It’s easy to underestimate exactly how fundamental focus can be when it comes to performing at your highest level. One of my typical experiences at work could be characterised as: goal-setting gone wrong.
One of the great things about quarterly goals is that they can be ambitious. Ambitious goal-setting can work out in two ways: either it’s extremely motivating and pushes you to achieve the most that you possibly can, or it does the exact opposite because you go into it knowing it’s unachievable and so they demotivate you so badly that you find yourself achieving much less than you otherwise could have. I once had the experience of watching quarterly goals switch from the first kind of ambitious to the second kind of ambitious in the span of a week.
We had something like five different goals during that quarter. There were clear priorities at the beginning and so the goals felt motivating; ambitious but manageable nevertheless. During that time, the company was hit by unforeseen external circumstances that essentially doubled the workload in the department. We found ourselves grasping at straws, trying to manage an emergency that we were unprepared for. Instead of deciding to reduce our goals in order to find focus, my manager wanted us to push through as many goals as possible, in as short a time as possible, so that they would be “completed” and we’d be able to manage the emergency situation. This meant that all five goals suddenly became equally as important. One day, the deadline was set in two weeks. A day later, the deadline got shortened to only week. One day, the direction was “let’s only manage the emergency.” A day later, the direction was “our quarterly goals are the most important thing to focus on right now.” Add to that the pressure of using KPIs and trying to measure each outcome in a very short amount of time and you’re left with an environment that only induces stress, in which people are not even remotely productive. It doesn’t make for a good environment to work in.
3 Reasons Why Achieving Focus is Hard
Focus tends to be a nebulous term in business because there are many reasons why achieving it can be difficult:
1) We often find ourselves in environments that are very prone to distractions nowadays and this way of working has become so normalised that it’s hard to grasp what true focus is like. Everyone is easy to reach almost all of the time. We get pings and notifications constantly through our phones. If you feel like you need to reply to every messsage you get with a high degree of urgency because the expectations in your environment are that everyone reply “right now”, this can be something you’re facing.
2) It could be down to your own personal inclination and way of working. If you’ve never properly learned under what conditions you are most productive, it’s going to be hard for you to make that happen. You might be one of those people who thrives best under pressure and needs strict deadlines. You might be someone who enjoys working on 20 different tasks at the same time. You might be someone who’s only effective if you can focus on just one thing. All of these are valid styles of working but it takes time to know which one applies to you, how to deal with its shortcomings, and how to maximise its benefit.
3) Lack of direction and lack of prioritisation from management is the next big one. It’s very easy to underestimate how much of a difference having clear priorities can make to your productivity. The moment management gives the signal that “everything is equally as important” is the moment their employees lose understanding of the structure of the tasks at hand, and thus their focus.
Why You Should Improve Your Focus
Trying to improve all of the above will lead to a huge increase in effectiveness and productivity. You’ll find yourself spending less time thinking about what your next steps should be because your priorities and your focus will be clear. You’ll find yourself being “in the zone” a lot more and enjoy that feeling of accomplishment when you get a lot done. The more progress you make in one area, the more opportunities will open up. There’s something so deeply rewarding about feeling like you’re performing at your best. That feeling will rub off on everyone you’re working with. People will ask you questions like “how do you manage to get so much done” because being productive is truly admirable.
People heavily underestimate how damaging working in an environment with constant interruptions is for your psyche. Biologically, our brains are just not made for multi-tasking and giving only a fragment of your attention to any task or problem at a time multiplies the amount of time you need to complete it. If work often feels like slogging your way through a million things and feeling like you’re a hamster running in a wheel with no light at the end of the tunnel, imagine achieving something like inbox zero instead. Or getting to the end of your to-do list! These moments are so motivating and make work much more relaxing.
The 3 Essential Building Blocks to Achieving Better Focus
Minimising distractions in your environment
Start by thinking about your physical environment when you’re working, whether you’re working from home, in a coworking space, or in an office. Do you sit comfortably? Is the temperature ideal? Is the noise level bearable? If you find yourself stopping to think about any of these things, you should look into a long-term solution. If you’re working in an office and are pretty limited in the kinds of adjustments you can make, talk to your boss about it. Explain to them that you’re trying to improve your focus and ask them for help and support in coming up with solutions. If you’re working from home, those kinds of distractions might be a little bit more within your control.
Whenever you sit down to focus on a particular task, mute everything. Put your Slack on “do not disturb,” mute your phone and put it somewhere you can’t see it, make yourself as difficult to contact as possible. You don’t need to do this for whole working days or even four hours at a time. If you’re worried about not being reachable if something urgent happens, set an alarm for yourself in one hour’s time or something similar. In order to be able to work with any kind of focus, your brain needs time.
