Focused attention is the basis for effectiveness. Without it, any sort of complex activity is made more challenging, if not impossible, to skillfully execute.
We all need to become more active and muscular in setting boundaries and priorities about how we work and live. This is becoming increasingly more important as old boundaries dissolve (think 9-5 workday, leisure-time on the weekend, vacations that allow undisturbed away time), and work permeates every nook and cranny of life. It’s easy to default to allowing the external conditions dictate our daily schedules. But a few simple strategies can help us craft our time and exercise previously unknown aspects of personal power.
In a previous post I introduced Eleanor, a high performing executive I worked with at a global aerospace firm. Wrestling as we all do with interruption, distraction, and stress, she decided to fight back. Here are some of the tools she used:
1. Manage Interruptions
The unintended side effect of always being available is that your calendar becomes a highly permeable membrane that is frequently breached by unbidden interruption. And interruptions can be costly. A 3-second interruption can lead to double the number of mistakes on a subsequent task, according to one study. So, Eleanor decided to take back her “open door policy” and restrict her accessibility to certain hours of the day.
When you discover that you can actually set your own boundaries and that often those boundaries stick, it’s like discovering you have super powers.
While the team struggled with it at first, they gradually turned a corner. “You know what?” she laughed, “It turns out that rarity increases value!” Limiting access time made her team more purposeful and deliberate in their interactions. They used their moments with greater intention and clarity. Of course, this has always been more obvious at the top of the hierarchy where the value of a leader’s limited attention is clearer. But now the same lessons are being applied in places other than the C-suite.
The team also made the decision to structure their time so that “at the end of the day we have accomplished important things.” With that in mind, they began to internalize what needed to be done with less dependence on “approval” from the boss. (Usually about things they already knew the answer to.) In essence they became more self-confident and self-managing. “I learned it’s okay not to be accessible all the time.” Furthermore, because they became more conscious about their time and intention, the quality of their relationships increased.
2. Preserve Attention
Interruptions are flow-killers. Frequent interruptions create exhaustion, fatigue, and stress-induced ailments like migraine headaches. While it’s easy to blame technology, the most common source of interruption is your fellow human. Like many offices, Eleanor works in an environment of glass walls (while a growing number work with no walls at all) and realized that her desk faced her floor’s primary entry point. Whenever she made eye-contact with someone coming on to the floor, they exchanged a “Hi!” “I felt like I was the greeter at Wal-Mart,” she lamented. Realizing that her office itself was the cause of distraction, she rotated her desk 90 degrees to face the wall. “It was a revelation!”
Interruptions are flow-killers. Frequent interruptions create exhaustion, fatigue, and stress-induced ailments like migraine headaches. While it’s easy to blame technology, the most common source of interruption is your fellow human.
3. Communicate Your Needs
People who have their own offices are more protected from those who work in open environments. Unsurprisingly, the open office makes you more vulnerable to interruption, nearly 30% more.
So, for associates assigned to the open office section, they developed a signal to let others know not to bother them. Calling themselves “the sitting ducks,” a rubber duck on top of the cubicle told everyone else “leave me alone!”
4. Block Out Time
Recently, someone approached me about her organization’s meeting culture. “We’re always in meetings and never have time to actually get things done.” What should they do? I found myself saying, agree on a certain time, maybe a day or two-half days, where no meetings are scheduled. Her eyes went wide with surprise, a simple idea no one had yet considered.
Also, through the ongoing team conversation about “accomplishing important things,” a core practice was instituting “Project Focus Time” where each team member was given 90 minutes of undisturbed attention. This buffer zone opened space for the deep concentration.
When you discover that you can actually set your own boundaries and that often those boundaries stick, it’s like discovering you have super powers. Don’t think that it always works or doesn’t require constant vigilance. We can’t allow ourselves to become passive in accepting conditions that can actually be challenged. Often it means eking out one or two added degrees of freedom to find space in the cacophony. Yet, those are the moments we must fight for.