Focus and Productivity, Or Why Smart Leaders Shut the Blinds

vintage clock

Our first core value at Hoffer Plastics is family, which means that we want to treat each other like family members. This value grounds my leadership in the desire of wanting the best for those that I lead. Two topics, therefore, that interest me are focus and productivity.

New York Times columnist, Jennifer Senior, recently pointed out that “COVID has created an unending series of staccato pulses of two-minute activities.” These messages range from text, email, ZOOM, to in-person meetings. Not to mention phone notifications with the latest Facebook, sports, or other news updates (turning these off is a wise first step to what I am about to discuss). All these messages are interruptions that do not help with focus or productivity. Worse, they leave most feeling bogged down, frustrated, and unhealthy. 

Harvard Business Review (HBR) wrote an article in September about the costs of cognitive switching (i.e., what happens when our attention is diverted by some kind of interruption). HBR cited Gloria Mark, Professor of Informatics, at the University of California, Irvine, that it can take “23 minutes” for someone to get back to what they were doing after an interruption of more than 60 seconds. If you are doing a chore in your house and are interrupted by your spouse, this may be a little annoying but not detrimental (in fact, I would advise take the interruption with joy!). But, in an office space? This can be downright defeating if it happens often because it often leads to wasted time. 

And in the context of the COVID business world, it happens all the time! 

Don’t believe me? 

UBER began tracking the use of tools like ZOOM and Slack when COVID began. The same HBR article mentioned above shared the findings: 

  • A 40% increase in meetings 
  • A 45% increase in the average number of participants of meetings 
  • A greater than 3X increase in ZOOM meetings 
  • Approximately 30% decrease in focus time (defined as two-plus hours per day of UNINTERRUPTED (emphasis mine) time that can be dedicated to a task or project. 

The point of sharing all the data above is to drive home the reality of what we are all, to some extent, feeling – our attention is being diverted more frequently than ever, our focus time is decreasing, and often, so is our productivity. 

So, what are we going to do about it? 

Here is a non-exhaustive list of things I am both doing personally, and advising our team members to do: 

  • “Shut the blinds:” I close my office door, shut the blinds, and get focused work done. I encourage our leaders to do the same. Focused time almost always equals a better work product. 
  •  I encourage creators to get out of the office. For example, I have advised our product design engineer to work from home when he is working on a design. I do not want anyone interrupting him when he is working on something that requires deep thought. 
  • I challenge the “who,” which is in regard to who needs to be at the meeting. We are like most places in that we invite everyone to meetings. This is often costly. It is the leaders job to determine who should be there and who should not. 
  • I am reducing standing meetings by half in terms of time. 
  • I am meeting more (not less!) in person one-on-one (albeit for shorter durations). This actually saves time because it lessens text messages/calls/and emails. Clear communication (in person) is more productive than any other kind.
  • I fight the urge to skip meetings because a shorter meeting reduces time for later, whereas skipping the meeting slows the pace and often comes with a negative ROI in terms of time/energy/work later. 
  • I set timers on my phone for distracting technology like social media. I advise others to do the same. 
  • I model the end of the workday by not responding to non-emergency emails around the clock. I have discovered that this lessens the amount of time others need to spend replying to me. 
  • I also model the Sabbath (both weekly and on vacation) by not responding to messages all the time. It is my job to model the behavior of rest. 
  • I have communicated that on vacation people should call me for an emergency, text me for something I should probably know but is not an emergency, and email me if it is an FYI. All other messages can wait. And no email sent is expected to get a reply. 
  • I model this last behavior back. I have yet to call a single person while they have been on vacation.  
  • I celebrate our team’s vacations. I wish them well, and remind them NOT to be on email. My motives are mostly pure, but I also realize if their spouse hates our business because we always nag them during non-work hours, the respective team member might leave. Actually, they probably should. 

While this list is not exhaustive, it is a sampling of actions leaders can take to model, and encourage, focus in the workplace. 

Your job now is to create, model, and share your own so that your team increases focus and productivity.