Set ground rules for communication. Is it acceptable to ping at all times of day? What’s considered an urgent topic and what isn’t? Which communication avenue should be used when? This is especially important if you’re working in an office setting, where it’s possible for your colleagues to simply walk up to your desk and make conversation. If you’re trying to focus, you need to be able to say “sorry, I’m in the middle of something right now, can you set something up for us to talk about this later?” without being impolite or feeling at all nervous about the other person’s response. If it’s a topic that you’ve already discussed with the whole team and there’s an accepted language or agreed upon rules for it, it sets everyone’s expectations and will make it easier to do this.
If you being reachable is extremely important to your teammates or your colleagues, try to evaluate why that’s the case. Are you the only person knowledgeable enough to be able to help them? Do they have to go through you to get certain tasks done? Look at this as an opportunity to improve processes in your workplace. Maybe it would help if you documented more of your knowledge. Maybe you can delegate a certain task to someone in your team. Maybe you can train someone else to be able to manage the task instead of doing it yourself. See what you can do to make everyone around you more independent, so that they don’t actively need to interrupt your work.
If your entire work day is back-to-back meetings, you need to carve out time to work. Set clear boundaries for yourself. This might involve saying no to meetings sometimes and asking people to reschedule for the next week or even later. Maybe it involves blocking out time in your calendar to make it clear that you’re unavailable during those hours. If you’re unsure what’s acceptable in your company culture and what isn’t, talk to your boss about it and see if you can come up with a solution together. Your justification will always be that you’d like to maximise your productivity. Most managers will be supportive of this.
Fundamentally, minimising the distractions in your environment is a prerequisite for everything else. It’s your responsibility to create an environment for yourself in which it’s even possible for you to work. Sometimes the most that you’ll be able to do is buy yourself a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones, just because your workplace only has so much space and you need to work around other people. That’s fine as long as you always do the most that you can to improve your environment.
Increasing your personal productivity
Being more productive is something we all aspire to be. Figuring out how is the challenging part. It requires discipline and concerted effort. The following are just some tips and tools that you can use to figure out what works for you but keep in mind that you are the only person who’ll be able to help yourself when it comes to understanding what makes you productive. Many of these suggestions might just not work for you. The ones that do might require a lot of tweaking to fit your own personal style. Go into it with an open and curious mindset and just try things out. You are not your own task master. Don’t try to whip your brain into shape, as if you’re a drill sergeant training a cohort. You just want to set everything up around you so that it’s easy for you to be productive.
The first thing that helps is some kind of routine. Books like “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” are extremely popular because productivity has to be a habit. The mundane, trivial habits that you have every day are the ones that make up your life when you string them all together. If you start every morning with a short meditation, meditation will become a huge part of who you are. If you write a certain number of words every day, it can transform and shape how you think. Look at the routines that you currently have. What habits do you do every day? Are any of them useful? Do they help you at work? Is there anything you could start doing today that would make your life a lot easier? It can be very helpful to set out priorities for yourself at the beginning of every day and organise your tasks: figure out what the top task that needs to be done today is, what the “nice to have’s” are and what has to be done this week but would be fine if done later. Just add a little bit of structure to your work day. It’ll make you feel like you have more of your tasks under control and it’ll give you the perspective you need to set yourself up for success.
Figure out the time of day you’re most effective. Do you do the most work in the first two hours of the day? Are you basically half-asleep through the morning and only manage to get your head straight and work on something in the late afternoon? One way to do this is to break up your day into one or two hour long blocks and rate your productivity and focus. Think about how alert you felt, how much you got done, and how much of that time you were able to use effectively. Do this for a full week, then maybe a second week to see if the pattern holds. Try to figure out what really impacts your productivity levels. If you always feel very drained after a particular kind of meeting, like a one-on-one, maybe always schedule some break time after that kind of meeting. If you know you always do your best work towards the end of the day, give yourself as much of that time as possible to focus on your tasks. Once you figure this out, you can break up your day into something that makes sense for you.
Block out time in your calendar to dedicate to certain tasks or projects. Stick to it! The longer the period of time you can give yourself to dedicate to a task is, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to get immersed in it. That feeling of immersion is when you hit maximum productivity. It takes time to get there, so don’t get discouraged if your first few attempts result in a few minutes of work, followed by a few minutes of distraction, followed by a few minutes of work and so on. Experiment, be open and understanding, and remember you’re just trying to find out something that works. There are many ways you could organise this time to be really effective. You can use the much-touted Pomodoro technique, which breaks it up into 25 minutes of concentrated work followed by a 5 minute break. There’s a great app called Forest, which you can open on your phone while working on something to watch a little tree grow. It’s a very small technique that helps you stick with what you’re doing for a longer period of time. These things might seem gimmicky and not very serious but they do work extremely well. You just need to find the thing that clicks for you.
