Analytical 9: Focus

30 December, 2016


When you’re trying to get something done, John’s Hierarchy of Focus is how I shut out the noise and get things done.

Transcript available
[Music] Everything can be improved, iterated and refined. And if you don't think that's true, maybe you haven't analysed it enough. Calculated choices, carefully considered, absolutely analytical. Analytical is part of the Engineered Network. Support our shows, including this one, one, head over to our Patreon page and for other great shows, visit today. I've been working on this idea, a hierarchy of focus, John's hierarchy of focus, I guess you could call it that. It all started with one of my favorite quotes from Steve Jobs, "Focus means saying no." And the context that he was mentioning that in was more related to products and features for those products. Our time is precious. Time is precious. It goes before you know it. And that's what's buried within that statement. So if you can classify productive time in an organisational context, let's say group work, maybe, how would you group that? Because I think there's about four different time groupings as in an average day, you could, time would fall into one of these buckets in terms of productive time. So, you've got collaborative time, like meetings, group discussions, that sort of thing. You participate a little, you absorb a little, participate some more, absorb some more, collaborative time. Then there's planning time, and that's usually the individual, planning what needs to be done sometimes, consulting with others. But generally, it's a solo task. Then there's consulting time, obtaining information and direction from specific individuals. That is, you know, you're disrupting others to further a requirement that you have upon yourself, but you need to consult with others, specific other people in order to deliver it. That's the consultation piece. But the last one is lockdown time, and that's purely an individual with full focus on a task, a specific task at hand with minimal distraction. The others, they're interesting, but not as interesting, at least not for this episode. I really want to focus on lockdown for a time, but we'll circle back to that as we get closer to the end. Getting back to focus, though, for a few minutes and how it relates as a principle, I mean, basically speaking, I think it's very handy as a way of cutting through the myriad distractions and deprioritisations and reprioritisations and prioritisations. So, for me, you know, saying no to something to get focus, no applies on every level, you know, well, I mean, it can apply on every level if you want it to. Apart from the distractions that come from your own biology, such as lack of sleep or not enough stimulants or too many stimulants, probably, basic bodily functions? Leave that one there and so on and so on. You know, let's cut that out of this discussion. I'm not interested. It exists. We acknowledge it. Everyone deals with that. It's fine. Not interesting. What you consume does affect your focus as well, you know, but again, a well-balanced diet, being fit and healthy, that helps your focus too. But this isn't a healthy eating or exercising podcast, it really, really, really isn't. So let's focus on the single biggest source of distraction Once you take all that other stuff away Distractions that deviate you from your focus come essentially in the form of communication Now, if you cut away and block out the entire world from the task at hand You end up with that conclusion that all distractions beyond self-distraction and procrastination are from communication So let's focus on communication distractions to our focus So these days there is an ever increasing number of distractions And we have, I suppose, I like to think four levels of communicative distraction There's good old fashioned email, instant notifications or IMs, instant messages If you'd like before call them IMs, that works, phone calls and I suppose that includes FaceTime, but in any case, and then there's In Your Face Now, these are the ones I'd like to rank in terms of a hierarchy of focus where four is the least distracting, which is where we'll begin, and one which is the highest, most distracting kind of distraction So if you're a one, it's hard to escape Let's start at the bottom, email, number four. Email was the first really major use of networking for businesses in particular. Being around for decades, it was originally sort of intended to replace office memos. Now, for those of us who have been working long enough, there were these things called in trays and out trays on people's desks, you know, just a tray with sides on it, usually made out of like, you know, plastic or wood, I guess. Anyway, and you'd have these memos and you could have a carbon copy sheet or multiple carbon copy sheets with other layers of paper underneath. And as you wrote down, press down hard on your ballpoint pen, you know, you'd leave a mark on the carbon copies. And so you'd write this memo, "Hello, Bob, please stop writing memos. Sincerely, John." And then you'd go and send, put physical copies of your memo, the original and the carbon copies on those desks in their inboxes or sorry in trays in trays for those people that you carbon copied. So the electronic form of that was so easy to send to multiple people that's exactly what happened. People just copied everyone even if they weren't directly affected. I mean here's here's a hypothetical example. Oh I should just copy Bob. He was involved that project two years back. He might be interested in today's information. Oh I know I should copy my boss just so he knows what's going on FYI. Sounds fine. Plus the person I'm sending it to, to their boss, their project manager and the other developer and blah blah blah blah blah and oh my god I just sent it to 20 people. Thanks. Now I get about 75 emails in my work inbox alone every day, most of which don't require response. I'm just copied as an FYI. But the problem is every single one of them I do need to read it and comprehend it and then decide