The modern world of work is becoming a very distracting place in which to actually get any work done.
More of us work in open-plan offices with chatty co-workers telling us about their latest Netflix binge or weekend plans. With the constant stream of interruptions and distractions—endless meetings (that should have been emails), emails (that shouldn’t have been sent), social media and networking events—it is becoming more and more difficult to really focus and get into “deep work” mode, where the best work and most creative thinking often happens.
To try to navigate this distraction minefield we spoke to working women we respect to find out about the strategies they use to get their heads down, focus and get productive.
I mentally compartmentalise and set aside the time to do certain tasks for a certain length of time. Being able to multi-task is a great skill, but sometimes it can produce weaker results and spreads you too thinly. Learning to say no is also a great way to focus on the most important things.
Yoon Ambush, Designer
A wise mentor once told me that the most successful business people spend at least 30 per cent of their time deep learning—it has stuck with me always. It seems to have become a badge of honour to work all hours, particularly in start-ups. But I find this completely counterintuitive because more hours don’t always equate to better output. As you begin to push yourself (taking on a healthy amount of stress), your performance per hour increases. This way you can reach a flow state—fully focused and smashing through work. However, if you over-stretch yourself, fatigue starts to kick in, your decision-making can be more emotive, you get sick and getting “into the flow” is a lot trickier. The trick is to recognise the signs of when you’re over-pushing yourself and to take a break. You may be working six days a week, but in reality you might only be productive for four!
I’m blessed to have such a talented team. The only downside is it can be challenging to manage the constant stream of amazing ideas they have for The Dots. It was starting to become a distraction, as we each chatted through the various merits of our ideas. That’s when we introduced pitch days, which are a bit like an internal version of Dragons’ Den. Each member of the team pitches their top two ideas. Some of the best ideas for the platform have come from these sessions and they keep everyone actively engaged with our future, without distracting from daily roles.
Pip Jamieson, Founder & CEO of The Dots
I block whole or half days for “making” and often work from home to avoid diversions. I set out what I want to achieve in my Productivity Planner and use the Pomodoro Technique (phone on airplane mode for alternate chunks of timed 25 work minutes and 5 break minutes) to do it. Separately, I need one to two hours for emails and my to-do list per day.
I try to stick to two “meeting days” per week and then only at the beginning or end of the day. Unless it’s an exception, I never meet for breakfast. Instead I block out 30 minutes after the school-run for “mental and physical hygiene”; I practise yoga or run in this time. It helps me stay resilient, optimistic and not get sucked up in the compulsion of real-time responding.
Pia Stanchina, Co-founder of FutureGirlCorp, ex-Google, adviser to the British Fashion Council
I use technology like my calendar app and notes apps like Evernote to help me keep on track with my “thought pieces” and to-do lists. I’m able to be flexible with my work hours so will often do work over a couple of hours on a Saturday or Sunday, and give myself those hours back during the week. For some reason, it’s super-easy to write longer pieces or brainstorm when I’m on the Tube or a long train journey with patchy network. Luckily Evernote syncs when it has reception, so my random thoughts are backed up fairly quickly.
Anne-Marie Imafidon, MBE, CEO & Head Stemette
Having my own company (I am the co- founder of Semaine) is full of its own distractions. Having employees, an endless mountain of work, meetings, emails, Instagram... I could easily go on. I have had to work out ways to keep myself focused and productive.
I use Trello to manage all of my to-do lists. It means nothing gets for- gotten and I can plan my workload. Mapping it out and putting it all in one place suddenly makes it seem a lot more manageable.
I work best in quite a solitary environment. Headphones in, music loud; this is where I find my deepest levels of concentration. I identify which tasks need this level of concentration and usually (sadly) keep this work until evenings or weekends.
One of our advisers once asked which tasks make me feel tired. This was the best way of figuring out what you are not so good at. Accounting, for instance, makes me tired. Start with the sleep-inducing tasks and reward yourself with work that excites and energizes you!
