Why The World is (Not) Working Against You

businessman in the cubeAn interesting article  from Eric Barker’s excellent blog – Barking Up the Wrong Tree – describes some of the work Dan Ariely is doing to work out the irrational behavior we demonstrate in the world of time management.

Among the great points he makes (all supported by recent research) is the notion that the world and its numerous distractions have made it hard for us to stay focused on our commitments. Some say its a conspiracy. Eric states that “It’s like we’re surrounded by scheming thieves: thieves of our time, thieves of our attention, thieves of our productivity.” They are all working together against our being focused on what we want, in favor of what they want. He concludes: “Not having a plan, goals or a system in today’s world is dangerous because the default isn’t neutral.”

While it might certainly feel as if we are victims of a larger plot, the fact is we need to own up to the monster we have created, albeit unwittingly.

For example, many have written about the benefits of streamlining your smartphone to include only the apps you need. Or opening only one tab at a time when you browse. Or refusing to interrupt a task because a phone happens to ring in the middle of its execution.

These tactics are all meant to preserve your attention and they all make logical sense. However, they remain difficult to implement on a consistent basis. For most people, they are far from becoming routine habits.

Even when we understand this situation fully, we just don’t know how to make the transition from being available to every distraction to limiting ourselves to a single task at a time. Here are some of the things we have to do.

1. Assume Responsibility

In this matter, like many others, we underestimate our agency. We have set things up in our world to be as distracting as they are. This is good news – we can reset them to support, rather than hinder our progress towards our goals.

2. Make Electronic Adjustments

This means carefully refining the “interruptional environment” around us – turning off (or on) beeps, buzzes, vibrations, flashing lights, pop-ups. Our first attempt won’t be successful and it may take several tries. For example, I just switched smartphones and now the old phone still has some strange beeps that I haven’t disabled because I can’t find what’s triggering them.

It takes perseverance to set up the right combination for your needs. Ideally, there should be the capability to turn all of them off, as envisioned by the MyFocus button described on Nathan Zeldes’ blog.

3. Refashion Your Social Environment

The MyFocus button has another purpose, which is why I’m such a fan of the idea behind it. It also serves as a virtual “closed door” to other people. When it’s switched from green to red, it’s a polite signal to other people that you are not to be disturbed. It’s like a closed door to someone’s office – only to be knocked on in emergencies.

Training other people to respect a MyFocus button or even a closed door might take some skillful negotiations, especially if the person outranks you in the company. They may believe they have a permanent right to override whatever you are doing, in favor of the task they have at hand.

In any case, it takes work.

4. Shut Down your Open Office

There’s a correlation between privacy and productivity, much to the chagrin of Office Managers throughout the world who are continually trying to cut costs. In the early 1990’s I attended training conducted by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister. They established that the most productive programmers had more floor space than their counterparts. With more square footage (which was easy to measure) often came a door, walls and control over their visual and auditory environment. Plus, it meant that you were less likely to be interrupted by someone walking by who happened to remember the score to last night’s game and wanted someone to share it with.

Eric quotes the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain to reinforce the point: “…top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.”

Now, the fact is, you can’t easily build your own office with the ideal mix of space and privacy. It’s the rare company that will even give you a choice. What you can do, however, is start a movement to boost productivity by shaping the physical environment. This will take nothing short of a campaign, and some savvy change management skills. Unless you happen to be the boss, you must use soft power to convince the powers that be that the investment in more privacy is worth it.

All in all, there’s a lot that you can do to take charge of your environment. These elements all add up and can make a  profound difference to your daily peace of mind as a professional.