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How to Build Deep Focus Into Your Organizational Culture

Cameron ConawayLast Updated: September 27, 2016

Let’s say you’ve developed the habit of flexing your focus muscle. Maybe you’ve adopted certain contemplative practices like mindfulness meditation, or invested in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that are working wonders for you. Perhaps you’ve taken it a step further and dug deep into our BLOCC framework.

Deep focus—those prolonged periods of time when you focus precisely on what you want to focus on—has become an integral part of your life. You simply can’t imagine going back to those work days of darting in and out between brief moments of focus and long stretches of distracted meandering.

For our free book on deep focus, click here.

Whatever got you to this point, let’s say your confidence is developing and you’ve even communicated to a few of your colleagues how important you think focus is.

In getting this far you’ve already completed the two most difficult steps:

(1) You’ve established a personal practice, and

(2) You’ve created a bridge to bring this practice into your organizational culture.

As such, you’ve internalized this crucial lesson:

Focus isn’t just a state, it’s a practice. (tweet this)

But this is where many of us get stuck. Where to from here? What’s the best way to ensure that the habits you’ve formed can begin to change your organizational culture?

After all, a workplace culture that places a premium on focus is one that will be better equipped both to grow and to adapt when market conditions change.

We are a work-in-progress like everybody else, but here are three ways we’ve been able to build our individual commitments into collective commitments and then (sometimes) into team habits so ingrained we barely think to do them anymore:

1. Take Team Size Seriously.

Deep focus can quickly lose its legs when teams are huge and the completion of a seemingly simple task has to go through too many people. This year our team grew significantly, which meant new teams were formed and existing teams now had additional teammates.

While we were ecstatic to hire such incredible people, we also made sure to keep top-of-mind how our own research has aligned with other research in the field to find this:

5-7 member teams are typically the most productive. (tweet this)

This number tends to be where workplace productivity peaks; it’s just the right amount of smart minds and different perspectives, without becoming a distracting party or a time-consuming drain just to make basic decisions.

Evaluate the size of your teams and the nature of their work to see if you can bring them down to an optimal size. This is especially important during those periods of growth when the excitement of bringing new talent on board can cloud the important process of reflecting on your existing project management methodologies.

Likewise, this clouding can happen when projects become more complex. It’s often our first instinct to think, Well, our team must grow to meet this increasing complexity.

But there’s a good chance, when you take a step back, that you’ll realize how you can meet that complexity more efficiently not by growing a team but by splitting it up.

2. Assess task focus and project focus.

And realize that all deep focus at work is not created equal.

In The Two Ways We Lose Focus at Work, Mark Nichols summarized task focus and project focus like this:

Sometimes, we’re losing focus in the moment, at the task level. This is when we’ve decided exactly what we’re going to work on, but we just can’t bring ourselves to get it done. This is a loss of task focus….

If lost task focus is the inability to hunker down and complete a task, lost project focus is the inability to even pick that task.”

Few of us as individuals have mastered the art of task focus and project focus, so what does this mean when we add in the complex dynamics of working on a team?

It means chaos, usually, and that it’s ultra-important to put a process in place so that everybody is on the same page.

Robin Kwong, Special Projects Editor at The Financial Times, told us he believes project clarity at the outset is paramount. Kwong makes sure each individual member of his team, before beginning any project, knows exactly what they should work on, when they should work on it, and why they are working on it in this particular order.

It seems simple, but this team-based ability to seriously organize task and project focus before pursuit of the larger goal means that each member of the team can establish deep focus because they know precisely what they should be working on.

It also means focus, depending on the influence of your particular team, is to some degree becoming embedded into the fabric of your organizational culture.

This strategy works for Kwong in one of the world’s preeminent business and economic newsrooms, it works for us, and we believe it (or some variant thereof) will work for you.

3. Establish focus signals.

This one can be as fun and creative as it is important.

As individual commitments to deep focus start rolling out, it’s important to grow them into habits (especially if you’re working in an open layout) that allow you to easily and quickly identify whether or not your colleagues are in deep focus.

Some teams signify this simply by wearing headphones. If an individual is wearing headphones, it’s a signal to their team that they are going deep.

Another focus signal can simply be sitting and working together.

In an open layout office, for example, members of a team within a tech company may be spread all over the workplace. They may communicate primarily through an app. But to avoid shoulder nudges from other members of the company, and otherwise make sure everybody knows that they’re focusing with their team, creating a signal by sitting together can do the trick—and through presentation alone can build deep focus into a part of your organizational culture.

As we have remote employees at Flow, and as many of our customers do as well, we needed a way to create a focus signal that worked for everybody. So we created a switch within our app called “Focus Mode.”

When an individual switches it on, all employees at the company know that that employee is focusing. Messages won’t be delivered to the focusing teammate until Focus Mode is switched off.

The possibilities for creating focus signals are limited only by your creativity, but we’ve found them to be an important component for simultaneously achieving and communicating the state of focus we’re in.

Truth is, focus is rarely brought up in discussions around organizational culture. But with important books like Group Genius from Dr. Keith Sawyer (which brings the individual concept of Flow State into the context of teams) paving the way for new books like Deep Work from Cal Newport, we think all signs are pointing to how business success will increasingly depend on a company’s collective ability to focus.


People illustrations: Jacob Dewey

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