Reflections on #Lrnchat: FOCUS

Each week that I am able to participate in #lrnchat discussion I post a summary of the discussion to my blog. I do this both for my personal development as well as sharing with the Learning and Development Profession at large. This summary is based on my own interpretations of the chat; others who participated may have differing opinions or interpretations of the discussion. I welcome those that do to add your ideas to the comments.

The topic of this week’s #lrnchat session was “FOCUS”. 

I always find looking at the questions that are used to loosely guide the chat as a nice way to see the overall theme of the chat. Here are the discussion questions that were presented to the group:

Q1) How do we deal with pressures that distract us from the thing were supposed to do?
Q2) When is the right time for a guilty pleasure? When does the guilty pleasure become too much of a good thing?
Q3) How do we deal with (or get around) overworking?
Q4) How might you work with your circle of friends (online and offline) to stay on track?
Q5) What are the things you tend not to focus on in your work? What happens as a result?

Key Learning Points

In today’s fast-moving world, multi-tasking is constant.  Most people do not have the luxury of working or thinking about a single task or topic exclusively for any length of time.  Usually, we are revewing e-mail, conducting phone calls, sending text messages, and having lunch, all of which are peripheral things we do while working on the primary task at hand. 

To keep up with the demand, many people come in early, stay late, or bring work home.  If so, do we do it because we are passionate and enjoy the work, or do we do it just to keep up?  Everything has a tradeoff; more hours we put into work means fewer hours invested in something else, like family and friendships.  It becomes a question of priorities.
How can we narrow our focus to provide important tasks the attention they need?  How can we keep ourselves balanced in a world of ever-growing professional responsibility?  That was the subject of today’s #lrnchat discussion: Focus.
The discussion started with one of the biggest obstacles to focus: Distraction.  Distraction is the enemy of focus, so it makes sense that reducing distractions will increase focus.  There were a few comments in the chat discussion that mentioned ‘eliminating’ distractions; I don’t believe that’s possible.  The challenge is in the fact that distraction is not something we have complete control over.
What we can do is minimize distractions and the effect they have on our focus.  I believe this comes down to two major categories, both of which were mentioned during the chat: creating an environment that reduces the chance of being distracted and minimizing the impact a distraction has so you can quickly regain focus.
There were a number of great examples shared regarding creating an environment to reduce the chance of being distracted, including:
  • Dedicate (and publicize) time on your calendar where you should not be distracted.  The publicize part is critical – it only works if people are aware of it.
  • Complete the task in an environment away from the source of distractions.  For some, that me be working from home or at a different office.  For me – it’s Starbucks, the ultimate white-noise.
  • If you’re like me, and suffer from SOS (Shiny-Object-Syndrome), eliminate the sources of shiny-object distraction, whatever they may be. As an example, if I need to focus more, I turn off the notification pop-up on TweetDeck, which appear every time a tweet appears in one of my search columns. 
  • SIDE NOTE: (Your visual for this point should have me standing on a soapbox…) I could have mentioned the Outlook e-mail pop-up, as it was once my biggest SOS source.  That is it was, until I came to the realization that I could turn it off… and leave it off.  If you haven’t done this already, I highly recommend it as a productivity booster.  If the issue is important and requires your immediate attention, your phone should ring.
As much as you may try to set yourself up properly, distractions happen.  Minimizing the impact of distractions is critical to focus and productivity.  It’s also difficult, and requires discipline.
Whenever you are distracted, you have a choice to make.  That choice is, at its most basic level, to decide what to do with the distraction.  Let’s use the most common distraction as an example: The co-worker who comes to your desk and asks “Do you have a minute?” usually after they’ve already sat down.
This is really a moment of truth for your priorities and focus.  Do you choose to simply allow the interruption or refuse it outright?  The better option is probably somewhere in the middle.  There could be a genuine issue that warrants your immediate attention, so you may want to listen to see if that is the case.
Once you understand the cause of the distraction – and I think this is the hardest part of the discipline – you must decide if you will own it.  That’s hard.  I actually had someone come to me shortly after the #lrnchat discussion requesting my help with her project, which was overdue.  Facing a deadline myself, I explained that I could not help her now, and would be able to next week.  She protested (a kind understatement), and continued to protest until I made the following statement: “I’m sorry.  Poor planning from you does not warrant an emergency for me.”