if I've got to do something with it. And that takes time. And that distracts me from my focus, time I can't burn because I'm trying to focus. So turning off email for me looks like muting all notifications from my iPad, my iPhone, my laptop, and ultimately it means I can't see if emails are coming through in real time. And that's the point. It's down to my own nerves, I suppose, to not, to resolve to not check my emails. Because I could still look, the icon's just there. Just got to click on it, just got to click on it. Nope. Fight the urge. Avoid that habitual refresh of my inbox and my email. But, you know, is that OK? Because I think most people expect emails aren't real-time communication, so they don't expect a response immediately, even if they set an important flag on the email, the big red exclamation mark, like who cares? Does that really make a big difference? I mean, if I get five emails a day like that, I just, you know, it's become a devalued identifier, but never mind that. So if I don't respond for a day, it's probably okay, if I don't respond for a few days, it's probably annoying maybe to those people who did have urgent-ish emails. If I don't respond to a for a week, it's probably pushing the friendship a little bit there but overall it's okay. The risk of offending people is relatively low because expectations have been set early on but the benefit of eliminating that distraction is great and it's real and the more email you get generally, the more gain you'll get from turning off your email. For a lot of people though, it's a hard habit to break. Let's talk about instant messages or instant notifications. Number three on our list. There are so many different messaging platforms out there these days. I'm not gonna list them all. I don't even think I could if I tried. So I'm not gonna try, just not gonna do it. I'll list the big ones, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Tinder. Maybe, just depends on you, I suppose. I mean, instant messages sent directly to you, not Bob the Builder just built another dodgy house and posted a stupid photo of the house. Like it just that's so annoying, God, I don't know, really I don't care about Bob's house and it's a stupid photo, whatever I'm not counting email notifications, Alex, we kind of talked about them There's a difference when you get a personally directed message It's a cut above just an email and it's generally shorter to the point one, one would hope to the point and it's directed specifically to you It's personal, you know, and there's more of an expectation that you're going to respond You know, it's fine, right? It's just a, it's just like a really quick verbal conversation, you know Except you're typing and typing requires more cognitive load than it, than talking does, at least for most people, and when you think you're done with a conversation, it doesn't mean you are So you're like, see you later, you type and hit send and think that's the end of it, you put your phone down you start refocusing on what you're going to do and then it's another message back. Oh stop what you're reading pick up your phone have a look at it and probably respond again and blah again and around and around we go. Now if you don't respond to an instant message in a little while there's I guess it's kind of two flavors. There's systems of instant messaging that track when you've read the message and there's others where the other person doesn't know that you've read their message. So if you can turn off those read receipts, do it, just do it It just makes you look like a jerk when you've read the message They know you've read the message, but you choose not to respond You know, turn it off, leave it off, the read receipts, just leave it off Set those expectations early on in your texting relationship And you'll thank me later for that one If, assuming you've done that and someone instant messages you you choose not to respond, what's the damage? Well, in a few minutes, they'll probably forget about it anyway. In a day, it's ancient history. It'll annoy people more, I suppose, if you ignore their email, but not too much, especially if you turn off your read receipts first. Jeez, I don't know. So how to turn that off is just like email. Take the applications instant messaging you and turn off their notifications or if there's too many switches to switch off, to mute them just on your device, just go to do not disturb mode. that pretty much every device these days has got a blanket, do not disturb, but you get no notifications. Now the risk of offense I think is slightly higher than an email, but not by too much. The benefit of that eliminated distraction is great and it's just as real as email. And it's actually worse, especially for a lot of younger people that have grown up with messaging at their fingertips. So for me, being an older guy, I started out with ICQ and that was kind of where it all started to go wrong, I think for instant messaging. And now it's just everywhere. Everything's got instant messaging built into it. The more instant messages you get generally, the more you're gonna gain from turning those off. For a lot of people though, this is actually a harder habit to break than shutting out email. It feels that little bit more personal and it's a little bit more difficult to let go of it. Gonna talk about phone calls, that's number two. People, yes, people still make phone calls. Yes, they do. It's been around for a hundred years. When the phone rings, you answer it. But only in the last 30 or so years has it been impossible to call you wherever you go, wherever you are, any time of the day or night. That level of accessibility is very hard for a lot of people to resist. So, it's above text messaging because it's like tap, tap, tap, ring, ring, ring, "Are you there?" And they're kind of testing that instinct. You know, "Am I going to let the phone ring? Do I answer that?" Of course, there's always the option to send it to voicemail. And if you're trying to avoid people, then send them to voicemail, I guess. Either when