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Survival of the Focused

Image © Gensler

After a 10-year research and design party celebrating collaboration, focus is starting to get some much-deserved attention. On-going coverage in the media, and books like Susan Cain’s “Quiet” and Daniel Goleman’s “Focus: the Hidden Driver of Excellence,” are putting focus back on center stage as a desired, valuable, but endangered work activity.

The increasing criticality of focus is almost ironic. For most of human history being prone to distraction is what ensured our survival. Handy physiological traits like keen hearing and peripheral vision ensured we were aware of not just what was happening in front of us, but what was happening beside us or behind us, as well. No matter how deep in thought, our finely tuned senses alerted us to potential danger.

But in the modern working world, the survival paradigm is almost a complete flip. Focus in its many forms—thinking, dreaming, creating, analyzing, composing, imagining, solving—are critical to success in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. The dig is that we’re still stuck in bodies hardwired as distraction detectors.

And we’ve been busy designing technologies that extend our distraction. Be it constant emails or IM’s, noisy coworkers, constant meetings, a buzzing overhead light, someone’s phone beeping, or the thousand other things that disrupt concentration, it’s now a challenge just to get a clear, clean thought in at the office.

The negative effects are felt not just in focus, but in other work activities. Our own research has shown that when focus isn’t effectively supported, people actually collaborate less, learn less and even socialize less. The status quo is not good enough. There is a real impetus to rethink how we behave at work, the role technology plays in affecting workplace productivity, and the spaces we need to be get our jobs done.

At Gensler, we are currently researching how the built environment can not only support focus, but help it flourish in a modern work environment, and strike a balance with collaboration and technology. The mandate to collaborate isn’t going away, nor are email, social media, and other 21st century agents of distraction. Integrating them into the workplace in a manner that increases individual productivity rather than disrupting it is the challenge we as workplace designers and consultants want to take on.

To complement our research, we are interested in learning how you focus. How do you tune out distractions at work? What are your most effective strategies when you are faced with a deadline and absolutely need to concentrate?

Let us know. Hit us up on Twitter, Facebook and in the comments section below.

What do you do to focus? #focusonfocus

Gervais Tompkin
Gervais Tompkin chooses to be optimistic. He thrives on collaborations with others and is more likely to diagram it than talk about it. His practice as a leader of Gensler’s consulting practice allows him to work with interesting people on worthy problems globally. Contact him at gervais_tompkin@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (10)

Reading and responding to emails as soon as they pop up in my inbox can be a great distraction at times. When a specific task requires full attention, I make it a point to read & respond to emails first thing in the morning, at lunch and before I leave the office. That makes the biggest difference for my productivity and being able to focus on current tasks.
11.12.2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyner Grubmueller
Hi. A global topic...and an almost weekly one in the mainstream media (as evidenced in FastCo just last week where there were TWO editors writing on the topic; one for open office, the other against. I'm running a company developing a suite of HW & SW solutions to the improvement of productivity through mgmt of distractions and interruptions at the individual and group level. Our product video is here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zld7Lk1jtkk. check it out see if there is a fit.
11.21.2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Chipperton
1) For things like email, twitter, linkedin and similar platforms, I think it is important to have a routine. For example checking emails at set times during the day. If working on something specific then just having the discipline not to break away for the sake of checking emails, twitter or blog posts is important. It's tempting just to have a "quick" check, but it's a slippery slope. Discipline!

2) Depending on your work environment it may be beneficial to have a "focused work" area that you use when you need to get some "head's down" undistracted work done. It's not necessarily the place that is (hopefully) conducive to undistracted work, but also the mindset that you adopt when you are there.

3) Be careful when seeking out a "quiet" place to work. Unless you are working in a room all alone, quiet places are actually hard to find. In a "quiet working room", there is ALWAYS going to be someone who has a different interpretation of quiet actually means. They may think nothing of taking a short phone call in a hushed tone, but the effect on surrounding co-workers is detrimental. A single voice or conversation in an otherwise quiet room is difficult to ignore! Counter-intuitively, it is usually better to find a place where there are people actually milling about, chatting, taking phone calls etc. That activity acts as white noise and is actually very conducive to getting focussed work done!

So listen up, workplace designers! If you are going to create "quiet", "focussed-work" areas -be sure to enforce the "quiet" otherwise it is not going to be as effective.

4) If you find yourself getting distracted. [Must...check....must check email....cannot resist.....], then you are having problems concentrating on the task at hand. Go do something else for a while. Go take a walk, come back refreshed. Or change your posture. Move to a different desk. Shake things up a bit. You'll be surprised. Sometimes taking your laptop to a coffee shop for 30 minutes works wonders.
11.22.2013 | Unregistered CommenterEssan Soobratty
Thanks Ryner, Paul and Essan...your posts echo some of our recent research findings, that focus is as much situational as it is environmental. Also I am intrigued by the idea that by augmenting ourselves with technology we have massively extended our senses and expanded our distraction potential.

I line with your comments about email/technology tools as a distraction. My new favorite strategy is to use my calendar as a focus-offensive. I am blocking out my calendar with how I believe I should spend my time (with appropriate amounts of head down time to do my focus work). This causes me to negotiate with others, and myself, when sacrificing focus time for meeting time. I have also abandoned task lists. Instead of writing something on a task list I put it on my calendar, if I don't have time to do the task then I need to rethink whether the task is important or not...if it is, it gets the time.

