It's Not About Time; It's About Focus

magnifying_glass_2Time cannot be managed. It ticks inexorably forward. What we do with our time can be managed, and that’s what matters. So it’s not about time, it’s about focusing our effort on the things we want to accomplish.

Another word for accomplishment is productivity. Productivity is getting things done. We like to get things done. It’s makes us feel good – successful. The more successful we feel, the better use we are making of our time.

Productivity results from focused effort, not mere activity. Many people confuse activity with productivity. Activity is about motion itself. Productivity is about forward motion – accomplishment. Activity is often noisy; productivity is generally quiet.

  • Question: How can we be more productive during our distraction-rich and interruption-riddled days?
  • Answer: We can quiet down our physical and mental spaces.

Creating Quieter Physical Spaces

Increasing focus is about quieting down two spaces: our external space, the work environment, and our mental space, the roar between our ears. First, we’ll look at some suggestions for creating a quieter work environment:

  1. Turn Off New Message Alerts.  New message alerts create a lot of unnecessary noise. We can’t help but react to them. It’s an instinctual response that results in a self-inflicted interruption every time one goes off. Turn off the alerts and check your messages periodically throughout the day (e.g., every thirty minutes) when you aren’t otherwise trying to focus on what needs doing right now.
  2. Create a Designated Work Space. Clear everything off a definable space in your work area – like the four corners of your desk. Place only one task at a time in that space and work on it. This eliminates the effect of peripheral vision, which extends one hundred and twenty degrees in all directions. Whether we realize it or not, we “see” everything stacked up around that work item. That causes mini-distractions that increase our stress and reduce our focus.
  3. Face Away From Traffic. Eliminate the effects of peripheral vision even more by arranging the office to not face the door. Facing the door results in looking up every time someone walks by. An even greater interruption occurs if eyes meet and the passerby comes in, sits down, and regales us with Little Johnnie’s recent soccer game. By facing away from that traffic, those distractions disappear.
  4. Mostly Close the Door. An open door invites people to come in on their schedule. Oddly, a closed door invites people to knock and stick their head in! A mostly closed door sends the message that we are there, but would rather not be disturbed. Problem solved.

The great thing about these suggestions is that they require little change in our habits. Collectively, they create a much quieter external work world in which we can concentrate and be productive.

Creating Quieter Mental Spaces

The noisiest place on earth is between our ears. Ironically, we need that place to be the quietest to focus and be productive. Here are some thoughts on how to quiet down the mind to be more focused:

  1. Conduct Regular Core Dumps. We are not good at keeping track of lists – to do lists, grocery lists, etc. Conduct regular core dumps to get those lists out of our mind. Use a piece of paper. Use an app. Just do it. Once those nagging items are down on a list, the only thing to remember is: Look At The List!
  2. Separate Hard-Coded Work from Soft-Coded Work. Hard-coded work is anything that goes onto the calendar. Meetings, conference calls, and appointments are examples of hard-coded work. We must be in a specific place at a specific time to work on a specific subject. Soft-coded work is all the tasks and projects we need to accomplish in between all the hard-coded items. By separating these two types of work, we have a clearer picture of what needs doing when. In other words, don’t throw everything that needs to be done onto the calendar. Keep hard-coded work on the calendar and soft-coded work on a to-do list of some kind.
  3. Use Only One Monitor at a Time. Having multiple computer monitors on the desktop is fashionable. Unfortunately, they increase the workplace noise level (external and internal) with little increase in productivity. The reason is simple: Humans cannot multi-task. Numerous studies have shown that we can only single task. When we switch between tasks a “switch cost” is incurred where nothing gets done – activity but no productivity. The more we switch, the higher the cost. The recommendation here is to turn the power off on any monitor that is not actively being used.
  4. Sequester Yourself When Necessary. Sometimes our physical and mental spaces need more than just a little help getting quiet. When this is the case, sequester yourself. Collect one or two tasks and physically relocate yourself to a quiet space – the library, an empty office, a caucus room, etc. Don’t let anyone know where you are. When you get there, sit down and work on those one or two items. When you are done, go back to your regular workspace and catch-up on what you missed while away. Done properly, this sequester period will be highly productive.

Getting our minds quieted down is hard in today’s frantic world. However, a few simple behavior changes can help you attain a higher level of focus throughout the day.

Making the Most of Your Time

Success is about productivity – getting things done. Productivity is about focused effort. Creating quiet physical and mental workspaces promotes focus, which lets us make the most of the time we have.

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