How to Concentrate in a Collaborative Workplace

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How do you work effectively in a collaborative workplace? I’ve found a way to balance concentration and conversation, and would like to share techniques and habits for being productive.

When I first started working in an office, I worked haphazardly. I would come in, check work email, maybe chat with a colleague, start on a task, and then check Facebook or YouTube. Working this way nearly got me fired after two years. So I took the opportunity to be more intentional about what I worked on and how I worked.

What follows is my adaptation of the principles laid out in Cal Newport’s book, “Deep Work.” I’ve also incorporated material from “Rest” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, “Getting Things Done” by David Allen, and “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

Broadly speaking, I treat myself like a start scientist, athlete, or musician. My workday now starts with me working intensely first thing in the morning.

Four Hours of Deep Work

The best research that I have suggests that humans can only be productive for 35–40 hours per week. Working additional hours yields little more productivity and leads to burnout in the long-term. Additionally the best work is often done early in the day while the mind is fresh. So I aim to spend my mornings working intensely on the day’s most important work.

My mornings consist of two sessions of concentrated effort. Cal Newport defines it as: “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

My deep work sessions get blocked out on my work calendar. This signals to myself and coworkers that this time is set aside for work. Like an athlete doing runs, I have little “rules” about how I work during a session:

Where I’ll Work and for How Long

  • I work two sessions, each two hours long.

How I’ll Work

  • Wear noise-cancelling headphones
  • No random internet surfing, email, or Slack
  • Phone is silenced and kept in a drawer

How I’ll Support My Work

  • On my desk: coffee, water, hand cream, notebook and pen (for writing down tasks)
  • Taped to my monitor: a sign that reads “Do Not Disturb from 8 a.m. – 12 p.m.”

Once my work sessions are over, I check my email and text messages for the first time of the day. Then I usually go to lunch with whoever is around. Afternoons are free for walks, company events, meetings, coffees, and chance conversations.

Morning Routine

When I was a student, I hated routines and waking up early. I wanted to believe that I could be productive and happy by living a free, uninhibited life. I would just let things happen and work when inspiration struck. But the truth is, humans are creatures of habit. It’s not a question of whether or not I had a morning routine, it’s a question of whether it was an intentional one.

As Alex Pang says in his book “Rest”, “Routines don’t tap into willpower, resilience, or intrinsic motivation, leaving you more of those resources to spend on hard problems.” So whether you’re single like me, have children, or a long commute into work, creating a morning routine helps to save mental and physical energy for the most important work of the day.

My routine involves waking up at 6:30 a.m. After showering and eating breakfast, I aim to be out the door by 8:20 a.m. I pick up a morning paper, read for a while, and begin working by 9:30 a.m.

Walk

One of the best investments I made for my health was getting an Apple Watch. It has a helpful feature called “Stand Notifications” that will tap me on the wrist and tell me to get up and walk around. Sometimes I’ll run into someone and talk. Sometimes I’ll get a new insight on how to solve a particularly vexing coding issue. Often I just get a chance to see different people than my deskmates. It’s a great way to fight through the mid-afternoon slump.

I also make a point of going for a walk after lunch from the Times Building to Bryant Park. Despite the crowds, it helps me reset, get in touch with the city, and discover something new and interesting.

Nap

Adult life is stressful. If we’re not caring for others, working long hours, doing side projects, or just socializing, it can be hard to slow down and stay rested. I’m lucky to work in a building has a couple of nap rooms. Napping isn’t a part of the company culture generally, but I’ve found a 20-minute or (more rarely) a 90-minute nap in the afternoon provides a useful energy boost.

Stop with a Shutdown Ritual

When the workday comes to an end I aim to set myself up for success the next day. This is what Newport describes as a “Shutdown Ritual.” The goal is to completely shut down all work and work-related thinking until I come into the office the next day. No after-hours email, phone calls with team members, or late-night coding sessions. Deliberate rest from work is one of the most important ways to work effectively, as it allows my mind to recharge so I can perform well the next day.

