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  • Jon Smart

Focus: is it a Unicorn?

Co-author: Tony Caink

Focus is hard enough as an individual, even harder in a team of brilliant minds. Why is it so hard?

Based on the study lead by Gloria Mark (at the University of California, Irvine) the bad news is that on average it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain focus after switching to a new task. So now think about having not only one but multiple context switches in a work day, which is far from being unusual: the cost is just too high to ignore and yet we keep context switching, trying to multitask.

So why are we doing it?

Shockingly enough, neuroscientists suggest that our own brain actually works against us: it rewards the wrong behaviour.

As the studies point out, multitasking is supported by a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus. Daniel J Levitin writes about how our brains have a novelty bias, meaning our attention can be easily distracted. This is also referred to as the “bright shiny object syndrome

I was in Richmond Park taking this photo early morning just around sunrise. If you have never been, or not heard about this park, this is home of hundreds of magnificent free living deer. So I am there and witnessing a beautiful stag eating the grass and quickly abandoning it when our shiny, type G2 star rose above the horizon. The good news is that sapiens are not alone, stags are also suffering from bright shiny object syndrome.

We also suffer of what’s called the “busy trap” of nowadays corporate culture. We glorify “busyness”: when you ask your colleague how are they doing, how is work, you most probably will get the answer of “busy”, “crazy busy” and the default response we give is “good to be busy”, “good problem to have”. This is a legacy of 19th century Taylorism when there was a linear, direct correlation between “busyness” and productivity which is unfortunately still applied in the knowledge workers’ world. Also, it is worth considering the correlation between wait time and utilisation which is best described in The Phoenix Project. When the utilization (busyness) goes past 80%, the wait time runs to the roof.

Hacking the brain to reward the right behaviour

So how do we hack our brain to help ourselves and the team to turn our days into productive days as oppose to just busy days?

1. Stop glorifying busyness, avoid the busy trap

Know your biorhythms

Pay attention to your biorhythms (chronobiology). Keep balance between activity and being idle e.g. 90 min followed by 20 min. This is when you can have a coffee with Tony and think about whether focus is a unicorn or while you are idle dreaming discover the nuclear chain reaction like Leo Szilard did when the traffic light changed to green and he stepped off the curb at the British Museum on September 12, 1933 and the rest is history.

You can define time slots of no interrupt, deep work as part of the team charter, and agreed signals like headphones. Carl Newport lists many creative practices in his book, Deep Work.

Introduce slack time

Introducing slack not only prevents the problem of too much utilisation (above) but unleashes creativity and innovation. Tom DeMarco, in his book Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency, makes the point that business kills innovation.

2. Install transparency

Visualize all things the team is working on, use simple boards.

Walk the board

Focus on the work not on the individual. Ask why an item is stuck on the board, who can you help, who can you pair up with, swarm to move the item to DONE. Alistair Cockburn defines product development, quite rightly as a “cooperative game.”

Stop starting…

To keep yourself and the team focused introduce limit the work in progress.

When pulling new work run through the decision tree first: “should I start this story”, “the story has value (a customer wants it)”, “the story is clear enough to work on (ready)”, “the system has (we have) capacity”. If any answers are No, then just say No. Stop starting.

…and start finishing

By finishing work you get two rewards: “getting things done” and “thank yous”. Communicating your results (whether they are positive or negative) means that others will recognise your work, resulting in more positive feedback. Praising and recognising the work of your colleagues can also increase your dopamine!

Dominica DeGrandis in her book Making Work Visible: Exposing Time Theft to Optimize Work & Flow talks about the problem with too much Work in Process (WIP), the negative impact on flow by not finishing or only partially finishing items and starting new ones.

3. Set objectives at team level

Establish team level objectives instead of individual ones. Reject work that does not contribute to team objectives. Seek the big reward that comes from sustained, focused effort instead of empty rewards. Focus on how great you will feel when your project is complete. A study of the University of Michigan professors found that results-driven focus motivated people to complete their work.

4. Install Learning

Articulate business objectives and outcomes with measures, build in learning capabilities. Leading indicators provide feedback, helps you tell whether you are delivering the right thing and helps you to sustain focus. Build measure learn.

Will you create a system to reward progress and real rewards or will you let bright shiny object syndrome destroy your productivity?

by Jon Smart, 15/09/22


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