“Focus means saying no…” so once said Steve Jobs though the context he was mentioning it in was more related to products and features for those products, it applies on many levels. Individually our time is precious and that’s buried within that statement at a deeper level.
To be productive you need to decide how to say no, and if you possibly can - perhaps avoid needing to say no altogether. It’s not always a good coping strategy to just say “no” in all situations nor is it realistic to expect people to “just leave me alone” so you can focus on getting something specific done. When working in groups you can look at which situations allow you to say “no” since they’re not all created equal.
Productive time in businesses fall into four basic time groupings:
- Collaborative time (meetings, group discussions)
- Planning time (usually the individual, planning what needs to be done, sometimes in consultation with others)
- Consulting time (obtaining information and direction from specific individuals - i.e. You’re disrupting others to further a requirement you have upon yourself but you need to consult with others to deliver it)
- Lock-down time (individual, with full focus on the task at hand and minimal distractions)
Lock-down time is the best way to shut-out the rest of the world and the best way to control the single biggest source of distraction: communication. These days we have about four levels of communication distraction: Emails, Instant Notifications, Phone Calls, and In Your Face.
John’s Hierarchy of Focus
Scale: 4 is the least distracting to 1 as the highest distraction meaning: it’s the hardest to escape once you’ve been drawn into it.
Email was the first major use of networking for businesses in particular and it’s been around for decades and ironically was originally intended to replace nuisance office memos. For those that have been working long enough there were these “In Trays” and “Out Trays” on everyones desk at work. You’d get some special paper with a carbon copy sheet underneath (or multiple thereof depending on how many copies you wanted) and you’d write or type up that paper Memo, keep the original and give the copies to those people you Carbon Copied via the carbon paper sheet(s). The electronic form was so easy to send to so many people, that’s exactly what happened. Previous limits of Carbon Copy layers were gone and the result was email memo spam. People just copied everyone even if they weren’t directly affected:
- “Oh I should copy Bob - he was involved in that project about 2 years back - he might be interested…”
- “Oh I should copy my boss so he knows what’s going on…”
- “Plus the person I’m sending it to, and their boss and the project manager and the other developer and blah blah blah oh my god I’ll just send it to 20 people…”
I get about 75 Emails every day, most of which don’t require a response I’m just copied as an FYI. Great. Thanks everyone. Every one I need to read, comprehend and decide if I need to do something. The problem is that reading takes time and evaluating takes time and that’s time I don’t have if I’m trying to focus on something else.
Turning off Email for me looks like muting all Notifications on my iPad, my iPhone and my Laptop, which ultimately means that I can’t see if Emails are coming through in real time and at that point it’s down to my own nerve - my internal resolve NOT to check my Email. Avoiding a habitual “refresh” of the Inbox is easier said than done for those where it has become a learned behaviour.
But is that okay? I think most people expect that Emails aren’t real-time communications and don’t expect a response immediately even if they set an Important flag for the Email. So if I don’t respond for a day, it’s probably okay. If I don’t respond for a few days, it’s probably annoying to others. If I don’t respond for a week, it’s probably pushing the friendship a bit there, but overall it’s okay with the risk of offence being quite low for most people. The benefit of the eliminated distraction is great and real and the more Email you get, the more gain you’ll get from turning off your Email notifications.
Instant Notifications (#3)
There are so many different messaging platforms out there I’m not going to list them all but some of the bigger ones at the time of writing are Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. Instant Messages are sent specifically to you unlike most Emails and they’re not “Fred just built yet another sandcastle and posted a photo on Instagram” types of messages. There’s a difference when we get a personally directed message that puts it a cut above an Email such that there’s more of an expectation that you’re going to respond. It’s like a quick verbal conversation except typing requires more cognitive load than talking does for most people and when you think you’re done with a conversation, it doesn’t mean you ACTUALLY are.
You type “See you later,” hit send and think that’s it, I’m done, put the phone down to refocus and then it’s another message back. Quick now, stop what you’re doing to read it and probably respond again. If you don’t respond to an instant message in a little while there’s really two flavours: instant messaging systems that track when you’ve read the message (read-receipts) and ones where the other person doesn’t know you’ve read their message. My suggestion: if you can turn off read receipts - do it. It makes you look like a jerk when you read the message and then choose not to respond immediately. Turn read receipts off and leave them off and set expectations early on in your texting ‘relationship’ that you’ve done that.
Assuming read receipts are turned off and someone instant messages you, you choose not to respond, what’s the consequence? After a few minutes they’ll probably forget all about it anyway and after a day it’s ancient history. It will annoy people more than if you ignored their Email but not too much more especially if you turn off your read receipts first. For most it’s a case of taking the application(s) instant messaging you and turning off their notifications or if there are too many switch your messaging device(s) to Do Not Disturb mode. The risk of offence is higher than Email but not by too much and the benefit of the eliminated distraction is as great and just as real as Email and in some cases worse for a lot of younger people that have grown up with instant messaging at their fingertips. For a lot of people though, this one is a harder habit to break than shutting out Email.
Phone Calls (#2)
Yes…people still make phone calls. It’s been around for a hundred years and the expectation has long ago been set: when the phone rings, you answer it. In the last thirty or so years has it become possible to call you wherever you go, wherever you are, any time of the day or night rather than only ever at home or at work. No answer meant “they weren’t at home” or “they weren’t at their desk” and that was it.
