The Fight for Focus: Successful Strategies to Get Important Things Done

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Focused attention is the basis for effectiveness. Without it, any sort of complex activity is more challenging, if not impossible. In a previous post, I introduced Eleanor, a high-performing executive I worked with at a global aerospace firm. Wrestling with interruption, distraction, and stress, she decided to fight back. 

Her mission? Everyone on her team structured their time so that “at the end of the day, we have accomplished important things.” They instituted “Project Focus Time,” where each team member scheduled 90 minutes of undisturbed attention into their calendar. This buffer zone opened space for the deep concentration their often intricate work required. This is just one of the many strategies you and your team can try.

The End of “Always Available”

A well-intended manager, like a nurturing parent, thinks availability is a signal of support to her team. The unintended side effect? Her calendar becomes a highly permeable membrane that is frequently breached by unbidden interruption.

Interruptions can be costly. One study found a three-second interruption led to double the number of mistakes on subsequent tasks. So, Eleanor decided to take back her “open door policy” and restrict her accessibility to certain hours of the day.

While the team struggled with this change at first, they gradually turned a corner. “You know what?” she laughed. “It turns out that rarity increases value!” 

Limiting access time made her team more purposeful and deliberate in their interactions. They used their moments with greater intention and clarity. Of course, this has always been more obvious at the top of the hierarchy where the value of a leader’s limited attention is clearer. Now the same lessons are being applied in places other than the C-suite. 

Through the ongoing team conversation about “accomplishing important things,” the team began to internalize what needed to be done with less dependence on “approval” from the boss.

In essence they became more self-confident and self-managing. “I learned it’s okay not to be accessible all the time,” Eleanor said. Because team members became more deliberate about their time and intention, the quality of their relationships increased. 

Staying Focused in an Open Office 

Interruptions are flow-killers. Frequent interruptions create exhaustion, fatigue, and stress-induced ailments like migraine headaches. While it’s easy to blame technology, the most common sources of interruption are your coworkers.

Eleanor works in an office full of glass walls (a growing number workplaces have no walls at all). She realized that her desk faced her floor’s primary entry point. Whenever she made eye-contact with someone coming onto the floor, she said “hi!” Eleanor joked that she felt like she was the greeter at Wal-Mart.

After realizing her office was the major cause of distraction, she rotated her desk 90 degrees to face the wall. “It was a revelation!” People who have their own offices are more protected from those who work in open environments. Unsurprisingly, the open office makes you more nearly 30 percent more vulnerable to interruption.

So, for associates assigned to the open office section, Eleanor developed a signal to remind coworkers not to bother them. This group called themselves “the sitting ducks,” so she gave them rubber ducks to put on top of their cubicle, which told everyone else: “Leave me alone!”  

Recently, someone approached me about Eleanor’s organization’s meeting culture. “We’re always in meetings and never have time to actually get things done.” What should they do? Agree on a certain time—maybe a day or two-half days—where no meetings are scheduled. Her eyes went wide with surprise, a simple idea no one had considered.

We need to be more active and muscular in setting boundaries and priorities about how we work. We live in an era where old boundaries are dissolving (think 9-5 workday, leisure-time on the weekend, vacations that allow undisturbed away time). Work has permeated every nook and cranny of life. I find that people tend to be far more passive in accepting conditions that should actually be challenged.

Too many of us default to allowing the external conditions dictate the rules. One alternative is pushing back and exercising previously unknown aspects of personal power.

Finding out you can actually set their own boundaries is like discovering you have superpowers. It doesn’t always work, and it requires constant vigilance. That means finding space in the cacophony, but those are the things we must fight for.