they call, you know, you, what do they call it? Call screening. That's what they call it. Or you could just divert them all to voicemail, I suppose. Either way though, it's problematic because, you know, you'll start to get offended. I mean, you'll start to offend other people if you just divert all the calls to voicemail all the time, especially if it's your boss, because it's a blind forward. You don't know who it is. I mean, there's an expectation in business that whilst emails and instant messages might not require an immediate response, if I call twice or three times, then it's urgent and I probably need you to pick that phone up and answer it. That said, the phone ringing suggests they're not in the same room as you, which means they can't technically tell if you're there or not looking at the phone ring. For people who get lots of phone calls, I mean, I'll get about an average of 20 on an average workday, for example. It gets quite frustrating when you're trying to concentrate. If you answer that phone, then you're stuck with a conversation. And you know, I don't mind conversations, but let's just go through this. We're going to have a conversation now, you and me. Let's go. Let's do the pleasantries. Good morning. Hi, how you doing? Nice weather we're having, blah, blah, blah. Then you get onto the nut of what they actually want from you. Once you've figured that out, you need to try and answer them or try to give them what want or what they need or if you can't give it to them on the spot then you have to make a commitment that you'll get them something that they want or that they need at some point in the future and then you end up committing to a timeline or a deadline or blah blah blah. Then there's usually a few more pleasantries, well it's been great talking blah blah blah and then hang up and hopefully that's the end of that and they don't call you back. Once you've finished with the phone call usually you end up making a couple notes if you hadn't and taking them during the phone call, set up a couple of reminders. Oh, wait, here comes the next phone call. See, I have a policy that I'll answer calls when I'm not in a business critical meeting. So I have answered phone calls in meetings if I don't think they're business critical. If I'm not in training or giving training, which I often do as well, if I'm on call no matter what or when, I will always answer the phone because, well, I'm on call that week, so I got to. It's part of the job. And it's during business hours, I will answer that call. subject to the previous criteria. Now, your list of rules is probably going to vary. That's just what I do, but you know, when I put myself into a self-imposed lockdown, that I'll talk more about in a minute, I only answer if it's my boss or if it's about a pressing issue that I'm already aware of. I'll also send the rest of voicemail. I'll call screen them, right? I know who these people are. I know their phone numbers. I will send them the voicemail, and if they don't leave a voicemail, I won't call them back because if it was important, they would have left a voicemail. So I think people get very annoyed if you repeatedly and consistently ignore just their specific phone calls, but it's also relative to your position. I find that people with higher positions in companies get cut a lot more slack and the lower you are in the hierarchy, the more the expectation there is that you'll just drop everything and answer that phone. So I think repeatedly screening calls from the same person carries a definite risk you're going to offend that person since there's no chance to provide context for that person as to why you're not answering the call. But generally, it's just not much more offensive than ignoring instant messages. And there's a huge saving in terms of focus to be had in sending all of your calls to voicemail. But if you do, I think I'd advise some caution and that's why I kind of prefer call screening and then I'll regularly check my voicemails just as a bit of a better balance And so now we're down to In Your Face number one And sometimes I call it cubicle bombing They're not literally bombing, clearly, figuratively and even that's not a really good figurative example, anyway For added impact, these people don't just wander up to your cubicle. Sometimes they hunt in packs. That's right. The more, the merrier, right? Two, three, four people show up at your cubicle. Wow, you can't ignore that, can you? There you are, minding your own business, being totally productive, presumably. Trying to get that work done and they stand there and they look at you, tap you on the shoulder, they talk loudly next to you. They know that you know that they're there, but they're pretending that they don't know that you know that they're there so they're just going to stand there and just edge closer glare a little bit maybe maybe even grind their teeth or you know loud cough, loud breathing, you know, crack knuckles, something, anything just to get your attention but you already know they're there you're just ignoring them hmm thing is we're social animals and we really typically don't like to offend other people I mean I guess there's some people that just love to do that but you know generally we don't right We don't. If you're like me, you tend to wear your emotions on your sleeve, though for me that's as much a conscious choice as it has become a habit. I think that most people need to know that you're busy and you can't really talk, but rather than come across as impatient or disinterested, I'm getting more direct in my old age. I'll just be firm and say, "I need to finish this email report whatever for insert name of important person here. So can I drop by and see you later or something like that? Most people are going to respect that but it won't take long and yeah, sure it won't and there you are an hour of your time or longer is just gone with that conversation. Some people think that work is just going and talking to other people. Sorry to break it to you, that's not really work for 99% of the workforce