BLOCC: A Framework For Staying Focused On Your To Do ChecklistCameron ConawayLast Updated: September 21, 2016
If Google searches are any indicator, many of us are obsessed with finding tips and tricks to increase our productivity. This leads many to practice mindfulness meditation, others to scramble for some type of focus app, and some to experiment with cognitive enhancement supplements that promise deeper levels of focus.
And of course we read. A lot.
In our want to dismantle distractions at work we read articles with ‘hacks’ about how we as individuals can get focused and stay focused.
This is precisely where the disconnect begins. While most of us want to improve our focus as an antidote to distractions at work, the articles we’re reading are typically speaking only to what we as individuals can do.
As you know, the workplace is a complex ecosystem of moving parts, unexpected events, and dynamic team collaboration. Improving our own ability to get focused and complete our to do checklist is great, and certainly doesn’t hurt, but we believe it’s only one small piece to what must be a comprehensive, team-based approach to staying focused at work.
Many of us have fallen into the trap of believing that proximity can shore up focus problems. We often assume that if we’re all in the office together (even sitting at the same desk) then surely we are all focused.
But this isn’t necessarily the case. Even if we’re all driving toward the same goal, one member of the team may be thinking about something else, another may be the type who interrupts periods of focus every few minutes to start an unrelated conversation, and the other may be receiving text messages that vibrate the table just enough to temporarily distract the other members on the team.
Over the years, we’ve found it helpful to think about distractions at work by splitting them into 5 groups and an easy-to-remember acronym. For us, it serves as a reminder for what blocks our deep focus practice:
- Office layout & culture
Let’s take it from the top.
The first barrier we need to face head-on is the one inside our head. In his piece for The New York Times titled Addicted to Distraction, productivity thinker Tony Schwartz put it like this:
The brain’s craving for novelty, constant stimulation and immediate gratification creates something called a ‘compulsion loop.’”
That is, as we feed and fulfill the craving, our brain demands more of what we’re feeding it in order to reach the same level of satiation. It’s a similar concept to that of an addict, who increasingly needs more of a drug to reach the same level of effect.
It’s important to hold this information alongside compelling new research suggesting that many of us are addicted to the very interfaces we most often associate with our work. Computers (and smartphones, tablets, etc.) provide all-day instant access to novelty, as well as constant stimulation and immediate gratification whenever we need it; all pulling us away from our to do lists.
For those between 18-24 this number jumps to over 70—with signs pointing to that number only growing higher in the near future.
Similarly, a survey from Adobe found that the average white-collar worker spends 6 hours per day just on email—and this doesn’t include time spent on social media, platforms that Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, told us he believes are “ad engines hand-crafted to be as distracting as possible to transform your hours of attention into revenue.”
Endless access to new information also easily overloads our working memory. When we reach cognitive overload, our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates. It’s as if our brain has become a full cup of water and anything more poured into it starts to spill out.”
In other words, just as multitasking provides us the feeling of being productive without actually being productive, endlessly accessing new information gives us the feeling of learning without actually allowing for learning to take place.
He stumbled on his own addiction upon opening a book (the physical kind) and realizing he simply couldn’t stay focused enough to finish the first paragraph. Through habit, he had hardwired his brain to flit back and forth between reading online, clicking out of ads and pop-ups, checking the ever-changing traffic numbers on his company’s website, shopping, browsing multiple tabs, and checking social media.
When it came time for deep focus, to make the serious commitment of reading words on a page over an extended period of time—and to giving himself solely to that act—he just couldn’t do it.
While it may be an extreme example, part of Schwartz’s story has probably rang true for all of us at some point (and in all likelihood will continue to do so on a more regular basis unless we make the choice to do otherwise).
Nicholas Carr says it this way in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,:
The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”
So what’s the answer? How do we focus in and manage to cross task after task off our to do checklists? How do we balance the recognition of how easy it is to be distracted while, for work-related purposes, use the very instruments that most easily distract us?
Below are 3 strategies to get you started, but know this first step of simply being aware of the issue is the most important. As you progress through BLOCC, let each challenge and solution presented percolate a bit. That is, bookmark this post and return to the ideas in future days, weeks, and months.
Granting these ideas our full focus now is, of course, crucial, but the percolation stage—sitting with the ideas before taking action—according to research from Professor Adam Grant at the University of Pennsylvania, often leads to our own personal creative awakenings.
Ultimately, our team here at Flow has found some solutions that allow us to continually tick items off of our to do lists. These solutions have worked wonders for us over the years, and we’re happy to share them. We also believe empowering you to find your own solutions is a crucial part of staying focused at work.