Georgina Harding, Co-founder Semaine
Waking up early is my secret. I get the most done between the hours of 6am and 8am before emails start coming in and things get crazy. I’m like a machine in the early morning. Any good idea I've ever had has come to me pre-8am.
Audrey Gelman, Co-founder & CEO, The Wing
In between meetings (online and offline), emails and calls, the job you love can easily fall through the cracks. I tend not to do major work in the evenings and weekends, and go to pilates a few times a week. For me, this essential time out/ not thinking about or doing work clears my head and I am much more productive when I am in the office. This means I usually have my best ideas or start of an idea at the most unexpected time— like in the shower!
Leila Fataar, Head of culture & entertainment, Diageo Europe
My approach to staying focused is a combination of “going with the flow” and “shutting out the noise”.
On “going with the flow” I like to regularly dispatch as much of my email inbox as possible to simply get the emails out of the way and off my list. I’ve integrated social media posting into my routine, and when I’m working on a presentation or a piece of work I find taking the odd Twitter or Facebook break can help jolt my thinking or stimulate different thoughts.
When I need to really knuckle down to it I “shut out the noise”—close down all social media and email tabs and focus on the task in hand. This is the beauty of working for yourself, I can make my schedule work the way I want it to or spend that day focusing on one in-depth task—which makes life considerably less stressful. This is why I recommend that everyone, especially women, consider starting their own business so that they can design their working life to be the way they want it to be.
Cindy Gallop, Founder of MakeLoveNotPorn
I make a list of all enquiries/networking obligations for the day and tick them off as I do them first thing. Then I ignore outside influence for 90-minute bursts. I work on my own at the laptop so I play birdsong for creativity, beats for dead- lines and I talk to myself all the time. This way I can access flow time. I know from studying for the past two years the joy of this space and I’m very resentful when I can’t have it. Usually I surface and stretch in between to make a cuppa and cross off more on my list before sinking back down. If I spend the day this way... I am a force.
Caryn Franklin MBE, British fashion commentator and professor of diversity in fashion at Kingston University
I struggle with focus every day. I work in an incredibly fast-paced of office, live with three other girls and I’m a Virgo— which means if I begin something too soon before its deadline then I’m likely to destroy it with overthinking. Luckily, I work best under pressure and I now trust my instincts rather than second- guess myself. If I’m working from home, I need some sort of pre-reward: go to the gym, watch a movie, meet a friend. Setting contact boundaries is also so important because my life and work coexist. I’ve disconnected all social media notifications and tell people to email me and not text or Facebook message me if it’s about work. When all else fails, I listen to Kendrick Lamar’s A.D.H.D. on repeat. There’s something about its white noise-type beat that drowns everything else out.
Ashleigh Kane, Arts & culture editor, Dazed
To get the most out of my working week, which is generally quite manic—looking after the growth of Frame, the launch of MumHood, my two-and-a-half–year- old, and entering the third trimester of my second pregnancy—I’ve found that compartmentalising my time really helps.
We have “office days” on Mondays and Thursdays. I know that on these days I will basically be in back-to-back meetings all day, and so need to a) prep, and b) make sure I have nothing planned for the evenings, because I’ll need to be on my emails to ensure some kind of sanity for the following day.
On Tuesdays and Wednesdays I block out half of each day for project work, when I work by myself and when I’m my most productive. Joan (my business partner) and I always have a three-hour-plus session in the week when we have a set agenda and aim to make decisions on all the key points where possible. It’s always great to leave a brainstorm session with less, rather than more, on your to-do list!
Pip Black, Co-founder of Frame
Having worked in a shared studio space before coming to Somerset House, I was used to surfing the noise and being able to just block everything out. Now it’s more the constant meetings and deluge of emails that need a response that interrupt a meaningful thought process. I find more and more that I rely on my early-morning walk to Somerset House and the return journey in the evening to really sort things out in my head. That and sleepless nights, which I think should never be wasted because it’s the best time to kick a problem into touch!
Claire Catterall, Director of exhibitions at Somerset House
Article taken from issue #8, buy your copy here.
Illustrations by James Graham.