Getting Over Institutional Obstacles to Focus
The best and most creative thinking and problem-solving can only take place during uninterrupted periods of time. You know it and so do your colleagues. Which is why your company wants to give everyone time one day a week—let’s say Thursday—to work alone.
Easier said than done. It is difficult to control the array of drive-bys, meetings, deadlines, and sudden projects that “must be done now” that sap energy and productivity during the work week. Creating a Focus Thursday period will require recognition of the problems, buy-in from everyone in the enterprise, force the company and staffers to become more organized, and must empower people to say no to requests that interrupt the day.
This means companies and other organizations must take four key steps companies to make Focus Thursdays a reality and provide you and your colleagues a day to really concentrate and get things done.
The workplace is the problem
Kevin Ashton, the man behind the Internet of Things, proclaims that time is “the raw material of creation.” He is right. The only way you can help yourself and your company succeed—whether you're becoming an expert in your field, building upon your strengths, even gaining new skills—is by devoting as much time as you can without neglecting your duties to your spouse and family. This means dedicating one day a week to focused time on growth and development.
But Focus Thursdays can’t happen without recognizing this fact: Most workplaces are structured in ways that make such uninterrupted time hard to come by.
It isn’t just about those meetings with vague agendas that take up more time than they are worth. The advent of cubicles and open floor plans, originally conceived to promote collaboration and savings on real estate costs, make it easier for supervisors to make snap requests and colleagues to bother you with what used to be water cooler chatter. E-mail and instant messenger systems make it easier to tie people up with requests and questions that often can be answered by those very people.
These drive-bys—including the time needed to regain focus on important tasks—come at the cost of precious time. Workplace efficiency consultant Edward G. Brown estimates that interruptions consume 6.2 hours a day.
That’s most of the working day! This means you and your colleagues can’t be productive for the company or even grow professionally—and that the company loses as a result. By recognizing how workplaces can get in the way of work, companies can begin to address this issue.
Leading by example
Now that you recognize the problem, the solution can be implemented, right? Not necessarily. It isn’t enough to mandate Focus Thursdays. Everyone who is in must buy into eliminating the drive-bys.
Certainly, it starts in the corporate suite, with the chief executive and his core group of leaders. They themselves must set-aside one day a week dedicated to focused, uninterrupted activity. But this is already reasonably easy for them to do. After all, top executives have secretaries, chiefs of staff and others who help them avoid interruptions.
The problem lies layers below the corporate suite, especially among lower-level executives and middle managers who are constantly jockeying for advancement. As famed political scientist James Q. Wilson once observed, those working deep in the layers of a bureaucracy have different incentives than those at the top. Attempts to interpret every statement from a top executive (what I call Corporate Kremlinology) often means that statements in passing from a boss become urgent requests that really weren’t important in the first place.
One way to address this incentive problem is to change the incentives. For example, lower level managers and executives should be rewarded in some way for ensuring that Focus Thursdays are uninterrupted. This includes allowing their staffers to telecommute on that day, and therefore limit the amount of face time that anyone can capture.
Managers should also be required to use those Thursdays for their own uninterrupted time to do work—and tell their staffs, fellow managers, and their own bosses to keep the drive-bys to themselves; that’s when that calendar function in Outlook comes in handy. Finally, mandate that all scheduled meetings throughout the enterprise happen on days other than Thursday.
Organizing for focus
Getting supervisors to stop their drive-bys is one step. But you can’t take advantage of Focus Thursdays if you are not organized. Otherwise, you will struggle to decline other people’s requests and avoid needless interruptions.
An important first step in getting focused starts at the end of the previous workday. For your Focus Thursday, set up a list of the projects you will work on that next day. This includes reviewing your schedule for the next few days, thinking through how much time it will really take to complete what’s on your agenda, and picking just one project to work on that Thursday. Focus begets focus.
Another way to avoid interruptions is to set aside time during the rest of the workweek for “office hours” as done by college professors. Colleagues and others can then use that time to make requests, seek advice and discuss options. By setting a time when requests can be discussed, you force colleagues to think about how important their request really is. It also helps you gain focus for the uninterrupted time on Thursday.
A third step lies in shutting down needless communication. Reading emails, text messages, instant messages, and the endless replies that often follow from each can take up too much time on a regular workday. On a Focus Thursday, it will destroy any focus you attempt to have. Shut down Outlook and turn on do not disturb on your smartphones. If it is a real emergency, you will be reached.
The benefits of becoming organized don’t only accrue to Focus Thursdays. A better-organized workweek helps you and your colleagues avoid drive-bys during the rest of the week—and helps you relax on the weekends when you should be recharging and enjoying time with your family.
The power to say no
The most important step in making Focus Thursdays a reality (and successful to boot) is also the hardest: Empowering everyone to say no when it counts.
Saying no is hard to do because most of us are people pleasers by nature. But the workplace also makes it extra hard to say no. Thanks to shared calendars, colleagues can rudely intrude on your calendar by sending invites to meetings that even they know you don’t need to be on. There’s also the reality that saying no to a colleague or boss can be career-limiting. Work long enough and you learn quickly that, as with “suggestions,” requests are rarely voluntary.
Taking these steps to setting up Focus Thursdays will help greatly in reducing the times you and your colleagues will have to say no. Setting up office hours, for example, helps you offer an alternative time for people to make requests. But companies must empower people to decline meeting invites and other interruptions.
Allowing employees to say no to interruptions on Focus Thursdays is one important step. Mandating that Thursday is no-interruption day, to the greatest extent that is possible, is another.
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