Monday, January 31, 2011

Overcoming distractions at work

I have had a lovely weekend meeting up with old school contacts, many of whom I haven’t seen for 30 years! As we left with promises of keeping in touch, new language came to the fore “I will facebook you” “Follow me on twitter”. Whilst I applaud the benefits of much of the current social media, it is now part of the plethora of available channels we can use not just to connect with others, but also to distract ourselves. Technology has had a great effect on attention spans and I know how frustrated I get when my Google search doesn’t come up immediately with exactly what I require!

I am, like many others, very distractable. I use the excuse that I can multi-task well and I thrive with variety, but then I bemoan that I have run out of time,
When we indulge in a distraction, we focus our time and energy on something that is inherently more pleasurable than what we are currently doing. Doing my VAT return is boring, so I’ll just surf on you-tube for my favourite band instead. Making that call to the customer will be challenging, so let me read the news first. The bottom line is that distractions are compellingly magnetic because they either give us pleasure or take some pain away. Here are some of my strategies for getting focussed

·         Prioritise your work. The 10 minutes it will take to do this will reap dividends for your productivity each day
·         Focus on the most important tasks first. Make a list and be realistic as to what you can achieve. The reason we get distracted in the first place is because some of the tasks we set ourselves are just not fun to do or we feel really overwhelmed so…
·         Schedule your tasks – and give specific time frames for each activity you love to do and the time you need to do it, so it doesn’t get in the way of tasks you need to accomplish
·         Spread out your work into smaller chunks – it helps give you a sense of accomplishment and keeps you fresh.
·         Switch between high and low attention tasks to give your brain a rest after heavy concentration. But don’t just jump from task to task, without finishing anything at all. This gives you the illusion of being busy, but you will end up frustrated
·         Give yourself breaks – real breaks, not snatched breaks. This will allow you to enjoy what you are doing more and encourage you to finish on time when you are happy and not feeling like work is a burden
·         Make sure your work environment is comfortable. Research shows that natural images, landscapes or wildlife images on the wall can help you focus – they relax you into a comfortable, resourceful state for work
·         Shut out distractions as much as possible. Don’t sit in the same room to work as a distraction trigger, such as your Xbox or a TV. Listening to music, particularly instrumental music can help, producing a steady background noise. This can drown out other noise, helping your focus. Some people even use noise machines to give a steady “white noise” such as ocean waves or falling rain.

Finding the “Zone”

There are some implicit assumptions within the concept of work-life balance that are worth challenging. The first is that work is somehow separate to life – something we have to do before life can resume.  The second is that too much effort and time spent in work impairs the “balance” and the quality of life.  The only case where these assumptions hold absolutely true, is where work has no enjoyment, satisfaction or fulfilment other than financial reward.

For people who consider their work has such meaning that it is their life, or for people that love what they do for a living and are driven by it, these assumptions make no sense. In a recent documentary about Dave Brubeck the jazz composer/pianist a fellow musician made the comment “If you find yourself engaging in something at 8.00 in the morning and the next occasion you think of the time its 8.00 at night, you’ve found what you should be doing for the rest of your life.”  What he was describing has similarities to what athletes call entering the zone: a state of concentration and absorption where everything flows and seems to go right.  Apparently in this state, the brain produces alpha waves similar to those found in Buddhists meditating. Such states have been measured not just in athletes, but in people fully engaged in very different activities including computer gaming, as an example.

Whilst these states are only temporary, they do suggest that the optimum work activity is where a person can be 100% engaged, without distraction, completely absorbed and in effect lost in what they are doing. In such conditions people actually draw energy from their work rather than become depleted by it.  This can only be found in activities you love and want to do.

So with work-life balance it’s not the amount of work you do that is the real issue – it’s what kind of work and your attitude about it. If too many of your days consist of responding to the demands of others, or doing things simply because you have to, your energy will become depleted and dissatisfaction will ensue.

People say it’s only the lucky few who are paid for what they love to do. Whilst in a general way it may be true, it’s well worth asking yourself what are the aspects of your job that you really enjoy and love to do. 

The secret to a better work-life balance might well be not in managing your time and reducing your overall time in work, but increasing the time you spend in the aspects of your job that you find most absorbing and fulfilling. Remember – if the time just passes without you taking account of it, you’re doing the right thing!