Here’s what my shutdown ritual currently looks like:

  • Take a final look at Slack
  • Take a final look at my inbox
  • Write down any new tasks (in my head or in notes) into task lists
  • Skim every task in my task lists
  • Look at the next few days on my calendar
  • Make a rough plan for the next day
  • Check action lists in notebook
  • Check email and messages on phone
  • Put everything on my desk away
  • Say the Nunc Dimittis (a prayer of closing)

With this done, I have confidence that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and for each I have a plan to complete it or it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited when needed.

Sleep

There are few things as valuable to good mental performance as sleep. I’ve always struggled with a consistent sleep schedule. I take Melatonin to help me fall asleep, and shoot for nine hours a night. Sleep is also a time where I do much of my best work. While I’m asleep, my brain is doing maintenance, processing the events of the day, and even working on the problems I couldn’t solve during the day.

Collaborate Intentionally

Well, this all sounds very idyllic doesn’t it? But most people are busy. The real world requires constantly being on top of email and Slack, checking social media, and being available for face-to-face conversations. How on earth could someone realistically expect to concentrate intensely for four hours a day?

What Am I Paid to Do?

When I stepped back and looked at the work that I was paid to do, the work that I would get fired for not doing, I realized it didn’t involve a lot of sending email or responding to Slack mentions. It was about writing code effectively and delivering it on time. So I decided to switch from always being available to being strategically available in order to best support my work.

After my first work session, I have a thirty-minute block in which I am allowed to surf the internet, check email, read Slack, and attend standup. After my second work session I check the internet again before going to lunch. The point is to schedule times of distraction so that the internet doesn’t become a constant temptation.

From lunch onwards I’m available to go to different work events, attend meetings, get coffee with colleagues, and socialize with my deskmates. I also make a point of checking email and Slack once an hour (rarely is there anything urgent).

Tech Stays at the Desk

To further protect myself from distraction, my laptop and phone remain at my desk unless I absolutely need them for a meeting. The goal is to be fully present with my colleagues to take notes (with notebook and pen) and use the time effectively.

Close the Loop

Instead of getting lost in a long chain of emails or Slack messages, I aim to cut them down by looking at each message and asking this question posed by Newport: “What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?”

So if a colleague asks to get coffee, I respond with a suggested location and a couple of times that I’m free. If I’m asked to add my thoughts to a document, I respond by saying when I’ll be available to add my comments. When a long email thread seems likely, I ask for a face-to-face meeting or a phone call.

But What About…

…People Who Need to Be Available?

But what if I changed jobs tomorrow and was in a client-facing role? How would I make sure to be available for when a client needed to reach me?

I would communicate early with my client about when I am usually available (telling them my email schedule) and ask them to schedule phone calls in advance so I can be prepared. And of course, during important times like product launches I would plan to be available in case of last-minute changes.

…Emergencies?

I am lucky to not have a job where I need to be on-call in case the website has an issue. But if I was in that situation I would suggest using the “Do Not Disturb” feature available on most smartphones to allow certain numbers to ring through regardless of the time.

I don’t have children or a partner, but in the case of a family emergency I would likely give them my work phone number to call in case something urgent comes up. That number would also be provided to schools, day cares, or caregivers.

…Keeping Track of Things for Later?

For a long time I used Evernote on my phone to jot down thoughts and ideas as they came to me. Since cutting down on my phone usage I have moved to a Moleskine-based version of the Getting Things Done system. So I always carry a notebook around to jot down notes and ideas as they come during the day. And once a week I review things to make sure everything is processed.

Conclusion

I don’t want to pretend that my system is the perfect one for everyone to adopt. It is constantly evolving to fit the needs of my work and my personal life. But I do believe that by recognizing human limits, creating healthy habits, and setting boundaries for myself and others I have found a way to be far more effective than I was before. I hope that as others consider their own habits they will find the principles presented here to be useful.

Further Reading


How to Concentrate in a Collaborative Workplace was originally published in Times Open on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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