Focusing is a deliberate act that takes energy. To block out distractions, we need to recognize how we're getting distracted and take appropriate action.
It's no secret that working in a distraction-free environment is the best way to tackle complex problems effectively. However, we also walk the fine line between being available to collaborate with others and creating the time and space to focus.
To get the best of both worlds, teams should plan time for interaction as well as block out times for each individual to focus in a distraction-free environment. Even the time for interactions should be deliberate and intentional so everyone can bring their undivided attention to the discussion and optimize productivity.
For example, you can use a time-boxing approach (e.g., the Pomodoro Technique) to help protect and respect each person's focused time. This technique allows you to create a positive and productive environment that fosters both individual focused work and team collaboration.
However, when it comes to creating a distraction-free environment, it's often easier said than done. Here are a few tips to minimize the many distractions that can prevent you from getting into flow, enjoying your work, and maximizing your productivity.
It's hard to focus for a prolonged period if you respond to every message as soon as the phone pings. Instead, practice "asynchronous communication": turn off notifications on your devices, set presence to offline, set the expectation that you will reply to messages at certain times of the day, and cultivate a mindset that it’s OK to not respond immediately.
To make asynchronous communication most productive and avoid unnecessary back-and-forths, ensure that the initial message includes sufficient details, clear action item(s), timelines or due dates for each, and what the recipients should do if they can't fulfill the requests.
It's tempting to just "check something real quick" but did you know that doing so can add up to a 40% productivity loss over the course of a day? Not to mention, when we divert our attention from the task at hand, it can take 23 minutes to get back into the zone!
To avoid these kind of distractions, set predetermined times to batch check email, instant messages, social media, and text messages. There are many apps to assist you – apps like GMail’s Inbox Pause plugin, or apps that block other apps and specific sites at preset intervals.
It may not be easy to wrap your head around how you would focus on a big chunk of work for hours on end. Most people find it more manageable when they break down a large task into smaller milestones and then tackle each milestone task for a predetermined amount of time. For example, you can set a timer and commit to working without distraction for 25 minutes at a time. Then, take a 5- to 10-minute break to refresh before starting the next 25 minute cycle. Continue repeating this cycle until the task or milestone is complete.
If you're working in an open-plan office or out in public, you can adopt a signaling mechanism to let others know that you're focusing so you won't get disturbed unless it's legitimately urgent. For example, you can put on a headphone - this simple action not only helps you block out noises, but also gestures that you don't wish to be interrupted.
When you leave your calendar open for others to schedule meetings, you're doing so at the expense of your own priorities. Instead, set expectations so you know when you can focus on important tasks and others know when they can get your undivided attention.
You can block out meeting-free zones on your calendar or use a scheduling tool (e.g., Calendly) so people can only book meetings during specific windows. This allows you to batch your meetings, reduce switching costs, and leave enough uninterrupted time for focus work.
Setting goals and making external commitments can help us prioritize and focus on getting the most important tasks done. Over-committing may make us feel overwhelmed, but setting reasonable deadlines and creating a sense of urgency can help us focus.
We're often the culprits who create distractions in our own minds. Living in the information age means it's easy to fill our time and attention with "content," such that our mental capabilities are spread wide and thin as we lose the ability to focus on complex and dense issues.
It's important that you become adept at discerning what information to take in, and when to take it in. When you master this skill, you retain control of the faucet of information instead of getting drowned by everything that comes at you, taking your attention away from what's important.
Focusing is a deliberate act that takes energy. To block out distractions, we need to first recognize how we're getting distracted so we can take the appropriate action. Cultivating our own self-awareness is key to managing our attention so we can focus on high-value activities. Recognizing your own distraction triggers and appropriately managing them will help you create a win-win situation where you can address important tasks productively during "focus time" and give others your undivided attention during "interaction time."