There are several universal rules for people: death, taxes, and that “busyness” will fill every available minute.
Email, Slack, social media, unproductive meetings all contribute to that busyness. With all the distraction, how do you ever find time to work on projects that create value?
For many people, they don’t.
That’s been painfully evident with a couple recent engagements I’ve been on.
Imagine a part-time project manager in your company. He’s running a major project, but also has his own set of deliverables. This project manager was having problems carving out time for his own deliverables and falling behind. He was too busy responding to all the emails, requests for status updates and the like. The noise had taken over.
I was facilitating an IT strategic planning session for a small team. When we started talking about what was holding them back from creating value for the business, it became very clear that the busyness had taken over. Non-critical help desk tickets, useless meetings, low-priority bugs and the like. The team was constantly in fire-fighting mode and didn’t feel they could focus on making things better.
Last year I read a very important book: Deep Work by Cal Newport. The ultra-short summary is that distractions have taken over and are rewiring the way our brains work. Unfortunately, doing important things and creating value are deep work and require longer concentration. Based on current trends, the gap is only going to get worse. There’s a great summary on the book here.
To both groups I made a simple recommendation: start setting aside time to focus on doing work that creates value. Pick a number of hours per week, put it in your calendar and make it happen. Give yourself a personal KPI for maintaining it. That KPI is actually on their KPI wall for the IT team.
Do people come up to you and distract you? Print up a nice Focus Time / Deep Work sign and put it out when you’re in a session. With a little prompting, people will quickly respect it.
I take it one step further. I schedule my “shallow work” like email and Slack into 2-3 sessions per day. The rest of the time, I turn them off. I’m not always successful, but it’s made a massive difference.
I simultaneously work with a number of clients. I block time specific to client and project, then do my best to stick to it. If email is involved in that block, I do it first then get away from it to focus on delivering value. One of my measures for success for each day is how well I stuck to my schedule.
I also do my best to book 4 hours per week, usually in one session, as deep work time (not just focused). No cell phone, no Facebook. Often no computer at all. That time is spent working on a strategic project to move Incrementa forward (not just a client). Spending that much time on a single focus can be challenging – but I can get really deep into the subject and a lot done.
Of course, there were other tools and recommendations for both the examples above but starting to reduce the distraction is a key element in increasing productivity.