Paul Jenny

Ask an Expert: Increasing Focus

Pierre Khawand, Founder and Principal, People-OnTheGo

Q. How can my team members and I become more focused and less distracted?

Increasing focus and decreasing distractions are two sides of a very elusive coin. Due to email, the Internet, smart phones, and other products of the digital revolution, our lives have become a series of frequent interruptions intermingled with small flurries of work.

Our efforts are like waves pounding on a shore. Sometimes we get lucky and the tide comes in, but typically we move forward, then backward, and then forward again. For our efforts to amount to something substantial, we need focused work sessions—periods of sustained, uninterrupted activity. I know that kind of time can be hard to come by, but the truth is you can create an environment of focus, fulfillment, and accomplishment in three steps: eliminate external distractions, plan for productivity, and capture the Killer Bs (our internal interrupters).

Eliminate External Distractions

It can be difficult to switch off your phone, your email, the people who stop by, the noise or conversations around your work area, and the urgent and critical requests that come from your boss, employees, colleagues, customers, family, and friends, not to mention the blame and guilt that come from not being available to handle all of the above promptly.

For you to be successful in “switching off,” you must be committed. You need to give yourself permission to have (and even enjoy) focused work sessions. In addition, you need to let your team know what to expect from you and why. Remember that, as a leader, you are in a position to create and model a culture that values focus over interruption.

Determine how you will alert your employees to your focused work sessions and when, if ever, it’s okay to interrupt you (when your boss is calling, or only if the building is burning down?). Hanging a sign up in your work area, blocking off time on your calendar, changing your IM status, setting an automatic reply on your email, putting your phone on voicemail, and other such measures will send clear signals that you are not available.

This isn’t a time for cheating. One peek at your email could derail your entire session. Anything that’s not essential to the task at hand must be put away, closed, or turned off.

Plan for Productivity

For your focused work session to be productive, it must be long enough and you must be clear about what you intend to accomplish. Forty-minute sessions work for me. I wouldn’t recommend a session less than thirty minutes, and more than sixty minutes may seem too daunting to carve out of your schedule. Whatever amount of time you choose, this should be time set aside to work on a specific task, goal, or problem.

I recommend jotting down a few words or a few lines about what you hope to accomplish (I call this Micro-Planning). For example: “Read through resumes and identify top three or four picks” or “Finalize all five performance reviews.” This creates intention, raises self-awareness, and primes the pump for thought and action, all of which will help you focus.

I also recommend a countdown timer; it should be a simple stand-alone device separate from your computer, iPad, or phone. Setting the timer for your chosen amount of time and then pushing the start button at the beginning of your session has significant implications. I think you’ll find that using a timer:

With your Micro-Plan in place and the timer counting down, instead of feeling guilty and anxious, you will feel challenged to complete your carefully selected mission. Instead of taking on your entire to-do list and feeling overwhelmed, you are taking on 40 minutes and feeling hopeful.

Capture the Killer Bs

You eliminated external distractions, planned for productivity, and now you’re doggedly pursuing what you hoped to accomplish—your Task A. But then Thought B comes along. What in the world is Thought B doing here? Who knows, but it’s here. Thought B is, in fact, a Killer B. Yes. It’s that bad.

I’m working on budget projections for the quarter. My gaze drifts to a photo on my desk. Me in Paris. What a lovely trip. Except for the price of gas. I can remember that gas station where I stopped to fill up. I can see the numbers flashing past 90 euros. No question Hertz should be renting hybrids or electrics. I then start browsing the Internet to see if anyone is renting hybrids in Europe. While browsing the Internet for the next 10 to 20 minutes, I hear the beep indicating I’ve received a new email. I take a look at the message and start to reply. Meanwhile, I glance at the junk email folder, and notice there are a number of new messages there. I abandon the email message and start going through my junk email. Another 10 or 20 minutes go by. Suddenly I realize I’m way off track, and ask myself, “What the heck was I working on?”

The best thing to do with these Killer Bs is capture them. I recommend that executives use a paper journal for their Killer Bs (as well as their Micro-Plans). Although this may seem antiquated, it’s faster than opening or activating a desktop application—and it keeps you away from the potential distractions lurking in your device of choice. Some Killer Bs may not seem worth the effort it takes to capture them, but sometimes capturing them on paper is the only way to be rid of them. Otherwise, those errant thoughts will keep buzzing in your mind, distracting you from Task A.

Once you get the hang of these focused work sessions, you may also want to consider giving your team members permission to stake out periods of sustained, uninterrupted work for themselves. You may be surprised to find how much more can get done, and how many fewer errors are made, when people have time in which to simply work.

I wish you and your team great success in becoming more focused and less distracted! For a more detailed discussion of the concepts and tools presented in this article, I encourage you to download my free eBook, The Results Curve, or register for one of my Accomplishing More With Less webinars presented through POD.

Summer 2013 | Return to issue home