Creating a productive environment for employees to do their best work has always been a top priority for executive teams. We know that a ‘people first’ approach supports creativity, employee retention, and happiness in the workplace. While this is great for the health of our businesses, there is another component to growth and long-term vision that shouldn’t be overlooked—creating a productive environment for yourself.
As leaders and managers, we rarely have time to spend with our own thoughts. We’re responsible for multiple initiatives that require intense concentration: quarterly strategy, time sensitive decision-making, company-wide briefings, and career coaching, to name a few. These ambitious tasks require a simple, but disciplined practice: focus time.
But don’t be mistaken, focus time isn’t the act of carving out time between meetings to respond to emails or new comments in a working document. Focus time is a regular allotment of distraction-free thinking dedicated to whatever idea or problem requires your attention. In his best-selling book Deep Work, Cal Newport describes the importance of dedicated, distraction-free time for leaders to be more effective. Focus time allows us to deal with increased complexity, address challenges, and see the bigger picture more clearly—all while exerting less energy.
Creating focus time: where to start
Dedicated focus time requires three key components: intentionality, routine, and expectation setting.
Start by being intentional about the piece of work or problem you want to concentrate on during your focus time. The topic can be broad, but the more simplified, the better. You may find it helpful to write out your main topic or idea as a guide to come back to during your session. This will help eliminate overwhelming yourself and get you used to the concept of focus time.
Solidifying a routine and setting reachable expectations is the next step. Consider the following components when setting up your focus time:
Location: Where will you (usually) do your work? Consistency with location will help train the mind to go into deep work mode faster. If you’re sticking with your office or a place where you do other work as well, you can fold in some kind of small ‘ritual’ to signify the start and end of your focus time. Some writers, for example, will light their favorite candle as a mental signal to begin their work.
Duration: How long will you dedicate to your focus time practice? Like any new habit, start small and work your way up. Begin with 20-30 minutes and gradually move up to an hour, if possible. It’s important to be realistic about your timeframes and allow limitations so you can adjust instead of burn out.
Scope: What personal guidelines do you have in place to allow yourself to focus? Most leaders find it useful to identify what Newport refers to as ‘shallow work’ (i.e. sending emails, booking traveling, submitting expense reports) that they should explicitly save for later. If you work with an executive assistant, these are the administrative tasks you can delegate to focus on what requires your expertise.
Concentration: What’s required for you to enter into focus time mode? Identify what may stand in your way. Checking Twitter, answering emails, and texting are major distractions that you will likely encounter. Although it’s tough, be strict about cutting out the time wasters that so easily creep into your day.
Maintaining focus time
Carving out your focus time is relatively simple; the difficult part is maintaining and cultivating the habit. Here are some pro tips to help you stay on track:
Honor your time: Schedule your focus time and try to never compromise it. Remind yourself of the benefits—achieving long-term goals, clarity of mind, the depth of ideas that come from concentration.
Be vocal: Tell your friends, executive assistant, coworkers, family about your new routine. If you work with an executive assistant, ask if they will help you stay accountable to your focus time goal.
Focus on focusing: Try to avoid looking for the tangible output from every focus time session. The act of distraction-free critical thinking is the goal of each session. As you build this practice, you’ll discover more and more benefits. If you respond to metrics, keep track of how many hours you’ve devoted to focus time.
Relect: After a month of focus time, allow yourself to think back on your process and progress. What worked? What would you do differently? What can you improve upon or adjust for the next month? If you have an executive assistant, share these findings with them so they can help you implement improvements.
Focus time doesn’t require equipment or specific technology. This is a practice you can incorporate into your personal working style to ensure you’re focusing on what is most important to you. Working with an assistant can help you make time for distraction-free thinking not only by helping to hold you accountable and protecting that time, but also by taking common distractions off your plate.
You can shape your focus time to fit your own needs, business goals, and career aspirations. By slowing down, you can speed up and make insightful decisions, gain perspective, and cultivate a way of thinking that will accelerate your business, your creativity, and your vision.