No wonder people struggle to focus. We are bombarded with distractions, overwhelmed by unrealistic expectations, and drowning under too many incoming demands. Our team at Crucial Learning surveyed 1,600 employees and managers to better understand the severity of our collective failure to focus. The data paints a bleaker picture of our short attention spans.
One of our findings should be particularly alarming for people leaders: 60.6% of employees admit that they rarely manage an hour or two of deep, focused work each day without’ y disruption. Where does all their time – and your money – go?
We found that two out of three respondents said they struggle to fully focus on a task or person. And when they do get a rare moment of concentration, one in three say they can only focus on a task for 10 minutes or less before getting distracted. And the effects of unfocused behavior are severe and far-reaching. Specifically, respondents listed the biggest costs of their inability to focus as being overwhelmed, lack of energy, stress, reduced efficiency, less fulfillment, and frustration.
Let’s play it out in the life of Damian, a high-performing product manager. The first thing Damian did when he woke up this morning was grab his phone and check his email. While lying in bed, he couldn’t do anything about the requests that were in the emails, so he started his day feeling overwhelmed. Fortunately, his calendar is clear, and he still has time to finish his project proposal due to Lisa.
When he arrived at the office, Rajiv cornered him to ask for his quick input on the Q3 projections. Just one minute, so Damian agreed. Forty-five minutes later, Damian sent his opinions to Rajiv. Next, he jumped to the long list of emails he had looked at earlier that morning. He got some quick dopamine hits by answering some. But the next email was a big request and one he couldn’t reasonably have made that morning. So he decided to save it for later, but the task was imminent.
Finally, at 11:15 in the morning, he opened his project proposal, but 15 minutes later, Rita stopped to chat, and before he knew it, it was lunch time.
After lunch, Damian tried again on that project proposal, only to be called into a quick work session with his manager to address a client concern. It was 3pm before he got back to his proposal, and by then, he was feeling tired and exhausted, so he opened his email for some quick wins. After processing the afternoon email backlog, including several requests from the morning, it was time to go to his son’s soccer game. Damian sighed. He was busy all day, but seemed to get very little done, including the one thing that needed to be done – his project proposal.
Sitting at the game, all Damian could do was think about his incomplete proposal, unanswered emails, and impending commitments. While there are no sounds or notifications, he is still completely distracted when he should be with his family.
This day was not an exception – it was the norm. No wonder our people feel more burned out and distracted than ever. Disruptions – some of which may be important but distracting nonetheless – get the best of them. At the end of the day, our people are busy, but are they being productive?
As leaders of people, what can you do to encourage your team to limit distractions and find focus? How do you create an environment where your people can say no to low-priority work, block the latest and greatest requests, and commit their time and energy to the most important projects and people? ?
For the past several decades, we’ve been studying and coaching leaders on the skills to stay productive in a world fueled by overstimulation. This work is shared in our book and course, Doing Things. But give us a clearer way of what you can do to keep your teams engaged. Here are seven ideas to help your people focus:
Inventory tasks and projects.
This is a discipline where common sense is not common practice. If your people don’t have a complete list of their commitments and projects, they won’t be able to prioritize them. As a leader, hold people accountable for keeping new task lists and give them time each week to do a weekly review of these commitments so they stay in control.
Clarify and curate communication channels.
Much of our disruption is the result of the many internal communication channels that people must navigate in a typical workplace – and that’s not including the actual processing of content on each channel. Clarify what each channel should be used for and the expectations of response times.
Normalize saying no.
Leaders must create psychological safety around the venting of overwhelm and burnout. A great example comes from Rich Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, a custom software development company. The wealthy understand the value of employees communicating with their bandwidth. He not only encouraged employees to speak up, he also normalized and rewarded the behavior.
When an employee says they don’t have the bandwidth or are burned out, Rich teaches his project managers to smile and say, “Thanks for sharing the bad news with me.” Why? Here’s what Rich told us: “Most leaders want to eliminate bad news. But the bad news doesn’t just go away. Instead, it seeped into the culture, created quality and morale issues, and led to endless hours of overtime.” Normalize saying no by making it safe for employees to communicate their stress. Reward the behavior by being intentional about your reactions.
Make meetings meaningful.
Most people’s work days are monopolized by meetings. Help employees stay focused by allowing them to refuse pointless meetings. To improve meeting effectiveness, one manager we coached set a bold standard. He said, “If someone invites you to a meeting without a clear agenda and reasons why you are important to the success of the meeting, you have permission to decline it.” This manager puts the onus back on the meeting maker (who is usually himself) to show greater respect for others’ time. It also puts employees in control of their days so they can focus on high-priority work.
Enable purposeful productivity.
In your weekly 1:1, don’t ask your people if they are “keeping busy.” Instead, ask them if they have the time and space to do the work they need or want to do. If the answer is no, support them in addressing that gap. Maybe they need help prioritizing their to-do lists or are pulled by fringe projects and tasks and need your help to get the requests out. They may need support to block their calendar for targeted work hours or need to adjust their hours to work more smoothly with their ability to focus. Find the gaps and close them.
The focus is formal.
Perhaps the easiest way to encourage focused work is to put it on the calendar. Establish a group practice of protected working hours. For example, tell the team to block off Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for focused work. During these hours, no one is allowed to schedule meetings, and others throughout the organization can see that employees are also unavailable. But a word of warning: If you’re going to schedule this blocked time, don’t block it in the first place. That will only lead to distrust in your calendar.
If people say they’re in focused work mode as indicated by their status in team chat tools or their calendar, credit it. As their leader, you may feel that these rules apply to everyone but you – but when you disrupt this period, it sets the tone for everyone else to do the same. This sends the message that protected time is a myth and anyone is allowed to violate it.
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These practices help you create a culture where your people can focus on the work that really matters. It is important for leaders to understand these principles because they are what will enable your team to effectively participate in a world designed to disrupt them. Support their ability to focus, and everyone wins.