I'd say, pretty much any, pretty much of the time really in any given day. And even if you might say, "Oh, well, what if you're in human resources?" Well, that's not really true either since there's plenty of paperwork and data entry that they do as well. So then there are the ones that just won't leave no matter what you say, no matter what you do. And I'm not saying I've tried all of these, but here's a few things I've seen other people pull to get around those sorts of people. Faking, getting a phone call on your mobile. Seen that happen quite a few times. Needing to visit the restroom, washroom, bathroom, doesn't matter what you call it, It's the same thing. Don't really need to go, but you gotta go. Anyway, having a help me sound or gesture or something and your cubicle mate has clued in on this. You've prepped them beforehand and you said, "If I make this sound, come and rescue me. "It's important, it's urgent. "You gotta get me now." And get them to come and help. I haven't actually done that one, but I've seen people do it. It's kind of cool. I'm priceless. Nevermind that. People generally come to see you though, these days, I find, as a last resort, not the first. Didn't used to be that way, but it is now. And that's both good and bad. It's good because it means you've got a hierarchy to go through before you end up at visiting the cubicle, but it's bad because it means that people show up and there's an absolute expectation you will drop what you're doing. And the truth is I've found if they can find you, just ignoring them is going to offend them and telling them to go away will probably also offend them. So, if you need focus rather than offend these people, you just need to find a way to make yourself harder to find. And that's the truth, you know. So, I've thought about this a lot, what is it about distractions when you're trying, when you're in lockdown, you're trying to get work done? What is it that annoys me so much? Because this annoys me so much. It's like when someone needs something from you, it's all about them It's about what they want, about what they need It's not about making your life easier My life isn't gonna be made easier, it's gonna be made harder What do you need from me today, you know? Why are you here? Because that's all they do They distract you from the task that you care about The task that you have either a KPI or a metric Your boss has asked you to do something You have to deliver stuff too. You're not just there to be the answer all person, you know So they're distracting you from the tasks that you care about They make you refocus on the task that they care about And the truth is that when they distract you, they almost always win and you almost always lose And the flip side is pretty clear as well What about when you need something from someone else? Do you have the right to distract them? I mean, if you do, because they're the nominated person, then what's the right way to do it? Put the shoe on the other foot and think about it, don't be a jerk, you know It's food for thought, and I think that if you need to get something done and you need to focus you need to say no and put yourself into a lockdown, self-imposed lockdown That's what I think you should do, because you eliminate the distractions that are going to cause you the minimal amount of offense to other people and maximize your potential for distraction-free time which is what you need for focus. So I suggest the following. One, get out of the office or if you can't find a quiet place outside of the office, then find a quiet place somewhere in the office but somewhere where you don't normally go and people don't think to go and look for you, you know. Find a quiet spot to work without distraction because if they can't find you, they can't get in your face. Screen your phone calls. That's number two. Don't just send them all to voicemail but screen them. If they're important from someone important, then answer them. And if it is from someone important but it's not urgent, then find out early in the phone call and try and get it over with as quickly as you can because that just distracted you from your focus. Now go to, the third one is obvious, instant messaging. Just go to do not disturb on your device or turn off your instant messaging notifications because that's a huge distraction. And then finally, turn off or don't and don't check your email. It's not an or, it's an and. Don't check it. I know you want to check it. Don't check it. Now, even if you don't do them all, do as many as you can in that hierarchy. Because in the end, focus does mean saying no. And it really does mean saying no on all levels And sometimes it means saying no without saying it at all And making yourself unavailable for a period of time Even a short period of time That's all you need to get the focus you need to get that job done If you're enjoying Analytical and you want to support the show You can like one of our backers, Chris Stone He and many others are patrons of the show via Patreon, and you can find it at or one word. So, if you'd like to contribute something, anything at all, it's all very much appreciated. Accept nothing, question everything. It's always a good time to analyze something. I'm John Chirgy. Thanks so much for listening. [Music] [MUSIC]
Duration 25 minutes and 7 seconds Direct Download

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John Chidgey

John Chidgey

John is an Electrical, Instrumentation and Control Systems Engineer, software developer, podcaster, vocal actor and runs TechDistortion and the Engineered Network. John is a Chartered Professional Engineer in both Electrical Engineering and Information, Telecommunications and Electronics Engineering (ITEE) and a semi-regular conference speaker.

John has produced and appeared on many podcasts including Pragmatic and Causality and is available for hire for Vocal Acting or advertising. He has experience and interest in HMI Design, Alarm Management, Cyber-security and Root Cause Analysis.

You can find him on the Fediverse and on Twitter.