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

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the problem of others

2: the problem of others

In a perfect world, you could learn to beat the urges that defeat you and create an environment of focus … and just focus. But we live and work in a world with other people, and that can make finding focus difficult.

Often, our lives aren’t completely under our control. Sometimes, others can stand in our way, or just make things tough. Often other people can make a big impact on our ability to simplify and create. Let’s take a look at some of those types of situations, and some solutions that can help.

Service industries

If you work in a service industry, finding focus by cutting out all distractions might seem impossible. After all, you have to respond to customers pretty much immediately, and ignoring them in person or not responding to their calls or emails isn’t really an option. Someone in the service industry must be on their toes, and work non-stop, often multitasking the whole time.

Sure, but there are some choices:

  1. While you’re serving customers, do only that. Don’t also deal with other problems, if possible, or work on other tasks. Be in the moment as much as possible, dealing with each customer while fully present. You’ll do a better job for the customer and connect much more deeply on a human level. It’s hard to do well on a customer call if you’re also dealing with emails, or serve a customer in person well if you’re also looking at your iPhone.
  2. Try to serve one customer at a time. This isn’t always possible either, but when you can do it, it’s much better — for the customer and for your sanity levels. Deal with one customer’s email at a time, one call at a time, one customer in person at a time. When possible.
  3. Find some time on the job for focus. If you have other things to do than deal directly with customers, try to separate the two responsibilities, so that you can deal with customers during one part of your day and find focus during another part of your day. Even if it’s just for 30-60 minutes, clearing distractions can make a big difference.
  4. Find ways to reduce the load. While customer problems and requests are always important, there are ways to reduce the demands on your time. Automating is a good example — allow people to order or file something online, for example, instead of filing the orders with you manually, or find other online solutions to the things you handle on a regular basis. Putting up a Frequently Asked Questions on a website can help reduce problems and questions. Outsourcing customer calls might be an option. Narrowing your services can help. All of these are dependent on you having control over the business, but if you do, consider the many alternatives that might reduce your workload and interruptions.
  5. Find focus in your personal life. If most of your life is spent dealing with non-stop customer problems, complaints and requests, then you might try to find a time for calm, without distractions. Don’t be connected all the time, don’t be on the phone or doing text messages — cut off from the distractions, slow down, find solitude, and let your mind rest.

Staff/co-workers interruptions

If you have staff or co-workers who rely on you, you might be constantly interrupted (in person, by phone, via instant messages, by email) by people who need decisions made, conflicts managed, problems solved, requests fulfilled.

So how do we find focus with these kinds of constant, urgent interruptions? There are many possible solutions, and not all will apply to everyone, but here are some ideas:

  • Remove yourself as a bottleneck. It’s almost impossible to find a moment of peace when all decisions, all problems, must come through you. So train others to make these decisions. Set guidelines for making the decisions so that they’d make the same decisions you would in those circumstances. Set criteria for calling you or interrupting you, so that only decisions above a certain threshold of importance will come to you. Find others who can handle the problems, instead of you. Sure, it’ll mean you have less control, but it’ll also mean you have fewer interruptions.
  • Set hours of unavailability. Set office hours, or hours when you must not be interrupted except for absolute emergencies. Then you can deal with problems/requests at certain times of the day, and focus during other times.
  • Delegate a backup decision maker. If you’re a manager/owner, set up a second-in-command, so that when you’re away from the office, or if you take a few hours off for uninterrupted time, problems can still be solved. Train the second-in-command so that she knows how to make the decisions appropriately.
  • Set expectations. Staff or coworkers only interrupt you because they have the expectation that you’ll respond and that it’s OK to interrupt you at any time. If you change those expectations, you can channel the requests/problems to a time that you want to deal with them. For example: tell people that you only check email at 3 p.m. (or whatever works for you), because you need to focus on other work, and that they shouldn’t expect a response sooner. Or tell people that you will no longer take calls or text messages after 5 p.m., but that they should email you instead and you will respond to their emails in the morning. Or whatever works for you — the point is to set a plan of action and manage the expectations of others so that you can stick to that plan.
  • Be in the moment. If you’re unable to get away from the interruptions, then learn to deal with each interruption one at a time, when possible, and give your full attention to each person, each problem, as you deal with them. This allows you to be less stressed and to deal calmly and fully with every person who needs your attention.
  • Focus when away from work. If you can’t find focus at work, because of the need to be interrupted at all times, at least find time away from work when you can clear away distractions and find time for quiet, peace, reflection, reading, writing, creating.


What if your boss is the problem — he or she won’t allow you to make the changes you need to find focus? That’s a definite problem — the boss might expect you to answer texts, emails, calls immediately, to attend meetings all day long, to be busy at all times, to work long hours, to take calls after hours and do work at night … in short, to be inundated by interruptions at all hours.

Unfortunately, there are only so many things you can do if things aren’t under your control. Here are a few ideas:

  • Talk to your boss. Often, bosses can be very reasonable if you give them a compelling argument, and especially if you’ve proven yourself in the past. Sit down and talk to your boss about your desire to find focus, and explain that this will increase your productivity and creativity. Give him a copy of this book if you think it’ll help (or just email the chapter specifically for managers). Ask for some specific changes, and suggest a test period of a week or two, in which you make the changes and show the results.
  • Change what’s under your control. If there are some things you can’t change, then figure out what you can change, and focus on that. If you can’t change your hours, at least declutter your desk and computer. If you must answer all emails at all times, at least learn to block other things on the Internet that distract you.
  • Work away from the office. You might have the flexibility to work from home or at a coffee shop or library away from the office, or you might make a compelling argument for this change. Take this opportunity when you can, and bring a pair of earphones, turn on some peaceful music (or energizing music if you prefer), clear away distractions, and focus.
  • Prove that it works. Make what changes you can, and show that it can bring results. Solid evidence is the best way to win over the boss.
  • Or find another job. If your job is horrible, and your boss isn’t reasonable, or the demands are too crazy and you can’t possibly find the time to focus, it might be worth considering a change of jobs. That’s your decision, not mine, but I changed jobs at least twice when I was unhappy with the expectations, and both times it was a very good change for me.

Unsupportive people

Another problem is that people in our lives can sometimes be unsupportive, or flat out against changes we want to make. If this person is a spouse or significant other, or someone else upon whom we depend, this can make things very difficult. Nearly impossible, sometimes.

This is actually a very common problem, and I can’t give you solutions that will work in all cases. I can share some things that have worked for me, in hopes that they might help:

  • Don’t force. When we try to push others to make changes, they often resist. It’s not smart to try to force other people to make the changes you want to make. Instead, try some of the tips below — setting an example, sharing, asking for help.
  • Share why it’s important, and how it affects you. Communication is important here — sit down and talk to this person (or people) about why you want to make these changes, why it’s important to you, what it’ll help you to do. Share the positive effects as you make the changes, and also share the problems you’re facing. This type of open communication can help persuade the other person to get on board with your changes, if done in a non-pushy, non-judgmental way.
  • Enlist their help. When you ask someone to change, they will probably resist, but when you ask them to help you change, that’s much more likely to succeed. Try as best you can to make it a team effort — working together is a much better proposition than working against each other.
  • Set an example. If the other person doesn’t want to change, that’s OK. Make the changes yourself, and show how great it is. If the other person is inspired by your example, that’s even better. Often leading by example is the most persuasive technique there is, but dont’ be disappointed if the other person doesn’t decide to follow your example. Be happy with the changes you’ve made yourself.
  • Change what you can. If the other person is unsupportive, there might be limits to what you can change. Recognize these boundaries, and work within them.

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