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focus - a simplicity manifesto in the Age of Distraction by Leo Babauta

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managers transforming office culture

3: managers transforming office culture

If you’re an employee with little control over your schedule, there might not be too many ideas for finding focus that you can implement during your work day. In that case, I suggest you 1) implement what you can; and 2) buy a copy of this book for your manager and/or upper management, and especially point them to this chapter.

The rest of this chapter is for management: CEOs, vice presidents, supervisors, middle managers, small employers. Bosses of all kinds. Anyone who controls the schedules of others, or has influence on the policies and office culture that determine how people work.

The Problem: Modern offices pride themselves on efficiency and productivity, but the truth is they are busy, hectic, overwhelming places (in general). Employees often work in cubicles that are surrounded by distractions, they are constantly interrupted by emails, IMs, texts, calls, notifications, calendar requests, people walking over to talk to them, outbursts in the office, meetings.

These distractions destroy focus. They lead to stress, to information overload. They fragment an employee’s day and attention, so that it becomes an extremely bad environment for creating, for focusing on what’s truly important, for producing incredible work.

Busywork isn’t important work. While an employee can be busy for 10 hours a day, keeping up with all the emails and calls and meetings and nonstop requests, they might spend the day getting nothing done of any real importance. What matters is creating, is producing the next great thing that will become the cornerstone of your business, is improving the quality of your product so that the customer takes notice, is providing truly great service. Busywork isn’t what matters, and yet it interrupts us and consumes all of our time and attention.

The Solution: Create an environment where focus is possible.

There are many such environments, but to give you a picture of what’s possible:

  • The employee comes in, sits down, and figures out what matters most for today. What are the 3-5 tasks that most need to get done, that will make the most difference for the company or organization? No checking email or voicemail at this point — just quiet, and focus.
  • He then sits down and, with a completely clear desk, blocks out all distractions — no phones or other mobile devices, no email, no notifications, nothing to disrupt. He works on the first task on the list.
  • Later, he might go through email and voicemail and process everything that needs to be quickly processed, for 30 minutes or so.
  • During the day, his focus is completely on the tasks that matter most. Very few meetings or calls interrupt these tasks.
  • At the end of the day, the employee might have a short meeting with you, just to review the day, go over any problems, and perhaps agree on tomorrow’s important tasks. Meetings should be held to a minimum, as they are time-consuming and can interrupt the time needed to focus on important tasks. They should also be kept as short as possible.

This is obviously just one way of creating a focused environment, but it won’t work for everyone. There are lots of ideas that might help create such an environment, including but not limited to:

  • Email-free Mondays: Everyone is free from email — banned from email in fact — for an entire day, and must work on something really important. Email-free afternoons or mornings are other ideas.
  • Headphones: Allow employees to wear headphones to block out distractions.
  • Let employees work from home one or two days a week, reporting at the end of such days what they got done. Allow them to work without the distractions of the office, and see what happens.
  • Shut down the Internet for a couple hours a day. Disconnecting might seem alarming, but it will allow people to focus and get a lot done. If they know it’ll happen at a certain time each day, they’ll get the tasks done that require the Internet before that time, and prepare for the time of disconnection.

However you do it, creating an environment of focus rather than distraction and busywork will breathe new life into your organization.

Transforming Culture: The next question becomes how you go from the current office culture and environment to one of focus. This isn’t easy — whether you don’t have completely control over the company (you’re a mid- or low-level manager) or you are in charge but must deal with inertia and ingrained habits.

Some ideas:

  1. Give out a copy of this book. You can freely distribute the free version of this book, which is uncopyrighted, or buy the digital package once and distribute it electronically to the rest of your organization, or buy multiple copies of the print book to hand out. It’s a great place to start, to get everyone on the same page.
  2. Talk about it. Simply start a conversation, with your colleagues, bosses, team members. Talk about the problems of distractions and finding focus, and see what ideas emerge.
  3. Institute small changes. There’s no need to drastically overhaul culture overnight. Start small, with a simple but powerful change, such as: instituting a no email, no meetings, no distractions period for one hour at the start of every day.
  4. Keep pushing for small changes: reducing the number of meetings, having no-email or no-Internet hours during the day, holding retreats where people work in a monk-like, distraction-free, quiet environment, encouraging people to switch off phones and use headphones during parts of their day, suggesting that people set two or three times a day when they check email and that they don’t check email at other times, etc.

Over time, things can change, but be patient, be encouraging, be positive. And most of all, lead by example.


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