Okay, now to those 3 strategies for staying focused while using the machines that often disrupt our ability to focus:
1. If possible, and we ask you to seriously consider this, strive to respond to email at two dedicated periods of time during the day. So let’s say you choose 9am and 3pm. Rather than checking email upwards of 50 times all throughout the day, you’ve granted yourself two periods of time to respond. When you check at 9, allot a given amount of time to respond. This could be from 9 to 10am, and then from 3 to 4pm. Outside of these times, you do not check email.
2. Shut off WiFi when you’re entering a period where you really want to stay focused (and obviously don’t need it for research). Switch it on only when you seriously need it. The “always on” WiFi signal means our ability to stay focused can easily be interrupted by checking a few social media platforms and otherwise darting mindlessly through the internet. For many of us, when we’re starting to feel tired or feeling our focus fade, we’ll “take a break” by, for example, combing through our Facebook feed. This makes it difficult to reclaim focus. A far better way is to break by actually breaking—taking a walk or otherwise getting some time away from the computer.
3. Keep your desktop(s) clean. As with #2 above, when our attention begins to wander we often feed this wandering by casting our eyes (and attention) elsewhere. For many of us, a cluttered desktop (both our actual desktop and those on our computers) filled with notes and files entirely unrelated to what we’re trying to stay focused on can be a great source of distraction. In many Zen monasteries, for example, the monks, partly in an attempt to achieve their deepest levels of focus, will sit facing a blank wall (rather than facing their community or the zendo).
This one, at least on the surface, is far easier to understand than the mechanics of what’s happening with our brain. Our current lifestyle—both the internal things we can control and the external things we can’t—contribute significantly to how we achieve optimal levels of focus at work.
Take, for example, the fact that you’re simply not all that thrilled about the work you’re doing. You look at your to do checklist and your eyes glaze over. This makes it all the more difficult to really commit yourself to going deep.
So rather than staying focused on the quarterly marketing report that you find insatiably boring, you may vacuum the house, or make another cup of coffee, or find something to do other than what you know you need to do. Again, this is where choice comes in.
Though it can be awfully difficult, especially when our existing habits have wired our brains to do otherwise, to carve out the space we all need for staying focused at work, buckling down and just doing it can mean freeing up significant time and energy that we can spend in whatever way we choose to spend it.
The alternative to this is one you may know well: The exhaustive sense that you’ve been working all day when in actuality you’ve only truly worked for a few hours (but you’ve had work on your mind all day and therefore feel like you’ve been working all day).
Remember this: Our “lifestyle” is part of our work, not something entirely separate. Practicing the habit of staying focused, therefore, doesn’t just help make you better at your job, it helps make you better at whatever it is you want to be better at.
One way to buckle down and blast things off your to do checklist is to provide a reward for yourself and hold yourself to the results. When you dismantled distractions and stayed focused long enough to bang out quality work you’re proud of, for example, find a way to reward yourself by taking advantage of the time you likely freed up in your schedule.
The other side we need to keep in mind as it relates to lifestyle are the external qualities of our lifestyle—unexpected health complications, friends needing our help, the joys and challenges of raising children. Staying focused at work for long periods of time can feel like a pipe dream to the single parent working remotely and trying to do so while two kids are running around the house.
This is okay, and entirely natural. Part of this process of improving our ability to get focused and stay focused is separating what we can control from what we can’t. What we can control, we will try to control. What we can’t control, we will let go of trying to control.
This “letting go” part is especially important because of this:
Focus is a finite resource. What we waste of it cannot be reclaimed. (tweet this)
From here, we recommend detaching from this article to jot down some responses to the following questions.
Rather than spend considerable time on this, try to embrace novelist Jack Kerouac’s idea of “First thought, best thought.” Whatever arises first, get it down:
- What distractions at work can I do a better job of having control over?
- What distractions at work do I simply have to find a way to accept?
- What recurring distractions at work can I immediately take action on?
Upon finishing this article we encourage you to go back through your responses to really flesh out the ideas.
Next up in BLOCC:
Office layout & culture
As you know, there is a movement afoot to dismantle the old traditional office cubicle and replace it with hipster new open layout designs. Those of us who have been in the game long enough know those open layouts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. While they offer a layer of transparency and visibility well beyond what the cubicle can do, this comes at a cost to our ability to stay focused.
For more on the history of this, check out Improving Your Team’s Focus, and Why Office Layout Matters.
So how do you stay focused on your to do list at work when you’re dealing with an open office layout? First, it’s important to voice your concern and begin the process of shaping your office for mixed-size ways of working.
