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Finding Focus

The final stop on the productivity train (for now) is on eliminating distractions and finding focus. Before we dig in, if you’ve worked with me in the past, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t talked about email management. I’m incredibly passionate about getting email under control. I’ve taught email management to hundreds of people over the years (if you’re one of the true believers, please comment on this post). The truth is, I don’t believe I can do it justice in a blog post. It’s too involved. That being said, the class is ready to go. It’s an hour, and the increased productivity will cover the cost of the class in the first month – first week if you invite enough people. So, if you want to help your team get email under control, message me or schedule time to discuss it.

OK, back to focus… you see how easy it is to get distracted? Distractions are easily the greatest productivity killer out there. I remember as a programmer how much more I could get done if I was left alone. One University of California study finds it takes 23 minutes to refocus after every interruption.

And yet, our world encourages and embraces interruptions. They are everywhere. Desktop notifications. Smartphone notifications. A TV playing in the background while we “work.” Some are unavoidable, as we try and balance working, parenting, and educating our children through a pandemic. Many, however, we can control. So, let’s get to work.

Disclaimer – I’m a Windows user, not a Mac user. If you’re on a Mac and some of this doesn’t translate, please, comment, and we’ll find the equivalent. I’d explain why I’m a Windows user, but I’m getting distracted again. Maybe later 😊

Let’s start with the lower-right hand corner of your desktop. You know that area where little boxes like to pop up to tell you that you have a new email, or a new Slack message, or someone posted something on Facebook, or any other number of notifications. You know what I’m talking about? Great. TURN THEM ALL OFF. Full stop. Find the little icon for Outlook, right-click it, and uncheck “Show New Desktop Alert”. Go into Slack and customize your notification preferences so you never get an alert (that little red dot on the icon is all you need to know you’ve got something new). If you made the mistake of allowing notifications from Chrome, shut those off too. If you’ve got a notification coming up you can’t figure out how to turn off, post in comments. We’ll figure it out.

Every time that notification box pops up, it’s an interruption. It disrupts your train of thought. It gives you an excuse to stop working on something you need to be working on but don’t want to work on. It slows you down. 23 minutes to refocus. Email and Slack are designed to be asynchronous. This means if the other person is expecting an immediate response, they are doing it wrong. And that’s their problem, not yours. If they need you that bad, they can call you.

Next, get your phone under control. I’m delighted with the new Focus feature in the latest version of iOS. I use it heavily. When I go for a run, I turn on Focus. When I’m coaching someone, I turn on Focus. When I go to sleep, I turn on Focus. All notifications are disabled so I can be fully present in running, coaching or sleeping. 

Even when you’re not in Focus mode, you should disable almost all your notifications. Be ruthless. Years ago I found this incredibly thorough article with all kinds of tips for getting your iPhone under control. It’s worth a read. If you don’t have the patience, at a minimum go to Settings, Notifications, on your iPhone, and look at each app listed. Turn off notifications for anything non-essential. I have 144 apps that want to notify me – two-thirds of them are turned off.

I’ll close with one of my favorite takeaways from Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. They talk about “Infinity Pools.” YouTube. Instagram. Facebook. Netflix. Anything that serves up an infinite stream of content. Their goal is to keep your eyeballs on them. I’ve gone down many a YouTube rathole where they kept serving up another video that looks compelling, and not too long, and certainly I have time for just one more video before bed… These are our productivity kryptonite. Find yours and implement a strategy to counteract it. Make Time has 87 tactics to try to boost your productivity and find focus. For me, the solution to YouTube was to uninstall it from my phone. Yes, I can still get to it in a browser if I want to, or even re-install it, but there’s enough extra effort there to discourage me from taking the plunge. Apps like Facebook and Instagram haven’t been uninstalled, but they are on the last page of my phone, so I don’t get distracted by them and dive in when I shouldn’t.

I’m passionate about this one, and I know I could go on and on, but hopefully this is enough to help you find some focus. Please take a moment to share your own tips, or your questions, and continue the conversation!

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