Sometimes it seems like the workplace is designed to keep you doing anything besides, well…working. If you’re a manager, this is a serious problem because everything at work hinges on your ability to effectively lead your team. Still, distractions abound in most offices, from buzzing phones to watercooler chit-chat to the endless lure of surfing the web. With all this chaos, it’s difficult to achieve the intense state of concentration known as flow, where employees of all levels do their best work.
“Flow is a state of mind that occurs when all your conscious thought is focused on what you are doing,” said Julian Birkinshaw, coauthor along with James Manktelow of “Mind Tools for Managers: 100 Ways to Be a Better Boss.” “Unfortunately, in the modern workplace, flow can be difficult to achieve and maintain. As a result, you are a less productive manager and stay stressed out at work. But by weeding out typical office distractions and interruptions, you can improve your focus, get more done, and become a more effective manager.”
“Mind Tools for Managers” identifies the 100 skills that a manager can master to become a better leader. They were identified in a survey of 15,242 managers and professionals worldwide. This research was conducted by Manktelow, founder and CEO of MindTools.com, and Professor Birkinshaw, deputy dean for programs at London Business School. The authors provide practical advice for each of these skills — one of which is the ability to stay focused—and direct the reader to the MindTools website for a deeper dive into specific skill-building articles, worksheets, videos, and more.
Even if you’re one of the many managers struggling to maintain focus at work, you can achieve a state of flow — which was first described in detail by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — by managing or eliminating the distractions that pull you out of concentration. Keep reading to learn about some of the most common distractions managers and employees typically face at work (and how to deal with them), excerpted from the article “Minimizing Distractions: 10 Ways to Take Control of Your Day.”
FLOW BREAKER 1: The relentless presence of personal technology. Smartphones and now smartwatches have blurred the line between personal and professional communication. Now you can receive work emails and calls on the same device as private Facebook comments, Instagram photos, and an array of other personal information. The good news is, this is a challenge that you and your colleagues can effectively manage yourselves. When focusing on a particular piece of work, choose to put away your phones for a certain amount of time. That way you can devote your attention entirely to the project at hand.
FLOW BREAKER 2: Email, email, and more email. Many emails in your inbox are probably not particularly important, and yet you may feel you must look at them when they arrive. Instead, try these tactics:
- Schedule checking time. Turn off the alert that appears on your computer screen when you receive an email, and check and respond to messages at set times instead. This helps you manage your coworkers’, managers’, and customers’ expectations about how and when you will reply to them.
- Choose “low-productivity” times. There are likely certain times of the day when you do your best work, like first thing in the morning or maybe late at night. Schedule email check-ins for your less-productive times and save your peak hours for high-value work.
- Turn emails into actions. If you need more than a few minutes to read an email, add it to your to-do list.
FLOW BREAKER 3: Social media and web browsing. Both are major productivity killers. Trouble is, organizations can no longer block people’s access to websites that aren’t work-related—smartphones can easily get around this. So it’s up to you to use social media and the rest of the web responsibly. If it is acceptable within your organization, use a brief personal browsing session as a reward for an hour or two of high-quality, focused work.
FLOW BREAKER 4: Nerve-jangling phone calls. The ring of a phone often prompts an intense need to answer, even when you’re in deep concentration. To minimize this source of distraction for you and your team, consider arranging a rotation so that team members can take calls for one another. Also be sure to let friends and family know that you will be available for calls only at lunchtime or in the evening.
FLOW BREAKER 5: Distractions in your work environment. Rather than trying to ignore such distractions as strong cooking smells or loud colleagues, get away from the problem. Set yourself up in an empty meeting room to regain your focus. Or wear noise-canceling headphones or play “white noise” to blank out anything that would otherwise grab your attention.
FLOW BREAKER 6: Confusion due to overwhelming workload. Always try to have a manageable to-do list, because having one that’s too long can lead to procrastination, as you wonder which task to tackle next. Each day, commit to accomplishing the two most important tasks on your list, and put the rest on hold until tomorrow.
“In our study we found that 79.5 percent of managers view prioritizing tasks effectively as one of the most important planning and time management skills,” says Manktelow. “It is so important!”
FLOW BREAKER 7: Other people. Colleagues visiting your desk can be a big source of distraction, but you’re also a manager who wants to be available for your team members. So, if you don’t want to be disturbed at times when you need to focus on a task, consider either working at home or in a conference room. If you have your own office, close the door and tell your team that you need to be left alone to concentrate for a while.
FLOW BREAKER 8: Shortfalls in your own well-being. It takes a lot of mental and physical energy to juggle your priorities, manage visitors, and have the discipline to control your use of technology. So, it’s vital that you take care of yourself. Get plenty of sleep and make sure you drink enough water, as dehydration can make you feel tired and impact your thinking. It’s also important to get some fresh air and take a brisk walk during the day—this will energize you. And try to avoid heavy lunches and sugar-laden snacks, as they can lead to a slump in concentration later in the day.
“It’s easier than ever to lose track of what you should be doing at work, but you can still take steps to avoid distractions and improve flow,” concludes Birkinshaw. “Learning to better manage these ‘flow breakers’ is a valuable skill that can be practiced and sharpened over time. And when you can achieve flow more easily, you will not only become a better manager, but you’ll set a great example for your team as well.”
James Manktelow is founder and CEO of MindTools.com. He has written, edited, and contributed to more than 1,000 articles, more than sixty workbooks, and seven books and e-books on management and leadership, including Manage Your Time and Manage Stress.
Julian Birkinshaw is professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, deputy dean for programs, and academic director of the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School. He is the author of fourteen books, including Fast/Forward, Becoming a Better Boss, and Reinventing Management.