Switch off to switch on – focus without distraction

‘How are you?’ – ‘I’m good. So busy.’ This is the start of pretty much every conversation I have. But I have decided to change my answer when people ask me how I am. My reply now is: ‘I’m great. I’m working on some really exciting projects.’ Firstly, it opens up a conversation about what I am working on and what’s happening in my world. Secondly, I want to move away from being constantly busy. I am replacing busyness with productivity.

The Challenges:

I work with clients from a wide range of industries, from technology to finance, aviation to hospitality, retail to design. And everyone is telling me how busy they are. Long days merging into working on weekends, endless to-do lists, hundreds of emails a day and back-to-back Zoom meetings. Everyone is crazy busy. Yet, when we address team or organisational challenges we are addressing a lack of productivity, not the state of busyness everyone is in. It happens everywhere and I witness it in my own business too.

The solution

My mission is to be more productive, so I have had a critical look at my work week and the way I work. Two things I have noticed: I am spending too much time on shallow work and not enough on deep work. And I get distracted too often to produce content and IP that’s necessary for the growth of my business. Here is what I have learned:

I am spending over 70% of my time replying to emails and messages, managing my diary and CRM, scheduling and posting on social media, meetings and various admin tasks around client management. I only spend 30% of my time creating IP, designing programs, reading and writing content. The time I do spend on creation is often late into the night and it seems to take me forever to write even 1 page of content.

Increase your productivity, not your busyness!

What I see in my own business and witness with many of my clients is that we spend too much time on shallow work. According to Cal Newport, author of ‘Deep Work’, shallow work is ‘noncognitively demanding, logistical style tasks, often performed while distracted. The efforts tend to not create much value in the world and are easy to replicate.’ And we often make this type of work priority, e.g. first thing in the morning, and we tend to go back to shallow work as it’s ‘easy’. Yet, these are the exact tasks that make us busy, keep us distracted and hold us back from being productive.

What I needed was to carve out time for deep work. Deep work: ‘Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.’ This kind of deep work is what adds real value to my business. For me it’s creating programs and writing, and I now make this priority 3 times a week for 2 hours in the morning. No distractions.

“Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it. Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break form focus to give in to distraction.” – Cal Newport

My next step was to ensure that I use my scheduled deep work time without distractions. It’s been tricky as my brain was going back to ‘Let’s check LinkedIn one more time. Just a quick look at my emails.” NOT HELPFUL. I now have a few strategies in place to not get distracted. My productivity and output have increased more than I expected. What used to take me 1 hour, now takes me 30 minutes. And it’s all work that adds value to my clients and my business.

Strategies to stay focussed without distractions:

  1. Turn off notifications. That’s all notifications, social media pings, email, messenger, phone, smart watch. Even switch off wifi if possible. If you need a big fix, consider a digital detox. Go off the grid for a few days with no digital access. You’ll feel like a new person.
  2. Batch your work. Group similar tasks and finish them in the same time block. For example, I now write all my social media posts and content for the week in my 2-hour block. I even produce the videos and images in that time as they are grouped around the same theme and sit in the same category. It’s easier for my brain to stay on topic.
  3. Focus sprints. Use the Pomodore Method where you finish certain work in 25-minute focus sprints. Turn everything else off, set your timer and finish blocks of work in that set timeframe. I create IP in this fashion where I finish 5-10 pieces of IP each week in sprints of 10 minutes. That’s 5-10 pieces of content created in 50 to 100 minutes.
  4. Drown Shallow work. Divide your workday into blocks and assign activities. Some for deep work, some for shallow work. This way shallow work has assigned time slots and won’t drown your day. Instead, you will drown shallow work.
  5. Champion Deep Work. Schedule blocks of time for deep work strategically in advance. It has to work with calendar but needs to be a priority. Deep work is hard and exhausting as we use our cognitive efforts. Schedule deep work in times that work best for your brain and mind. For me, that’s first thing in the morning. Also block out time for your teams. Go as far as doing a whole off-site for deep work!
  6. Take breaks. Take a break after every block of scheduled work. Stretching our limbs, drinking water, eating, walking and fresh air are all things our body and mind need to stay healthy. In particular in lockdown, I realised that I needed to set boundaries. take breaks and finish work at a certain time. Work had seeped into every aspect of my life and it wasn’t healthy. Good life-work balance adds to productivity.
  7. Mindfulness. Control internal distractions by applying mindfulness. For example, when you notice your attention is slipping away from the problem at hand, gently remind yourself that you can return to that thought later, then redirect your attention back.
  8. Embrace boredom. In this world where busyness is widely perceived as being productive, we feel we are not allowed to be bored. And when we do feel bored, like standing in line at the tram stop for 5 minutes, we pull out our phone. This action creates the habit of using every minute of ‘boredom’ on shallow meaningless tasks. I used to do this in every TV ad break. We need to rewire our brains to be ok with being bored and stay away from ‘on-demand distraction’.

“Where focus goes, energy flows. And if you don’t take the time to focus on what matters, then you’re living a life of someone else’s design.” — Tony Robbins

Deep work is hard, and I admit it’s not easy to change our lives. But if we want to increase productivity, we need to start somewhere and adopt at least some of these strategies. I started with scheduling blocks of uninterrupted deep work.

If you want to work with me, email me on info@intactteams.com

Jessica Schubert

Jessica Schubert is a Leadership Expert, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Author and Speaker. She is obsessed with helping people realise their potential and unlock their inner genius.

Born in Cologne, Germany, Jessica has travelled the world and has spent more than 20 years leading cross-cultural teams in competitive markets throughout Europe and the Asia Pacific. As she worked with and coached her own diverse, cross-cultural teams, she came to realise that learning about yourself and developing interpersonal skills is the most powerful tool to lead and influence people around you.

In 2013 she launched Intact Teams, where she and her team have worked with thousands of leaders in organisations worldwide, delivering custom-designed leadership programs and workshops. These interactive and engaging programs are offered both virtually and in-person, helping leaders and their teams succeed in a complex and ever-changing business environment.

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Jessica Schubert