No one mentioned work process...experimenting with how you work with your teams and colleagues. Any experiments working out there?
11.26.2013 | Unregistered CommenterGervais Tompkin
As a freshman at Gensler (3 months into the job), this post is very timely. I have been talking about my difficulty in focusing since arriving. Coming from a workplace of six (people) the sheer numbers of co-workers in the office has me distracted all day. Not that I don't try to put my head down and focus in, but then - someone walks by and I notice their scarf, someone has a phone call two desks away that I can't help overhearing, an announcement comes over the P.A., someone sneezes and startles me, someone walks up to get my opinion on someting. I enjoy the human interaction, just maybe too much, and truthfully, that may be why I am so easily distracted... because I don't want to miss anything that's happening around me.

My recommendation, actually my dream solution, would be for a sound proof "cone of silence" to descend from the ceiling and surround me at my desk. Then I would clearly be "off the grid" to my co-workers, in a quiet space, and able to focus. Can you see it? Everyone could have their own cone, and when they are up we're available, when they are down, we mean business. It's a little bit old sci-fi-esque, but is it something that could be considered conceptually?

My only retreat at this point is to escape the din with my headphones on, but invariably I get a call, or someone is waving at me to focus on them, and my retreat into sound is foiled. All of this is just environmental stimuli, and doesn't include the aforementioned e-mail train, and rounds of meetings. So far, I still have to take work home to get everything accomplished.

I'm very interested in staying informed as your research continues. Keep me in the loop!
12.1.2013 | Unregistered CommenterCynthia Hall
Cynthia makes a good point. Proximity plays a big role. A lot of colleagues work late because they can't focus 'until everyone else goes home'.

I find lack of movement plays a big role for me. If I stay in one place for too long, I'm more easily distracted. I think well when I'm moving locations or moving at all. (An arguement for joining the mobility program...)

One of our adjunct sedentary studies showed that when participants maintained a certain caloric intake, but were asked not to exercise, they began moving around the workplace more - up and down stairs, to coffee/water, to socialize. Some distractions are cravings to get up and move!

The more I break up my work day, go for a walk at lunch, work in the library for the afternoon, etc, the better I focus and perform.
12.4.2013 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia Hyde
You've stirred up quite a discussion here, which of course has now distracted me from my task list.....but hey, you're worth it!

I think the key to 'productive survival' in today's hyper-connected and distraction-adled workplace is a combination of both personal and team/ colleague self-discipline. We can choose to be distracted by the (multiple) distractions in today's workplace - both electronic and personal - or we can choose ways in which we can somehow 'zone out' of the distractions and give ourselves much needed headspace. But this has to be an overt behavioural change adopted by the team too. If the individual is zoning him/herself out of the community of colleagues in an office without the implicit understanding that 'this is OK' then they will be brandished a maverick, or social deviant, rather than 'well, this is how we do things around here'.

I firmly believe that the next big shift in the Workplace environment is a behavioural one. Yes, we need to design a variety of spaces to be able to accommodate these different activities, but we need to shift the thinking way beyond 'time at desk' as a unit of producvity and more toward tasks getting done when they are needed.

The glacial change in this behaviour is frustrating, but I guess understandable. We are trying to change at least 3 Generations of deeply ingrained modes of how to 'work in an office' in just a few years; but Technology is forcing the pace of change upon us and we need to adapt to survive.......something we Humans are pretty good at after all!!

Stay focused.....but not isolated from your colleagues.
01.2.2014 | Unregistered Commenterphilip tidd
This post and discussion even had me distracted while I'm still meant to be 'away from it all'. It's an interesting topic and I'm sure Philip and others are right that the answer will be about relearning how to work effectively in different ways for different tasks. In the past I guess focus was easy and communication difficult. So we had to learn how to improve our capacity for communication and our openness to new people and ideas. Now communication is so easy - and so attractive - we have to learn how to shut out distractions and concentrate. The great thing about the environments and technologies we use now is that we're not stuck with trying to do all our work in one place. We can choose the right place for the job - both in the office building and away from it. I think the real challenge will be learning how to balance concentration and interaction in a way that allows both to flourish. Space design can help enormously, but only if understand better what spaces are good for and have the freedom and will to exercise choice about where and how to work.
01.2.2014 | Unregistered CommenterBridget Hardy
Ways to encourage focus in office spaces are really significant. I work in the helping field. We used to get our own offices, Now open plan offices are all the go. I really enjoy the camaraderie, but I get distracted so easily and I am much less focused and productive. In the last few years I have had to hot desk across multiple offices. It's amazing what a difference I feel in those offices 1) where I have my own permanent locked pedestal to move to wherever in the office I am based that day, 2) where my name is permanently on the paper & pen in/out register, 3) where there is a large enough comfortable place to sit for lunch & coffee with others, 4) where there are windows on at least two sides of rooms, 4) where there are plenty of easily accessible breakout rooms for meetings, phone calls & concentrated individual work, and 5) where the desk I am working at is clean, uncluttered, provides a sense of containment, and is big enough for me to spread out for the day. In these types of work environments I am so much more productive. Even better when my workplace provides an easily portable computing device.
01.3.2014 | Unregistered CommenterSharon Louise
Understanding and Attaining threshold state of doing anything is really important and decreasing the efforts to achieve it is development. Focus is a state, which constitutes senses, behavior, environment and Time. All we need to figure out is our commitment either under stress or not.
01.13.2014 | Unregistered CommenterSawan Arya

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