In management, we can become very “interrupt driven.” We get so used to distractions that we count on them. This dependency can make it very hard to focus when we need to. My calendar fills up with meetings. My unscheduled time is full of people stopping by to ask questions or chat. If I am not careful, I will find myself doing a lot of work at night.
Over the years, I’ve tried many different ways to improve my focused time. Here are the things that work best for me.
Defrag your calendar
Every six months, I review my schedule. Recurring meetings tend to accumulate over time. This periodic review makes it easier to identify meetings that are no longer necessary. I also will try to reschedule my recurring meetings so that they group into blocks. That 30 minutes or an hour between meetings is a waste of time. It isn’t enough time to work on anything significant. Grouping my meetings gives me larger blocks of time that I can use for focused work.
Block out your focused and loosely structured time
Now that your calendar has larger blocks of time add recurring calendar entries to protect parts of your week for focused work. For me, I need at least two hours to engage in a task, so I don’t block out less than that. Ideally, I will block out more.
Putting it on the calendar prevents other people from scheduling you in that time. Likewise, I also block out time for unstructured work, like reading e-mail. Reading e-mail or returning phone calls work well in those one-hour blocks between meetings. Having dedicated unstructured time also means that I’m not tempted to do unstructured work in my focused blocks.
Do make sure you leave some gaps in your schedule to allow folks to add in a meeting if they need to. I made the mistake of filling my calendar almost entirely for a while. People started to ignore my free/busy time because they couldn’t find any empty meeting slots.
Set out a “do not disturb” flag
In an open-plan environment, create a sign, so people know not to disturb you.
I have a weird lamp on my desk. People know that when the lamp is on, I am trying to concentrate. For the most part, they will let me focus. When I worked in an office, I would put a post-it on my door with a note asking people to send me an e-mail unless it was urgent.
Get out of the building
Sometimes to get focus you need to go elsewhere. I will sometimes go to a nearby cafe, co-working space or a library if I need a few uninterrupted hours.
Turn off the notifications
There is a reason that you see this advice shared often. I turn on “Do Not Disturb” on my mac and my phone. I have a separate Chrome “Person” that only has the extensions I need for focused work and no notifications enabled. I quit all apps that are not the ones I need for my task. My phone goes in my pocket. I don’t want any electronic distractions.
If I have to write something, I will sometimes do it longhand on paper first to eliminate distractions. Writing on paper works exceptionally well for me if it isn’t a topic I am excited about but need to get done. Once I have the first draft on paper, it is much easier to edit and refine on the computer without being tempted to do something else.
Set a goal and reward yourself
We are so unfocused these days that gamifying your focused work may help. For example, when I finish the first draft of this post, I will spend 10 minutes on Twitter to reward myself for getting it done without interruptions.
Set aside a whole day for your focused work.
It is sometimes challenging as a manager to have an entire day clear. If I have something vital to do, especially something time sensitive, I will clear the whole day to focus on it. Usually, I will also get out of the building to avoid other work distractions. I give myself a one-person offsite with the goal of getting something done. I turn on my “out of office” e-mail responder with a note letting people know that I am working off-site and asking them not to disturb me unless it is critical. I will also schedule these “focus days” up to a quarter in advance, to make sure I have them in case I want to use them.
Clean your desk
Cleaning the clutter in your eye-line is also very common and useful advice. Things tend to accumulate on my desk: mail, tchotchkes, magazines, books. When you are trying to focus, they can be distractions or the general clutter can be a distraction. You don’t need to clean your desk thoroughly. You just don’t need to see that stuff. Put it all somewhere you can’t see it when you are trying to focus.
Clean your computer desktop
Just like your physical environment can be a distraction, your virtual one can be too. All those files on your desktop are like a big to-do list of fun things instead of the work you need to focus on. Create a “clutter” folder and move everything into it.
Create your focused playlist
Some people like to work in silence. I find that music helps me focus better, especially in busy environments. I have different playlists that help me focus on various tasks: reading, programming, writing. For reading, I like ambient music. For programming, it is post-rock and electronic music. When writing, I favor modern classical music. You may prefer silence or music may help you. One important thing for me is that the music that is on my playlists is music I know well. I find listening to new music can be too distracting for me in these situations.
Start with a mindfulness exercise
Especially on my focus days, I like to start with a ten or twenty-minute mindfulness exercise to help me clear away the other things on my mind and help me focus on the task at hand.
Make your exhaustive to-do list
One of the exercises I like from the “Gettings Things Done” book by David Allen is exhaustively writing down everything you can think of that you need to do. It is very freeing for me. I find that if I need to remember to do something, it will nag at me the whole time I am trying to focus. If I write it down on a piece of paper or in a to-do app, it helps me put it aside for a while so I can focus.
These are all things that I do that help me focus. I hope that you find some of them useful. I’d be interested to hear other tips that people have as well. Please leave a comment with your focus tools.