Creating areas for dedicated individual and small-team focus either through cubicles or even through putting up simple curtains (as Ethan Bernstein of Harvard Business School revealed through his research), can go a long way in allowing a culture of focus to spread and teams to work smarter together.
Second, it’s important to note that office layout plays a major role in office culture. Where staying focused is valued—even if merely valued through physical walls—a sense of respect for this type of focus can permeate throughout the workplace.
An office that feels like a party all the time… well, it can make it quite difficult to go deep. This becomes especially true when fused with
In other words, if you’ve given your team six weeks to complete a project, there’s a good chance they’ll take six weeks to complete that project—even if they could have banged it out in half the time.
This isn’t something sinister on their part, in many ways it’s human nature. But some managers erroneously see a way to cut through this by simply making ultra-tight deadlines… asking their teams to complete a project in half the time they would normally allot for it.
A far better solution is to create a culture of deep focus in your workplace, where all employees value focus, have found ways to achieve states of focus as a team, and complete projects based on this shared set of values within the workplace culture.
How to do this? Through a combination of commitment and communication of that commitment.
By now you know that staying focused on your checklist at work demands commitment. Our brains are craving distraction, certain lifestyle elements are pulling our attention, and perhaps our workplace is ill-equipped for achieving states of prolonged focus.
But what does commitment look like beyond telling ourselves we want it?
Here are 4 ways we’ve found to turn the commitment in your mind to a habit in your life/work:
1. Start small and start anywhere. Staying focused at work need not begin with three glorious hours of unbroken concentration. And get this: It need not even happen at work. By starting small and, say, committing to practicing deep focus 30 minutes a day for three days a week, we can begin to rewire our brains to shutting everything else out except for what we want to allow in. This can happen at home, and like Tony Schwartz, it can happen through the simple practice of dedicating time to a particular book.
2. Track it. As with achieving any other goal over a period of time, tracking your progress can be an excellent way to reinforce your commitment and keep bending it toward becoming a habit. There are tons of tools to do this, but perhaps the most tried-and-true way is simply using pen and paper and updating your progress in a notebook or on your monthly calendar. Those of us who keep checklists should find the tracking fairly simple.
3. Share it. The psychology of why we share, especially on social media, is an intriguing new field that is emerging. Much of the research suggests that we share because it reinforces who we want to be (and who we want to project we are). If you’re committed to focus, think about a person you may want to share this commitment with—perhaps someone who has helped support you through previous commitments, or maybe even someone who would be interested in joining you on this focus journey.
If you can find a colleague in this regard, brilliant. You’ve just taken the step from personal commitment to collective commitment, and that’s where an appreciation of focus can really begin to spread into the workplace culture.
4. Build carefully, stay steady. It can be easy, in the excitement of our deep focus commitment and the empowering taking-back-our-life feeling it can provide, to reach too far, too soon. After that first week of nailing your 30-minute goals, for example, build carefully and as necessary. A jump to two hours a day may not be appropriate or even necessary. Lastly, strive not to beat yourself up. Even if you miss a few days in a row, just being aware that you missed those days means the commitment is still top-of-mind and that you are still driving towards your goal becoming a habit.
This leads us to the final C in BLOCC:
Part of the importance of communicating your want for focus is to crush the stigma that focus is purely a solitary pursuit and that you are alone in your need for it. In sharing your struggle and commitment to addressing it with your colleagues, you’re opening the door to a conversation (perhaps one they’ve wanted to have as well).
Staying focused at work and on your to do checklist may start with an individual, but for it to take full effect it must grow into an essential company value. That is made all the more difficult because of this:
Focus isn’t part of most workplace culture discussions. That must change. (tweet this)
It’s one thing to share your commitment with that friend or spouse who has and will always support you, but it can be quite another to have the vulnerability to open up to a colleague. After all, the majority of us most want to focus at work, and if we’re developing our skills at home and at the individual level but trying to apply them in the workplace as though we were at home, we may be setting ourselves up for additional barriers.
So, how to get the ball rolling at your workplace?
A great way to start is by taking the small act of simply sharing this or some other article about focus with a colleague. Your effort to communicate your commitment and interest in focus need not immediately sweep across your entire workplace. That’s not how social change, and indeed that is what we’re talking about here, ever happens.
It happens when a single person believes in an idea enough to act on that idea, and then shares this with another, and if all goes according to plan the sharing continues and an individual commitment blossoms into collective commitments.
Here at Flow, we believe secret sauces are overrated and sharing is underrated. If you truly believe you’ve found a way to improve your focus on your task list or goals, and that this effort is positively changing how you work at work, why hide it? Let your colleagues know, and your team will grow better and stronger as a result.
Illustrations: Jacob Dewey
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