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Shift of focus. How much does it cost?

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

As I am writing this, there’s a siren outside (air threat alarm). It is 2022. Nth week of russian invasion in Ukraine.

The siren made me skip what I was doing at that time and start writing this blog post while in a bomb shelter. This is what a change of focus is. And it will cost me 40min on average: around 20min to focus on this blog post and then another 20min to switch back to what I was doing before the siren.

According to a University of California Irvine study, “it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.”

Out of the 8 most productive hours in a day I have already wasted 40min. This is an involuntary distraction that I do not control but there’re many more ‘peaceful’ distractions. Like another email, another meeting instead of a message, bureaucracies of different scales.

On the other hand, focusing on a particular task or goal is essential for success. Multitasking is a myth. As an example, Thomas Edison, who invented the electric bulb had 1,000 failed attempts. What would happen if he had given up on the 5th attempt or refocused on something else?

In my experience, the constant shift of priorities, “throwing” tasks that interrupt the others, and random activities when team members jump from one goal to another - all

of them are extremely expensive. I.e. doing everything at the same time means not getting anything done.

When it’s all a priority, it is really hard to balance the efforts. Here’s how you could stay focused yourself and help your team focus on what really matters:

  • Focus on less

I have recently gone on the never-ending journey: to reorganize my living space 😀 It helps me establish the system of things around me and, thus, helps me suppress the stress that comes from the situation in my country. But imagine I set up myself a task - tidy up a kitchen. How much time would it take? In the kitchen size like mine, it’s probably a couple of days. On the contrary, I focus on 1 cabinet at a time: the one with sweets and Nutella for my daughter, the one with wine glasses and fancy dishes… It gives me a sense of accomplishment every time.

The same goes for the team. You give them an epic task - promote an e-commerce site. To do this one would need to understand and explore available options, understand what worked historically (data analytics), and depending on the findings there will be another set of tasks. The smaller the task the easier it is to accomplish it and the more that gets done contributes more to the overall goal. Eat the elephant in pieces 🙂

  • To-do list traceability

I know, I know. We all explored this possibility. We tend to manage our to-dos in a whole ton of different ways: I keep mine in MyDone, some use sticky notes, and calendars and some really brave ones use their memory as storage for to-dos. The most important thing is not the form but the traceability to the overall goals. If I clean this cabinet today, I contribute to the overall goal to organize the whole kitchen. If your team member changes button text, this task contributes to the rate this button is clicked on, and, as a result, we get more traction and we get things done quicker.

  • Clear manageable deadlines

If you’re a leader or a manager, please keep away from enforcing deadlines on your team. They know best when they can achieve what and at which quality level. But a clear deadline for a task is crucial for focus. If a task can be done in 1-2 days or 1 week you have a high chance that, even if distracted, you’ll get it done. Focusing on quarter-long tasks is a real procrastination gap esp. because they tend to have lots of uncertainties. So it’s best to go back to the ‘more is less’ concept but trace them back to bigger, more long-term goals.

  • Tell them why and what’s the value

High-quality teams always question the whys. Show them how a tiny task contributes to teamwork, department goals, and company strategy. I love to imagine this as a small circle inside a bigger one which, in its turn, is the biggest one. If the circle breaks away from a bigger one, its value is unclear.

  • Remove distractions

I’ve been fighting with business stakeholders distracting my teams like … for ages? The cost of refocusing is too high but the business is still willing to pay? Well, what works from my experience is to keep most of the team still focused on whatever they were doing before and ask a couple of people to refocus.

Oh, I have just been distracted by my daughter. Gotta focus again. But perhaps next time 😀 on the next blog post.

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