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Focus on Work: Cutting through Chaos

The war is on for progress. The enemy is distraction. Every day is a new battle to either destroy or evade the enemy. In a world of constant and growing demands on your attention, you need to focus to do good work. Cal Newport writes in the book Deep Work that “High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus) ". This is the mission.

Just to get this post written, here are the steps I took to increase the intensity of my focus and deter the enemy from invading on the time I set aside for this task:

1. Close the door

2. Clear all clutter from keyboard area of desk

3. Set Outlook to ‘Work Offline’

4. Set smart phone to ‘Do not Disturb’

5. Set Skype IM to ‘Do not Disturb’

6. Put on headphones with Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies playing on YouTube Red (no ads)

7. Close all desktop windows down so that it only shows my dark gray solid background

8. Open Word doc on one monitor

9. Hide all toolbars so that only the page is shown

10. Turn on the Pomodoro timer on another monitor

This seems like a lot of steps and, in the not too distant past, it would have been. But this is our life now. Not to say that everyone needs to take all these steps, nor that everyone can. Still, let's use this as a case study in focus.

Note that I have very few if any notifications activated on my smartphone or desktop. LinkedIn is the only social media notification I receive (smartphone only). I choose one email account to handle the most critical messages which are from my family only. I didn't own a cell phone or have dial-up internet until my mid-twenties. How I long for the days when socially standardized connectedness didn't seem to dictate my daily activities. When I could spend my time uninterrupted to do what is now considered "Deep Work" by Cal Newport. I do the best I can now to stay untethered, but it is a challenge. So, let's breakdown the steps above.

Step #1 - Close the door

Closing the office door only slows down those who wish to solicit your head space. Sometimes I’ll add a ‘Do not Disturb’ message to the door to almost eliminate it. What if you work in a cubicle or open-office and have no door? A good practice in this environment is to wear headphones or earbuds (on or not). Let the inevitable interrupters know that you are busy and will need to schedule something on the calendar if they need more than a few minutes. When they go past 2 minutes of your time feel free to express your frustration. If they think it is okay for them to disrupt you from doing quality work, it is okay to express frustration about this. You don’t have to be a jerk about it, but be assertive and honest. (Your boss is the obvious the exception to this rule and requires another strategy altogether. More on that in another post.) These disruptions risk your ability to do good work and could put you in a position of compromise with your stakeholders. Your reputation is at stake and deserves the respect of your peers. Conversely, treat your neighbor as you would like to be treated.

Step #2 - Clear the clutter from your desk

Clearing clutter from the desk reduces distractions by notes or gadgets. I have an L-shaped desk, so I move most of that to the side that is out of view. This helps me to laser in my focus to the words being typed on the screen.

Steps #3-5 - Turn off all notifications on all devices/apps

The next three steps can be unnerving for some people. Especially people who’s boss expects them to be at their beck and call. Let’s be honest, you will not always be able to shut off email and phones all day every day. The trick here is to be strategic about it. If there is something happening that needs your immediate attention, then you’ll want to exercise this tactic in predetermined blocks of time. Same goes for those who’s responsibilities require them to be ‘connected’ full time. However, for most of us and most of the time, we should be able to do this for at least 30-minute increments throughout the day. I do 30 minutes at a time. When that 30 minutes is up, I go ‘to’ my email, phone, and instant messaging instead of it coming to me. As far as I am concerned, these are the worst of all distractions and this is the best way to manage them. They are the worst because almost none of them are as urgent as the sender thinks. Stopping and starting work to address numerous of 1-2-minute interruptions per day results in nothing getting done.

Step #6 - Block out noise

I love music. When I am working you might find me listening to Beethoven or you might find me listening to Pantera. It depends on whether I am doing ‘thinking work’ like writing or analyzing or if I am doing ‘hard work' like data entry or document formatting. It is a great way to regulate your mood and your focus. A byproduct of having your ears occupied and activity in your face is that people are hesitant to interrupt. Wearing headphones and hammering on the keyboard is the 'padlock' of office productivity – it keeps honest people honest. There are plenty of those who have no problem breaking out the bolt-cutters. That said over-the-ear headphones are a better lock than earbuds. Don’t ask me why, I just know they are.

Steps #7-9 - Get rid of distracting desktop backgrounds and app functions

Get rid of the colorful and picturesque landscape on your desktop wallpaper. Instead and make it a single flat color. Keep your shortcuts to a minimal number. The more that is up there the less settled your mind is to focus.

Here are what my three monitors looks like as I type this post:

You can also see in the above image that steps 8-9 are active here. My desktop background is calm and has a very simple statement of motivation that helps to keep me centered. My Word doc is covering all my desktop shortcuts. My toolbar and commands are hidden so that my temptation to do any formatting or editing is minimized to what I can do quickly via keyboard shortcuts. All the rest will happen in the final editing of the draft. This is a productivity trick for getting writing done quickly. It also drives me insane when my cursor accidentally ends up hovering over a formatting shortcut and unexpectedly changes the way my text appears. This eliminates all those distraction enemies.

Step #10 - Use a productivity timer

Finally, Step #10 is a great way power through distractions to completion. This is a force-multiplying psychological phenomenon that I believe represents about 50% of the weight of these steps. The Pomodoro Technique says you work without stopping for 25 minutes straight, followed by a 5-10-minute break, then repeat. I set the clock and don’t stop typing, writing, calculating, entering data, or whatever I’m doing for 25 minutes straight. I get more done in that 25 minutes than an hour without it. Once the alarm goes off don’t get trapped into doing some other task for your break. I like to get up and go for a walk. My office is on the 3rd floor of my building. Often, I walk around the circular hall to the staircase, go to the first floor, then back up the other stairs back to the third floor. Gets my blood moving and gives my brain a mini-break. You find your way of doing it, but I recommend doing something physical outside of your office or cubicle.

Bonus - Time blocking and Daily Planning

None of these will help you without some serious effort to plan your day and block time for critical tasks. I keep a running list of tasks that I either need or want to get done. I pull from that list items that are either urgent and important or will provide a leap in reaching my greater goals. Planning your day requires planning your week, planning your month, and planning your quarter. Do this in reverse to reach your goals. Make sure your daily tasks are important to your big goals. Use the Big Rock approach. Take your big goals, break them down into smaller goals. Make those goals the 3-5 Big Rocks that you will move weekly. Want to build a shed? Here are your big rocks: 1) draft a plan, 2) estimate costs, 3) order materials, 4) recruit labor. Each one of these big tasks is full of sub-tasks. Plan on them being the only thing you do this week. But how are you going to draft that plan if the dog won't stop barking, the fridge is empty, and the kids want to play ball? My last piece of advice is work somewhere outside of your normal working place as often as possible. Go to a library or a coffee shop or a co-working space or wherever you get turned on and focused. 30 minutes in (insert famous coffee shop name here) is worth 3 hours in the office.

These are some of the ways that I intensify my focus to produce the best work I am capable of. They are the result of years’ worth of figuring out what works for me. They may not all be right for you. Get creative, leverage your unique constraints to come up with a plan to defeat the distraction enemy. Wage a campaign against that enemy until the war for deep quality work is won.

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