I happened to catch a tweet recently where someone was asking what they could do to help their team members maintain focus when working in the face of distractions. I don’t have much in the way of advice for how other people should handle distractions (and maintain focus) – but I do know what works for me. So, I thought I could write a few words about that.
Here then, are my cunning strategies for being super tight-focused with work; AKA how to maintain an awesome level of productivity in the face of unrelenting distractions.
1. Noise Cancelling Headphones
Honestly, I don’t know what folk did before these were invented.I’ve mentioned my heavy reliance on noise cancelling [NC] headphones before – but by way of context – I work 100% remotely, so I’m home basically all the time. Which you would think would be great (spoiler alert – it is!) except for the fact that my wife also works from home 100% of the time; and we homeschool our three wonderful daughters.
Did somebody mention distractions?
I recently invested in a new pair of Sony’s, and with these babies it’s like I’m working in a cosy bubble of quietness wherever I happen to be; whether that’s in my living room with everyone around me, or in my home office. They are absolutely worth their weight in gold (though other NC headphones will do the same thing to a greater or lesser extent).
2. Ruthless Forward Planning
For me to stay focused, I find it helpful to know well in advance what I’m actually going to be working on. So, every Sunday night you’ll find me scrutinising my calendar for the week ahead – checking to see what needs to be delivered versus any pre-planned meetings, all with a view towards carving out large blocks of time so that I can be working on my deliverables with minimal interruptions and context switching.
Shifting from one activity to another or even worse, trying to multi-task, is – to me – the antithesis of focus. Therefore, I try to eliminate it as much as possible by making a plan that includes as many of those large blocks of time as possible. And then sticking to it, by fiercely guarding my time, and maximising opportunities to focus deeply on a single piece of work for an extended period.
3. Shutting Down Distracting Apps
This one’s kind of obvious, but it bears reiterating. Email and Slack are complete distraction engines. I shut them down when I can, and set aside specific times (see planning, above) for handling messages rather than just having them on in the background – continually tempting me with their shiny bells, whistles and endorphin rewards.
Obviously if folk need a response urgently then they can still reach me; I still get DM, tag or @here/@channel notifications on my phone or watch – but it’s important to give yourself permission to shut stuff down, if you want to stay focused. (This is why you won’t see me on Twitter much either).
4. Shutting the Door
I mentioned I have a home office. When I need to, I shut the door. Mostly, I don’t need to, because 1. But I’m really alluding to a principle here.
Sometimes you need to shut (or otherwise hide) yourself away, in order to stay focused and knock-out an important piece of work. Again, giving yourself permission to work somewhere else if you’re in an office type environment, can be a helpful strategy. Go find a meeting room, or somewhere you don’t normally work – so people can’t find and easily distract you. You might even discover that the change of environment gives you some new perspectives.
5. Pomodoro Techniques
Personally, I don’t find a huge amount of value in using the classic Pomodoro trick of working for 15-20 minutes then taking a break. What I do find value in, is understanding and capitalising on my own rhythms; be they for work, or in other areas of life such as exercise, sleeping or otherwise maintaining some kind of healthy balance.
Again, a lot of this comes down to planning, but if you have an understanding of how long you’re generally able to work for, and at what times of day you’re most alert and productive, then you can create a plan around that knowledge, and probably you’ll find you develop a natural rhythm as a result. No need for a Pomodoro timer running in the background.
So there you go. Not so much a set of recommendations, as a series of statements about how I work and why the approaches are helpful for me.
Obviously there’s some context: I mainly work from home. But these strategies have also worked for me in various office environments while contracting, freelancing & consulting. And the effort I’ve put into understanding my own patterns and styles of working have paid dividends; both figuratively and literally!
Thanks for reading. Feel free to reach out via a comment or on the socials if anything resonates.