lesson 2: intense workplace focus

Have you ever seen a batter check his email at the plate?  Of course not, yet the rest of us often succumb to such interruptions, even during our most important work.  If we are to play our games like a pro, we need to learn to achieve intense workplace focus.

The second key lesson learned from our study of elite athletes and soldiers was completely by chance.  While we quizzed the study participants on their habits (everything from sleep and reading to exercise and nutrition), we came across a trivial, but completely remarkable discovery.  They don’t have an email problem.

The “email problem”

If you rely on email and social media to communicate with your team, your customers, and the rest of the world in your job, you know what I mean by an “email problem”.  I get in excess of 150 emails every day, and whether each email or notification is vitally important or not, each commands some attention and can easily disrupt my day.

So after asking several of the study participants about how they kept up with their inbox amidst a focused training regiment, I was surprised to learn that none of the athletes or soldiers discussed having any hard-and-fast regiments.

Then it dawned on me to ask a simple question, “How many emails do you get each day?”  The average answer was just 10-15!  …with so few interruptions, I wouldn’t need any best practices to keep up with them either!

That’s when it hit me.  Part of their success with focus is based on the fact that they have fewer interruptions.  They simply can’t monitor email while they are training or doing their jobs.

Intense focus

Instead, they maintain an intense focus on the matters at hand.  They work out intently.  Train intently.  Practice and drill intently.  And, execute their game plans and missions intently.

What if we did the same thing?

What if we drew up a plan for focusing on the things that matter most at a few intervals throughout the day and stuck to it?  Would we get more done?  Yes.  Would we give others our best?  Yes.  Could we be more creative and innovative?  I should think so.  And, would we be more likely to make a sale or an impact?  Absolutely.

So how do we create focus while at the same time maintain responsiveness to team members, customers, and other fans?

Try 20-30min bursts. Rather than focus all day long (a plan doomed to failure), we can instead pour ourselves into our work for short periods.  We can close our inbox and instant messenger for an hour.  We can let calls go to voicemail.  (I know, “Blasphemy!!” you say.  Just hang in there.)  Will most people survive not hearing back from you for one or two 20-30 minute periods during the day?  Indeed.

So how do you make intense workplace focus a habit?  In a word: Practice.

1. Start by identifying your distractions.

What interruptions steal your attention throughout the day.  Sure, it’s email and social media and the web in general, but what else?  Look beyond your computer.  This could include people.  Television.  Radio.  Games. Family members.  Even pets.

2. Develop your Not-to-do list.

Think about the things that you are doing that take you off task.  Are there some things you could avoid doing to stay more focused, even if for just 20-30 minutes at a time?  Don’t open multiple windows on your computer.  Turn off notifications periodically to avoid jumping from important activities back to your inbox.  Schedule a “reading hour” or half-hour to check on the news or to read newsletters that come your way rather than following every interesting link or rabbit trail that crosses your path.

3. Establish a service level.

If you want to set a high bar for responsiveness and professionalism without enslaving yourself to snap reactions, try establishing a “service level”.  In other words, what is the longest anyone should have to wait to hear back from you without being dissatisfied?  For many professionals, a 1 – 2 hour response time is sufficient…for others, it may be just 30 minutes, but even that could buy you ample time for intense focus sessions.  After all, when most people complain about poor service or poor professionalism, they are talking about calls or emails that go unanswered indefinitely.

4. Shut your “door”.

If you have a door to an office and generally keep it open, consider closing it during your intense focus periods to signify that you are “on task”.  Just be sure to re-open it at other times so people know you are not hiding or shunning interaction.  In fact, after your focus session, consider leaving your office both to move your body as well as to make yourself visible to your team.  If you don’t have a door, create one…consider putting in headphones during your focus period, even if nothing is playing.  Or put up a sign on your desk… “FOCUSED.  Please try me again at 9:30am.”

5. Identify your most productive times of day.

Harness that time to focus. If you are at your best in the morning, make it a priority to do some of your most important work then.  Don’t accept meetings, if you can help it, but instead schedule meetings and interruptions for times when you are more likely to get bored or distracted.

Just as an athlete must stay laser-focused during her training drills or a soldier must focus intently during a mission, we can benefit from similar periods of intense workplace focus throughout the day.  Even people who live and die by their responsiveness can use some intentional planning to experience focus without losing their competitive advantage.  How do you create intense workplace focus?