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3 Office Realities That Make Focus Nearly Impossible

Between the distractions all around and our own shriveled attention spans, it is remarkable we get anything done.
3 Office Realities That Make Focus Nearly Impossible
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Aristotle once said, “The end of labor is to gain leisure.” Yet most busy leaders, entrepreneurs and professionals have - at best -- ambivalent feelings about the pursuit of leisure, whether it’s due to self-inflicted pressure, too much on our plates or fear of being labeled a slacker.

In the U.S., Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer. Now, the days are getting shorter, vacation is over and school is back in session. At work, the race to year-end is heating up, and it’s time to get our collective heads back in the game.

To make the back to work transition more tolerable, let’s talk about the three enemies of focus - and more importantly, how to defeat them.

1. Ubiquitous distractions.

Most offices are veritable minefields of distraction - the construction noise next door, the loud talker two cubicles over, your boss’ fire drill. The average person spends just six hours per week in focused work. But it’s not just our environment that’s the problem. Amazingly, 44 percent of the time, we are the problem. Here’s a crazy data point - the average worker checks their email 30 times an hour (yes, you read that right).

Unfortunately, such distractions are more significant than they seem. Once our focus is pulled away from a task, it can take up to 25 minutes to regain it. In sum total, distractions seriously limit our productivity. What’s more, because we tend to compensate by working harder and longer, they also increase our stress.

Although zero distractions are rarely possible, we can certainly curtail them by taking control of our destiny. For example, instead of checking email 30 times an hour, research shows that four times per day is best.

We can also adjust our environment. If the hallway noise bothers you, close your door. If you work in an open concept office, find a quiet room; work from home; or keep headphones or earplugs in your desk.

Finally, take charge of your calendar.

Nathan Latka, CEO of Internet marketing firm Heyo, spends Sunday evenings reviewing his upcoming meetings and canceling the ones that aren’t absolutely necessary.

As billionaire Warren Buffet advises, “You gotta keep control of your time, and you can’t unless you say no.” Often, this means being assertive and unapologetic about your boundaries - after all, no one is going to do it for you.

Related: How to Stay Focused: Train Your Brain

2. Multitasking.

The second enemy of focus, multi-tasking, can often masquerade as a productivity tool.

When communication professor Zhen Weng asked people to track their multi-tasking efforts for a month, almost universally, they reported a positive emotional boost from the activity.

I’ll just answer a few emails during this conference call, we think, proudly patting ourselves on the back. But despite our beliefs to the contrary, roughly 98 percent of people are completely incapable of multitasking - a fact that’s shocked and disappointed even preeminent researchers.

Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, is a passionate proponent of something he calls deep work - focusing on one and only one thing at a time. And as it turns out, deep work really works.

When one software company blocked two hours in the morning and afternoon for deep work, the majority of employees reported improved productivity. Nearly half felt even more productive during their non-deep work hours.

Practicing deep work is part art and part science.

On the science side, research has shown that the best way to tackle it is in 90 minute chunks punctuated by 15 minute breaks. But the art is finding the approach that works for you.

For example, if your post-vacation brain is struggling with the concept of 90 straight minutes of work, start with the Pomorodo technique - 25 minutes on with a five minute break. I used this technique when I wrote this article, and it worked like a charm.

Related: Work Smarter: 8 Ways to Boost Focus in a Home Office

3. Action without planning.

I once had a colleague who worked more than anyone I’ve ever met. He’d be in the office at all hours, send multiple emails during the weekend and had no compunction about scheduling a 6 p.m. meeting. One day, I showed up to the office and learned he’d been let go. I was even more shocked to hear his boss say, “He worked so hard, but it was on all the wrong things.”

How often do you dive right into a task without stepping back to figure out whether it’s the right task? Though the concept of urgent versus important was popularized by Stephen Covey, it was U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower who said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Yet action-oriented people are often helpless to resist the urge to dive in without examining the bigger picture.

Luckily, there is a fairly simple solution. I call it the one percent rule. Spend one percent of your day planning how you’ll spend the other 99 percent.

Related: Focus on Core Strengths So You Can Run Leaner in Uncertain Times

Start by asking: If I accomplished only one thing today, what should it be? Then, structure your day around that one thing. And before adding something to your list, take a step back and ask: Is this really important, and if so, do I need to re-assess my one thing?

As a final point, though it’s important to push yourself during back to work week, it’s just as important not to be too hard on yourself. Think about the last time you were insanely productive and remember that you’ll be back in the groove before you know it. And if that fails, you can start looking forward to the Thanksgiving holiday.