus or out of focus?

It is common to work in an environment where you have email running in the background, one or more chat windows in the foreground and an office full of chatty neighbors all competing for your attention. There are times when it is important to reject the noise and distractions of the collaborative office in order to focus. There are three types of strategies you can employ to find a little bit of focus:

  1. Noise control techniques – Open offices have become the rage again, driven by the concept of the team room commonly embraced in Agile. The two most common noise control techniques are withdrawal (leaving the team room) and headphones. Maxwell Smart had the cone of silence; today headphones play a very similar role.
  2. Interaction control techniques – Open offices, team rooms and even cube farms have been engineered to shorten the lines of communication between team members. If you have a question, comment or even a story to share it is incredibly easy to interact with a team member. The ability to quickly interact can be a huge benefit, or alternately, a huge focus-killer. Three common interaction control techniques include: withdrawal (does double duty with noise control), turning off collaboration tools (most useful in virtual scenarios) and do not disturb signs. In the 1980’s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, Les the newsman placed a line in front of his cube entry to indicate a door in order to control interactions. The 21st-century version of Les’s line is the do not disturb sign. I recently saw a tri-fold sitting on a desk that said, “I am testing, leave me alone”, “Listening to a webinar – emergencies only” and “Let’s talk about lunch”. The tri-fold sign was amusing, but was used to send a strong signal that the person did not want to be constantly interrupted. Most desks in the office had the same sign. I use this technique at home when my wife and I are working from our separate home offices.
  3. Focus control techniques – Much has been written about the diminution of attention spans. Time Magazine published an article on May 14, 2015 that asserted that we now have an attention span shorter than a goldfish. I must admit that I only read the headline and first paragraph before checking ESPN to see whether my football team’s quarterback had been suspended (I did go back and read the whole article later). Attention span is an important factor in generating focus. There are numerous techniques to help with attention span and to generate focus. My wife uses Getting Things Done (GTD) and I am currently experimenting with a combination of Personal Kanban and Pomodoro. Each technique is different and has their own pluses and minuses; however, the central thread though each is guidance on how to focus on one thing or group of things at a time. We explore Pomodoro in another essay.

Working in a team requires collaboration and coordination, which means that people have to interact (and in some case actually have to speak to each other). Interaction is often an enemy of focus at the individual level. What collaboration and coordination doesn’t mean is that the work environment has to mimic Penn Station during rush hour. Noise and interruptions need to be managed so that work can be done effectively.

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