How to keep your focus when all around you are losing theirs

How to keep your focus when all around you are losing theirs

During the week I saw a video of a new technology product for people who work in open plan offices. I wasn’t sure at first if it was real or satire because it was essentially a set of human blinkers. One thing that I don’t miss about working in a shared offices is the distraction of other people. In one of my previous jobs my desk was just inside the door that everyone passed through to get to the photocopier, kitchen and toilet. As a friendly introvert this meant constant interruptions, people stopping to say hello. I loved my colleagues but I didn’t love working through lunch or late to catch up. In another work role I was in an open plan office where everyone - including the CEO and C-suite staff - worked at open plan desks. This meant constant interruptions between all points on the organisational chart. I’m all for collaborative work places which generate ideas, innovation and lots of other buzzwords but it’s difficult to be productive under those circumstances even for the most adept multi-tasker.

Of course, even when working alone there are always interruptions. The phone rings, someone calls to deliver something, an email or push notification pings and a train of thought is lost forever. Those are just the involuntary distractions, there’s also the urge to check for new emails, make a cup of coffee or send a WhatsApp message. Anything except doing what we should be doing. Even planned interruptions like meetings can throw out the work schedule for the rest of the day.

Plenty has been written about how to deal with distractions by greater experts than me. I’ve tried lots of strategies over the years. Here are three things that work for me:

Meditation

I have a daily meditation practice (well most days). I started meditating during my PhD when my workspace was a desk in the library in the city centre. Even on summer days when the library was empty there were the regular reminders of the outside world, a busking saxophonist (my arch-enemy for 18 months, although he never knew it), and the regular roars from the Viking Splash tourists. Meditation helped my concentration and focus and reduced my ill will towards wannabe Vikings and saxophonists! If you’re not sure where to start there are, of course, apps for that – the Insight Timer and Headspace are worth checking out. I learned to meditate with the Dublin Buddhist Centre, and strongly recommend learning with other people if you can. It’s much easier to sustain a practice with a bit of positive peer pressure.

Break the internet

I used to rely on the Freedom app on my laptop and still use it sometimes. It can block your internet access for periods of time from 15 minutes up to 6 hours. If that seems a bit too drastic then you can use it to selectively block social media sites or other designated websites.  Recently I’ve started to use Boomerang on my gmail. At first I used this to schedule emails to send out, very useful if you want to write emails at the weekend but don’t want to get replies straight away. You can also use it to pause the email inbox for periods of time which reduces that distraction. I know some business owners who have an automatic response on their email accounts saying that they only check their emails at certain times during the day. This helps manage client expectations about when to expect a reply and eliminates the “did you get my email?” phone call.

Maker and Manager days

This has been a bit of a game-changer for me lately. I seem to be a bit of late adaptor given that this idea dates back almost a decade. I’ve started to block off one maker day a week where I don’t have any meetings or networking events. It’s not always the same day because I think for me that would very quickly feel too restrictive. But just knowing that those days are there has reduced the stress of wondering how I’m going to get things done. It’s also made me a lot more selective about arranging meetings and phone calls. I value my time in a way that I didn’t when I first started working for myself. Yesterday I ended up with a bonus maker day when a day-long event was cancelled at the last minute. I finished a project and went for a walk in the winter sun. Doing nothing is just as important as being productive sometimes, as I’ve written about previously.

Cal Newport’s book Deep Focus is well worth reading. I haven’t read Maggie Jackson’s book Distracted yet but it’s on my list. Or you could contribute to the crowdfund for those blinkers.

Got a productivity or distraction-eliminating tip or want to recommend a book? Drop me a line and say hello.

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