Break down your tasks into the smallest possible parts. It’s incredibly easy to get overwhelmed when you’re working on a larger project or when you have a looming deadline or when you’re trying to manage multiple things at the same time. If you find yourself feeling like this, take a step back. Look at what you have to do on the meta level. Break it down into smaller tasks. Focus on what’s urgent, what needs to be done as soon as possible, and set yourself realistic goals of what you can manage. Don’t focus on having the perfect outcome or result at the end. Just drill down, think only about what absolutely needs to be done and get that out of the way. If you ever find yourself overwhelmed, pick the smallest possible part of your project and do only that. Then see how you feel.
Figure out your own organisation system. Do you work really well with checklists? In that case, a to-do list might help you organise your work enough. Do you need to be able to visualise your work and set deadlines or reminders for it? Then maybe a more comprehensive task management tool like Trello might be best. Do you sometimes want to remind yourself much further in the future to do something? Maybe a calendar reminder would be the ideal solution. There is a huge number of different tools and methods out there, all centred around organising your work, keeping track of your tasks, and managing your projects. Your company might already have one, which makes it a little easier to try. If it doesn’t work for you or if you don’t have another option, just go ahead and try things out. Give yourself a week of playing around with a tool and see how easy it is for you to adapt, if it makes it possible for you to prioritise your work in a way that helps you maintain and overview and feel on top of things. It’s worth a try!
Avoid spreading yourself too thin. Say no to things! Say it when you need more time. There is an inherent desire to please in a lot of people. If you give in to it, you can make yourself unreliable and it can make work much more stressful. Don’t do that to yourself. You can be ambitious but also be realistic about what you can achieve. Try not to get caught up in shiny objects; if you’re in the middle of a task and you come across something that just looks cool and you want to check it out, don’t do it! Note it down for yourself and get back to it later. One of the things I struggle with the most is my tendency to open five million tabs while doing anything because they always remind me to get back to a particular task. It isn’t healthy for me and it isn’t healthy for my computer.
Providing direction as a manager
To know if you need to provide more direction as a manger, look at how your team is responding to you. Read the signs as much as possible, they’re usually quite clear. Do they seem stuck? Are they unable to deliver on the things that they tell you they’ll do? If nothing moves before you explicitly say so, it’s usually a sign that they weren’t confident they were clear on the next steps. If you don’t see any clear signs, ask them directly. Do they feel like they know what they need to do? Do they understand your priorities for the team? Do they know what you’re trying to work towards? In most cases, people will be quite honest with you. Sometimes they might say that everything’s fine but you’ll notice after a while based on their performance that maybe it wasn’t. Watch out for this as often as you can, because providing direction is absolutely essential for making it possible for your team to focus on anything.
For yourself, as a manager, be clear about your priorities and the reasoning behind them. Be as clear as you possibly can in your communication as well. Say things like “this is the most important thing for us to achieve right now” and always, always give a reason. If your project is a blocker for a major release and you absolutely need to get it done in time, then explain that clearly and succintly. Remember that you can only have one priority at a time. Maximum two if you’re really pushing it. If you ever have too many things on your team’s plate, sit down and prioritise them in one long list. Don’t let yourself put two things at the same level. If push comes to shove and you absolutely cannot manage both, which of them will have the largest impact? Which of them means the most? Your priorities need to be clear to you first before you can ever talk about them.
Deadlines are a great tool. If you manage them right, they put just enough pressure on you to get things done. They’ll also encourage you to chop off parts of the task that are a distraction or that aren’t essential. Set a deadline, try to hit it. If the deadline is for your team, support them as much as possible. Follow up regularly to make sure there are no blockers and to see how they’re progressing. Don’t let them languish and then ask why they haven’t achieved a deadline. If you have to shorten a deadline suddenly for any reason, communicate the reason clearly as well. Try to avoid giving the impression that it was a whimsical decision on your end. Make sure it’s reasonable and rational.
Reaping the Fruits of Your Labour
If you’re successful with any of these techniques, you’ll see the results reflected in you and your team’s output, whatever that might be. If you’re measuring your work with KPIs, you’ll certainly see it there too. You’ll often find that it translates to the feedback you get from your team as well. I didn’t actively think that my leadership style was helping my team specifically when it came to focus until they gave me feedback directly and said so. People outside the team also noticed and provided the feedback that the team as a whole seemed much more communicative and productive. These are the changes you’re looking for. Long-term is where you’ll see the largest benefits from this kind of effort. Ideally, you’ll be spending less money, you’ll need less resources, you’ll be able to achieve more with the same number of people. This is how you know your team is truly performing.
To give you some guidance, we’re working on creating the following resources for you. If any of them sound appealing, feel free to let us know and we’ll prioritise it.
- A template Trello board that you or your employees can use for personal task management
- A ranking system that you can use to assess your current productivity levels
- A reassessment sheet to track and compare this after three months
If you have feedback for other resources that would help you, we’d love to hear them!