Now it’s assumed phones are on you at all times, always charged, always on, and that level of accessibility is very hard for a lot of people to resist intruding on. Hence it’s above text-based messaging it’s like a tap-tap-tap ring-ring-ring are you there? They test your instinct to not answer the phone. That said, there’s the send to voicemail option and if you’re trying to avoid people then send them voicemail. Sometimes a variant of this is called “call screening” where you listen to the first 2-5 seconds to see who it is before answering or not. Then again you could just send them all with a divert to voicemail.
Always diver can be problematic because certain people will start to get offended if you just divert all calls to voicemail. There’s an expectation in business that whilst Emails and IMs might not require an immediate response if I call twice or three times then it’s urgent and I need you to pick up. That said, the phone ringing suggests they’re not in the same room which means they technically can’t tell if you’re there or not. For people that get lots of phone calls: I’ll get about 20 on an average workday for example, it can be quite frustrating when you’re trying to concentrate. If you answer that phone, you’re stuck with a conversation where you need to go through pleasantries, get to the nut of what they actually want from you, answer or try to give them what they want or need, or make a commitment to get them something that they want or need, more pleasantries and then hang up, followed by taking some notes, setting some reminders and oh wait - here comes the next phone call.
I have a policy that I’ll answer calls when: (Your list of rules may vary and this is just what I do)
- I’m not in a business critical meeting
- I’m not in training (or giving training)
- On call - no matter what or when, during business hours
When I put myself into self-imposed lock-down (I’ll talk more about that shortly…) I only answer if it’s my boss or about a pressing issue I’m aware of already and I’ll send the rest to voicemail and if they don’t leave a voicemail I never call them back. If it was important they’d leave a voice mail or call me back.
I think people get very annoyed if you repeatedly and consistently ignore their phone calls but it’s also relative to position. I’ve found that people with higher positions in companies get cut more slack and the lower you are in the hierarchy the more expectation there is that you’ll just drop everything and answer the phone. Repeatedly screening calls from the same person carries a definite risk you’ll offend that person since there’s no chance to provide context as to why you’re doing it, but generally it’s not much more offensive than ignoring IMs.
There’s a huge saving in terms of focus to be had in sending all of your calls to voicemail but do so with caution. I prefer call screening and checking my VMs periodically as a better balance.
In Your Face (#1)
Sometimes I’ve heard it called “Cubicle Bombing.” You’re at your desk, trying to work and they just rock up and say “Hi!” For added impact, sometimes they hunt in packs. They’ll stand and look at you, or tap you on your shoulder, or talk loudly next to you, pretty much anything to get your attention. Humans are social animals and we don’t usually like to offend other people but if you’re like me and you tend to wear your emotions on your sleeve it’s hard to hide annoyance and frustration when you’re genuinely busy and get cubicle bombed.
I think that people need to know that you’re busy and you really can’t talk but rather than come across as impatient and disinterested I’m getting more direct in my old age. I try to be firm and say “I need to finish this Email/report/whatever for [insert name of important person here] so can I drop by later?” or something similar and most people will respect that. Then comes the “Oh it won’t take long…” and yeah, sure, there you go for an hour or longer conversation.
Some people think that work is just going and talking to other people but the reality is that talking is not actually work for the vast majority of the workforce pretty much of the time in an average day. If you’re in Human Resources even then it’s not really true since there’s plenty of paperwork or data entry to do too.
Then there are the cubicle bombers that just won’t leave. I’m not saying I’ve tried all of these but here’s few I’ve seen others pull:
- Faking a phone call on your mobile
- Needing to visit the restroom/washroom/bathroom, but not really needing to
- Having an “help me” sound or gesture with your cubicle mate across the way and get them to interrupt somehow
People generally come to see you as a last resort these days, not the first. Which is both good and bad. The truth is though if they can find you, just ignoring them will offend them and telling them to go away will also offend them. You might be in a position in the organisation where the risk of offending them is far too great to risk for fear of loss of your position.
So if you need focus, you need to find a way to make yourself harder to find.
The Bottom Line
Why these distractions annoy me so much centers around when someone needs something from you, it’s all about them and what they need or want, not about how they’ll make your job/life easier. They distract you from the task that you care about or are accountable for delivering, to make you refocus on the task that THEY care about or need to deliver themselves. The truth is when they distract you, almost always they win and you lose.
The flip side is clear: what about when you need something from someone else? Do you have the right to distract THEM? If you do because they’re the nominated person what’s the right way to do it? I suggest working your way up the list from bottom to top. Email first, if there is no response, message second, phone call third, plan a meeting about it (30mins or less if possible) and finally if there is no other choice, track them down physically. Waiting more than 10 minutes between each escalation is also advisable.
If you need to get something done, you need to focus and you need to say NO then lock-down is what you should do.
Eliminate the distractions that will cause minimal offence to others and maximum your potential for distraction-free time. I’d suggest this order of hierarchy:
- Turn off and don’t check your Email.
- Go to Do Not Disturb for your IMs.
- Screen your phone calls and let unimportant, non-urgent calls go to voicemail.
- Get out of the office, or if not find a place in the office where you don’t normally go and can get a quiet spot to work without distraction. If they can’t find you they can’t get in your face.
Even if you don’t do them all, do as many as you can because focus does mean saying no and it sometimes means saying no without saying it at all and putting yourself and your focus ahead of others.