Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Focus as a Competitive Advantage

I recently came across a short Harvard Business Review article written by Mike Erwin, “In a Distracted World, Solitude Is a Competitive Advantage,” that instantly resonated with me. The basic premise of the article is that technology has led to work environments where workers are constantly distracted, and that the ability to focus is a competitive advantage. Though this idea is not particularly novel, focusing can be increasingly challenging when the work you are supposed to be focusing on is constantly interrupted by other work that also demands your attention.

A particularly illustrative example is email response time. If someone sends you an email, how quickly should you read it and respond? 

From a client service standpoint, ideally, you should read it and respond as soon as possible. However, if you read and respond to emails immediately, you will probably never accomplish any of the other work that you need to do in a given day. You will spend the work day responding to emails, and your evenings accomplishing other projects or tasks that you need to finish.

An alternative is to read and prioritize emails as you receive them, and send a quick response saying that you have received the message and will address it at a later time. This plan seems better, in that it is responsive and sets expectations, but it isn’t without its flaws. Even if you are not fully responding to emails, every time you receive an email alert and check it, you are breaking your focus on whatever task you are performing.

Another alternative is to designate certain times during the day when you will review and respond to emails. This is ideal for being fully engaged in the task that you are working on, but may lack the responsiveness required for a particular email. And what happens if someone emails you about the particular task that you are performing?

Given that each of the alternatives has its pros and cons, I am not sure what the best email response policy is. As business folks, we have to be responsive to our clients and engaged in our work assignments for our clients, and so there is no clear answer. 

Email is only one of many distractions that we face on a daily basis, so it is easy to appreciate how focus can be viewed as a competitive advantage in the workplace. To sharpen your ability to focus, I suggest that you read Erwin’s short article, which offers several practical tips of how to stay focused at work. 

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