The last three weeks have been absolutely furious on the work deliverables front. Small tasks, large tasks, client meetings, research, creative ideation, prioritizing and more prioritizing, organizing, delegating, executing and more executing -and on it goes.
I love the fast-paced variety of digital marketing -and there’s never a dull moment, but towards the end of each day I sometimes wonder where all the time evaporates. Deadlines come and go and as I drive home I reflect on the day retracing key events. Should I have taken on fewer tasks? Spent more time here? Less time there? Did we spend too much time brainstorming ideas? Could we have minimized the client revisions on this project had we spent more time discussing the project brief?
Whenever I experience these busy waves of work, I begin to notice the influence interruptions and distractions have on my concentration and focus. Distractions come in many forms and exist as unavoidable aspects of collaborative team work. In my mind there are generally two forms of distractions I seem to encounter on a weekly basis: those which positively impact my work and those which disrupt focus and negatively impact by ability to get things done.
Positive distractions could be things like chatting/brainstorming ideas with colleagues, taking a coffee break, reading a thought-provoking article, or stepping out of the studio to get a breath of fresh air. In each instance the idea is to temporarily step away from the task or problem you’re working on by encouraging new ideas or perhaps a different approach by changing your immediate surroundings. Think of it as an opportunity to shift gears and reboot your mind. This change of scenery, change of stimuli, can help you to re-attack problems from a fresh perspective. I consider this an effective divergent thinking technique which essentially allows your mind to entertain spontaneous, free-flowing thoughts in a somewhat less rigid context -that being the rigidity of your desk and computer screen.
While some people might regard activities like coffee breaks and chatting with colleagues tantamount to procrastination, I would argue these aspects of the day are essential tools for problem-solving and should be openly embraced -especially if your goal is to be proactively creative with your work. We’ve all heard the popular wisdom: sometimes the best way to solve a problem you’re stuck on is to step away from the problem altogether.
Perhaps my opinion is bias towards the design and creative work I do and the personal discovery employing these techniques have positively influenced my work. Maybe so, but I believe these forms of distractions -if you want to even call them distractions -can be beneficial to anyone regardless of the type of work you do -be it left-brain analytical thinking or right-brain creative thinking and design. If your goal is to exploit the maximum potential of creative problem-solving, the sooner you come to terms with the fact that inventive solutions to problems do not necessarily present themselves exclusively at your desk from 9 am to 5 pm, the sooner your work will benefit.
Playing the devil’s advocate, the negative variety of distractions can be both good and bad, perhaps even ugly. For the most part these are unintentional or unplanned events occurring throughout the day which may break or challenge mental focus. For example: unscheduled impromptu meetings, software crashing/computer locking-up, being forcibly pulled away from a piece of work to complete some rudimentary administrative task, or putting out the proverbial daily client fire (I do these all the time).
On one hand these events temporarily break your concentration -especially if you’re in the zone. You might be at a critical juncture with your work and feel like pushing forward is the best strategy. On the other hand, being pulled away from the task at hand forces your brain to shift gears.
While this might not always be ideal, surprisingly, I find when I return to the task I was previously working on, my mind is able to approach the problem with a fresh point of view. It’s almost like the reset button has been pushed, my brain re-calibrates and I’ve forgotten where I was previously stuck.
Enter distraction: Ironically, trying to complete this blog post, my focus is temporarily broken as my Web browser suddenly crashes without warning while opening a new tab to check the Web Thesaurus. Hmm… maybe having 8 or 9 browser tabs open wasn’t such a good idea. Re-starting Firefox, then relaunching WordPress, I find I’ve lost a few key written points in this post. Oh brother! I wonder if there’s a Firefox extension out there to manage my uncontrollable addiction to opening multiple tabs? Feeling a little peeved I decide to break from writing and grab a coffee. Returning to my computer feeling energized I tell myself I can finish this post before dinner!
While distractions can certainly have a beneficial effect on your ability to creatively work through seemingly monumental tasks and get things done, sometimes however, it makes sense to simply block out all distracting forces in your environment and focus on one thing. In other words, not trying to multitask your way through the day but fostering quality over quantity, detail over speed, focused thought over fragmented thinking.
My absolute preferred method here is to put on headphones and listen to music -anything, ideally something to fit my mood. I find music (and a really good set of headphones -not earbuds) allows me to become completely immersed in what I’m doing and block out all the extraneous background noise. Through experience I find is when I do my best work.
A few ugly distractions that are rarely good when you’re in the zone:
- email/mobile device
- chat on MSN messenger
- browser open > logged-in to Facebook
Here’s a few places and situations I’ve personally found help idea generation and creative problem-solving. These activities can generally open your mind and distract your thinking -but in a good way:
- lunch/chat with colleagues
- brainstorming (with anyone)
- morning shower
- attending a conference
- going for jog/gym/exercise before, during, or after work
- taking a camera/sketchbook where ever you go
Enter distraction #2: As I wrap up proofreading this post, I hit the preview button in WordPress before I publish. I become preoccupied with how the images and bullet point formatting look in my browser. I suppose I should just focus on the writing and worry about the way it looks later. Funny, I suppose you could call this a self-induced distraction which is clearly preventing me from wrapping up this post.
Learning to manage external forces and distractions around your environment is an art (I am still learning). Using distractions to your advantage can be a powerful way to stimulate creative thinking and problem-solving.
Ultimately though, I think it’s important to find out what works and what doesn’t work for you through trial, error, and experimentation.
Above all, battling distractions is a personal endeavor that can evolve based on the work you’re currently doing and the way you want to work in the future. Have fun!