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5 ways to find focus in the workplace
5 min read
Rachel McClung
Former Senior Visual Designer
Published: April 13, 2016
Last Updated: September 21, 2020

Each workday offers many streams of information. There are new messages and status updates to follow, not to mention the general news, the weather, and the cookies at the desk next to you.

While communication is important, finding focus helps us to produce our best work. The optimal state of productivity is known as “flow.” Time stops, and we find ourselves in a state where our work process is nearly effortless.

The challenge is how to achieve this.

First, we need to acknowledge that we are not machines—we are humans. Humans need water and food and rest. We should make intelligent choices about how we treat ourselves, eat balanced meals, and take breaks to rebuild energy.

Once we have adequately charged ourselves, we can start to manage our environment and tools. The following tactics describe both the strategies we use as a company and tactics that can be employed by anyone doing deep work.

Have set gathering times

Whether you are working with a team of 2 or 20, the challenge of sharing status updates is real. Here-and-there updates can be mistimed, and important information may get lost in the shuffle.

At Workiva, we have regular stand-up meetings to keep things lean. Each team member takes a minute to recount work completed and work planned and discusses any blockers. Consider ways to consolidate updates to separate daily chatter from focused work.

Reduce external sound

Two possibilities exist here: either work in a quiet place, or limit the noise around you. One way to limit ambient noise is to provide your own soundtrack.

>If you like to listen to music, find a genre that supports the work you’re doing. Perhaps, like me, you resonate with open-ended electronic dance music and find the tempo inspiring. Maybe you do your best work while listening to classical, reggae, or death metal. Whatever it is, embrace it, and use it as a strategic tool.

Use tools that feel right

Often the first part of the maker’s process is to sketch an idea or system on paper. But how so you get started?

A wise teacher once said, “The most intimidating thing in the world is a blank piece of paper.”

The solution is to place a small mark somewhere on the page. The act of this mark-making destroys the paper’s pristine state, allowing ideas to flow accordingly.

You might like to use a lined notebook or pad of grid paper to record ideas. I prefer to sketch ideas on unlined printer paper. While it’s not archival quality, it reduces the need for perfection. Refinement can always come later.

Writing tools are equally important. A fine-tipped black pen may feel authoritative, but a mechanical pencil may offer the ability to adjust ideas more quickly.

Match location and thought process

Find an environment that supports the work you need to do. If you need to generate ideas, locate a table with lots of open space. If you need to execute ideas, find a glare-free place to work comfortably at your computer.

It’s important to be aware of environmental triggers, like motion from people walking by. These factors can make the difference between being productive and being highly productive. If something doesn’t feel right about the place where you’re working, find a way to adjust it.

Our office environment is specially designed to provide opportunities for both collaboration and contemplation. The layout combines the feeling of an open space with the privacy of an enclosed area. Development teams typically have a pod of desks that functions as a home base. A low partition separates the desks from the flow of traffic, and space in the middle of the pod provides an area for the team to regroup.

Teammates who need  breaks from their desks are encouraged to find a place where they are comfortable working. Cozy corners are sprinkled throughout our offices, and dedicated meeting rooms help to preserve the calm atmosphere of the open work area.

The ability to skip a long commute can also boost morale and speed. Depending on the needs of the development team, some team members may take a day or two a week to work from home and call in for video chats when it’s time to collaborate.

Stay curious

Everyone in development is encouraged to learn new things. Some offices host Fun Days, where teams are encouraged to create new work that supports our product but might not tie directly into daily duties. Other teams might engage in Concept Car Jams to envision a brighter future product.

At a more personal level, individual team members are challenged to drive their own innovation cycles. Iterations on product, for near-term and far future, are welcome. While some of this work may never grow beyond the concept phase, pieces may be adapted and merged into today’s product.

Finding time to build skills, whether it’s 5 minutes reading an article, or 60 minutes building a prototype, sharpens the ability to focus. Practice this now by taking 10 minutes to acquire a habit that will help you work smarter and faster tomorrow.

There’s not one easy recipe for finding focus, but if we can start to listen to our internal cues and use them to create the right environment, our work will be so much the better.

About the Author

Former Senior Visual Designer

Rachel is a former Senior Visual Designer for the User Experience team at Workiva. When not contemplating the finer points of icon design, she can be found practicing vinyasa yoga and romping with her dog, Maple.

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