Friday 27 March 2009

Stay focused

Our online, connected and socially-networked world has reduced our ability to stay focused. That was the results of Microsoft’s research to find out how long it takes us to return to a task once we have been interrupted.

And don’t we find such rich and varied ways of getting interrupted? Email popping into our inbox which has to be checked straight away. Or checking our inbox even though nothing has popped in, just in case? A colleague (or friend) popping up on instant messaging just to catch up? What should be two minutes turns into half an hour because (a) IM is so slow as a way to communicate and (b) such a funny thing happened to them on the way in to work.

Then there is checking someone’s updated profile on LinkedIn, Plaxo, Facebook and the rest. And of course we have to make sure our own profiles are up to date. Thanks for our friends at Twitter we now have the mother of all distractions – a whole room full of people Tweeting about what’s caught their attention. Fascinating, but so distracting – links to follow, people to follow, time to twitter away.

Each time we get interrupted from our original work task it takes anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours to get back to what we were doing. 2 hours!!!

Now once in a while it’s not going to harm, but the problem with these distractions is that they are not occasional, they are daily, hourly, minute by minute. They are a constant pull away from what we should be focusing on.

The solutions are not rocket science:

1. Turn email off and only check it periodically. I try this from time to time but find I need information that is stored in my email, so it can get turned on again quite soon. For the short periods I manage to keep it turned off, though, it does help.

2. Turn off instant messaging while working on a task. Or only turn it on in the afternoon. This one has no downsides and lots of productivity upsides.

3. Note down start and stop times when working on a task. I use this a lot and find it effective and wrote about it in Boosting Personal Productivity. This makes me super-aware of the time I spend on a work task or the time I take out to check a favourite blog. I use my trusty stopwatch but know its a little eccentric.

4. Work on a clear desk. My sister once bought me some post-it notes that said “My desk may be cluttered, but my mind is empty”. Enough said.

The wonderful, wonderful book Life’s a Pitch by Stephen Bayley & Roger Mavity tells the story of pitching for the Volvo account. They had 8 weeks to put together a winning presentation and after 6 weeks had got nowhere. Rather than redouble efforts for the last 2 weeks, they took the first week to make everyone clear their desks of anything other than Volvo work. For the second week they went to a hotel and did nothing but Volvo work. Of course – because it’s in the book, they won the account. But what a clever and brave strategy.

What's your favourite tip for staying focused and improving performance - either personally or as a team?


  1. Thanks for the tips!

    I think that sometimes we are distracted because we are desperate to be: don't like the task we are doing.

    I agree with the clear desk. I also add a clear inbox: I don't have email off, but accept the distraction only to file the email and add a task to Outlook for an available & realistic slot.

    And try to stick to the allocated times and planned tasks for the day.

    I will try your suggestions, though - except IM: I use this as a business communications tool as well (even if you don't believe me!) and gather information faster and more efficiently than via email.

  2. Caroline

    I also like a clear desk as it does help focus however I probably only realy achieve that at the end of the day and beginning.Like to start day with plan.

    As always have some clear objectives can help one's lens stayed focussed on the goals.

    Ps Only two weeks to go!

  3. Plans and objectives come up over and over again, don't they? Maybe a cluttered desk with clear plans is better than a clear desk but no plan?

    Thanks for the comments!

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