When I began working from home 10 years ago, the lack of office distractions and my newfound freedom to focus on a piece of work for an extended length of time, was a revelation. It was a novelty that has never worn off, and I look back on my years of office-filled banter, sitting within a busy newsroom among journalists who were continually talking on the phone, and I wonder how I was ever able to get anything done!
These are the sentiments echoed by Jason Fried, within his TED talk ‘Why work doesn’t happen at work’, in which he makes his case for the problem facing many companies, where “people can’t seem to get work done at work”. Instead they go to work, “and they’re basically trading in their work day for a series of ‘work moments,” he argues, where individuals have just short bursts of time to get things done.
Fried explains: “I’ve been asking people this question for about 10 years: Where do you go when you really need to get something done? I’ll hear things like the porch, the deck, the kitchen. I’ll hear things like an extra room in the house, the basement, the coffee shop, the library. And then you’ll hear things like the train, a plane, a car — so, the commute…You almost never hear someone say, the office.”
With the shift towards open plan, flexible workspaces, it’s easy to see why the office has become a place of distraction, where individuals face many involuntary interruptions. Fried refers to these distractions as M&Ms: the managers and the meetings, which he argues “are the real problems in the modern office today”, and the reasons why things don’t get done at work. Managers, he says, “are basically people whose job it is to interrupt people”, while meetings are “toxic, terrible, poisonous things” which are an expense and take hours of daily productivity away from the business.
It would be impossible for most of us to get away from ‘M&Ms’ completely, but if you’re suffering from myriad distractions within the office, which is impacting on your ability to focus on work for a sustained period of time, here are six strategies you and your company can use to help boost your periods of concentration.
1. Bring in ‘Focus Fridays’ or ‘Thinking Thursdays’
Jason Fried calls them ‘No talk Thursdays’, but whatever you decide to call it, think about allocating one afternoon in the month, for example, when no one in the office is allowed to talk or interrupt their colleagues. Set this up as a time when individuals can really get their heads down and trust that they will have four consecutive hours of quiet time to get stuff done, without any distractions.
2. Listen to music
There is much research to show the impact listening to music can have upon concentration. Not only can it help you to zone out from the office hubbub, but it is also proven to encourage the release of dopamine in the reward area of the brain, which helps to create a positive mood. This in turn can lower stress and help an individual to feel inspired to focus on the task in hand. Music has also been proven to boost creativity, helping an individual to break out of one way of thinking.
In terms of what you listen to, a recent study published in “Scientific Reports” found the importance of it being music you like. Rather than concerning yourself with the ‘type’ of music to listen to, e.g. classical, listening to a favourite song or artist can help to trigger a part of the brain called the default mode network, which is tied to how humans are able to switch between thinking about what’s going on around them and their self-referential thoughts.
3. Use passive models of communication
Active communication, such as face-to-face conversations, phone calls and meetings, can often be the biggest source of distraction, and particularly when they’re unscheduled. Try encouraging your team to use more passive methods of communication, such as email or an online collaboration tool like Podio, for non-urgent matters. You’ll find that most of the time, things can wait, for a couple of hours at least. Get into the habit of shutting down or hiding these applications and turning off alerts, for prescribed stretches of time, allowing you to concentrate better on the task in hand. Allocate set times within the day to check these communications and respond, so that your concentration is being interrupted on your terms, when you’re taking a mental break from ‘work’.
Additionally, consider either declining or sending a ‘tentative’ acceptance for meetings where your presence is non-essential. Decide whether the meeting minutes will be enough of a reference point for you, which you can review during your down time. And if online meetings are being used – asked for a copy of the recording.
4. Give the Pomodoro technique a go
Concentration often works best in short, intensive bursts. I find Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro Technique very effective, at times when I really need to concentrate. The technique helps you to break your work into 25 minute increments, with five-minute breaks in between. It teaches you to work with time, instead of struggling against it, which can help you to make the most of those “work moments” that Jason Fried talks of. It will also help you log your distractions and order them according to priority levels, and see that very often, they can wait.
If you’re keen to get going, you can either invest in the kitsch red tomato Pomodoro timer, or there are a variety of Pomodoro-style apps available for download (the official one, which I have, appears to be temporarily unavailable).
5. Remove the roadblocks
Roadblocks within work can be physical, or psychological. The former occur when you hit a tricky patch within your work, which requires extra effort to resolve. If we allow ourselves to become perturbed by them, these roadblocks can seriously hamper our concentration, while we worry and find excuses not to work through them. Psychological roadblocks are ones we subconsciously impose when we’re faced with a daunting task or workload, or find that we’ve hit a creative block.
It’s important to break down these roadblocks to create the freedom to concentrate. Having the patience to brainstorm through these situations, research, seek input and forward plan, can help you to move forward and re-focus.
6. Get SMART
With all the will in the world, it’s impossible to concentrate for more than a couple of unbroken hours, at best. Setting yourself up for an unstructured slog will deter the most focused individual. Instead, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants recommends writing down your goals and making them specific, measurable, appropriate, realistic and time-bound (SMART). Break down the big overbearing tasks into smaller goals, and aim to hit the top priority actions in the morning, when most people’s concentration is at its peak.
7. Get your eight hours!
It’s an obvious point, but the one we most often ignore, which is to ensure that you’re getting the required eight hours of sleep every night. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that for every hour of lost sleep, your chances of procrastinating and losing focus increases by a shocking 20%. A good night’s sleep arms your mind against distraction, so get into the habit of switching off the TV an hour earlier than normal, put away your devices, and take a good book to bed instead.