You’ll notice I did not mention ignoring the distraction.  I’ve heard that suggested in the past, and it’s really not a valid strategy.  If ignoring the source of a distraction were an option, we wouldn’t be distracted in the first place.
One additional point: There were also a number of comments around prioritization being a strategy for mitigating distraction.  Prioritization is very important, but it does not have a direct link to distraction.  Priorities determine where our focus should be at any moment; distraction is when the focus is off. 
From there the discussion moved towards Guilty Pleasures, specifically when a good time to indulge in one may be, and when a guilty pleasure may be too much of a good thing.
I may be a little too black and white on this issue, but I really think all guilty pleasures, to some extent, are too much of a good thing.  The very definition states that you’re gaining pleasure yet feeling guilty about the pleasure you are receiving.  It implies that there’s some sort of tradeoff to your pleasure.  To answer the “when is it too much of a good thing”, you need to look at what the tradeoff is.
The discussion then moved on to how we deal with, and preferably avoid, overworking.  This question brings up another – what is ‘overworking’?
People often say that they are overworked because they are working too much. I think the productivity of work is too directly linked to the measurement of time.  Time is only one factor, and one that has one of the weakest links to overall output.  If your work is being measured by yourself or others with ‘time spent’ as the yardstick, you have in many ways already lost.  Your value and contribution should not be a measure of how busy you are. 
On the other hand, working longer periods of time does not mean you are overworked either.  If I’m working on a project, everything is flowing well and I am enjoying myself, am I overworked?  A number of people in this week’s discussion mentioned being so engaged in their work that they didn’t even realize how hungry they were until they finished.  Again, I do not feel this is overworked.  If you love what you are doing, and have the power to choose to stop but decide to continue, you are not overworked.
The only risk in that equation is balance.  That segues into the next question: How we can use our circle of friends to keep ourselves on track?
The idea of work/life balance was very prevalent in discussing this question.  The thing that is sometimes missed though is what ‘balance’ actually means.  Balance isn’t easily defined as it really is a moving target.  Not only is it different for each individual, it is different for the individual based on the circumstances of the moment.
I think the biggest hurdle for people related to balance is that they react to being out-of-balance instead of proactively setting a desired balance and maintaining it.
I know this has been a challenge for me.  I have a tendency to lose myself in my work.  At the same time, being a good father and husband is very important to me.  This usually caused problems for me because I would not really realize how out-of-balance I would get on the work side.  I usually became aware of it when my wife would bring it up, and then I would react to fix the balance.
Shifting to a proactive approach to balance requires two key components.  The first, is that the individual must make a conscious choice rearding where his or her priorities are.  Without this vision, you may not realize you are out-of-balance until the balance is very much off-kilter.
The second component is exactly what the question from #lrnchat is discussing: using your support network to keep you in balance.  However, your friends and family can only keep you in balance if they are aware of what your vision of balance is.  Without sharing that, your friends and family would be left to measure you by their own definition of balance, which may not be in sync with your own.
I knew this was a big shift for me.  Once I shared with my wife what my vision of balance was, she understood me better and is now my main back-up system for personal balance. 
The discussion concluded by asking what we tend not to focus on in our work.  It seems that most of the groupo would agree that grammar and proofreading tend to be the first things to be forgotten whe the work is getting done, and it is usually caught shortly after the content is published.
For me, I have such a tendency to lose myself in my work, that I often lose focus on the important social connections.  One of the things I keep conscious of in my relationships with is the phrase “Sorry, I’ve been busy”.  I don’t use it nearly as much as I used to, as I now know that what I’m really saying is “Sorry, I haven’t been staying true to my balance”.  I still fail at times, but I’m getting better.
I think the most thought-provoking tweet for me from the discussion came from @sifowler in response to this last question: “I don’t focus enough on my focus“.  Ultimately that’s the overriding challenge for many of us.

When it comes to FOCUS, I think the greatest factor – and most common theme during this discussion – is Self-Awareness.  If you have not taken the time to ensure you know what your priorities truly are, then you are left to react when circumstances throw your balance completely off.  That’s where focused discipline comes in.

It’s always easier to make minor adjustments to stay on track then to correct things after going completely off course.

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