There is lots of discussion about globalisation, technology and the impact that it will have on the future of many professions. Without a doubt we are seeing qualified professionals having to reskill and reframe their experience to identify new career pathways and opportunities. Regardless of your technical skills or professional orientation the ability to navigate success in our 24/7 globally-connected world will depend on three essential work and some would argue life skills.
- Focus – the ability to minimise distractions and get things done
- The ability to prioritise competing tasks effectively; &
- Managing stakeholder expectations successfully based on #1 & #2 above
The impact on workforce productivity of distraction has been well documented. A study by Employerbility showed that 55% of people are frequently distracted at work, with only 33% of these able to effectively disregard these distractions. Alarmingly, this leads to each employee being unproductive for an average of four hours per week. The key to combating these distractions is focus, which whilst easy to apply in theory, presents a mine field of real challenges.
Contrary to what was once assumed to be the only way to manage the demands of modern life, the act of multitasking has been proven to counterintuitively hinder productivity. As research by Zhen Wang shows, multitasking in fact decreases productivity and reduces the quality of work produced due to the splitting of brain functions. Therefore, the ability to minimise distractions and focus on one task at a time is vital in delivering quality work more effectively.
As Maura Thomas wrote for Harvard Business Review, we must employ ‘attention management’ skills, even more crucially than ‘time management’ skills to achieve our prioritised to do lists.
Our modern day reality means that rarely will you get everything you would like done in a working week. Instead most executives are left with an extensive ‘to do’ list that at best has seen some progress if not extension as more things are added than triumphantly crossed off. Gone are the days where success simply required hours of hard work and dedication to arrive at the bottom of ‘the list’. We must now be able to make fast, strategic decisions about what is most important to do in any given moment and be able to manage what must be compromised for its cause. In each week and day, we must re-evaluate which work is the highest priority and devote our complete focus to getting this done without distraction.
Greg McKeown explains in his best-selling ‘Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less’ that focusing completely on getting the right things done is what is absolutely essential. McKeown writes that by applying a systematic discipline for determining what is most important to spend our time and energy, we can prioritise the most high value tasks while reducing time spent on work of low importance.
In order to work “simpler and saner”, Leo Babauta instructs that practical ways to achieve this include segmenting your day into blocks devoted to different types of work, completing 2-3 difficult tasks earlier in the day; and writing separate to do lists for work of different contexts.
With the multiplicity of tasks and priorities, comes the multiplicity of stakeholders you have committed to deliver work for. The third key still in working effectively in today’s frantic world is successfully managing stakeholders. Crucial to this is frequent communication and updates on the progress or problems encountered with work delivery.
In most companies, but particularly at executive level, stakeholders will have limited time and attention span to read updates on how your work for them is progressing. Any communication to them should therefore be concise, brief and focused on results. There should be clarity around what you can deliver and when, and clear demonstration of accountability to provide updates as you go. Most importantly, make sure your stakeholders are aware of hold ups, roadblocks and any actions steps or help you are seeking to move forward on priorities.
The ability to minimise distraction and retrain focus, efficiently prioritise tasks and communicate in a clear and influential way with stakeholders will be crucial to professional success in any environment.