Headspace: Perhaps the Most Urgent Thing?

(c) 2015 Ian Cackett

Nothing of any significance or impact was ever created by a scattered mind.

Great things are not built in a rushed series of truncated thoughts, punctuated by distractions. They are created by getting the headspace to go deep, to stay there a while, and to surface with new insights, structure and conclusions.

Even with a eureka moment, a spark of brilliance or a chance connection, those initial insights take focus and refinement to develop, distill and simplify; to make them usable.

In fast-paced modern work environments, it’s clear that most of us aren’t managing to achieve headspace or to go deep into our work with any regularity. Our days seem like a series of distractions, email, phone calls, chat, meetings and being ever-available. Busy-ness, and particularly visible busy-ness, is a medal we seem to wear with pride.

But it’s likely that we’re barely scratching, then re-scratching, the surface of the work in front of us. We’re probably repeating large portions of it, as we absorb the cognitive switch away and back again. If we’re lucky, we’re gradually making progress in the right direction, though it will be hard-won, inefficient and lacking any real insight or depth. We may find ourselves achieving most of our meaningful work outside of office hours, which implies our work environment isn’t… well, isn’t working.

Most worryingly, we may be killing our ability to innovate, to compete and to deliver value… which is surely why we’re at work in the first place?

After 20 years working in teams, I spent a year working alone on two startup ideas… yet initially, I still found it hard to focus. Surely, I had assumed, headspace would be simple to achieve alone?! It seemed that the learned expectation of interruption and the numbing array of possibilities to do other lesser things to get a hit of achievement kept me from focussing deeply for any duration. I had become a busy-ness and achievement junkie. At first, I seriously wondered whether I had some kind of attention deficit problem and so I turned to tools like the Pomodoro Technique to regain my headspace.

I gradually learned to commit to 25-minute periods of focused work, during which I would let nothing else (including my own thoughts and other interests) distract me, and then to take a short break or work on something less involved. Before long, I could crank out 6–10 of these “pomodoros” per day without too much struggle, and my ability to focus on my own returned.

During that year of regular focus, the work I produced felt significant: I made leaps forward, created two products and wrote my own UI framework. These achievements would never have been possible in my usually-scattered frame of mind. All of them were the result of focus and depth… of finding regular headspace.

Even more so in teams, but perhaps someone counterintuitively, the ability to carve out periods of lone headspace is key to getting work done together. But balancing it with being available on-demand is also crucial. We simply can’t schedule the needs of other people and the wider team, nor block them out to pre-determined times. But perhaps, after a landslide of unscheduled requests, we can push back a little, pop on a pair of headphones (a visible sign of focus), and get 30 minutes of focused work done before accepting more outside input. Oscillating in this way between being available and being focussed allows a portion of our time to be allocated to deeper work, even if we have to be a little creative and flexible about precisely which hours of the day that ends up being.

Respecting Headspace: It may seem that getting immediate answers from colleagues, and being available to provide them ourselves, keeps a work environment moving at maximum speed. But there is a cost to the team, and therefore to the project, for that immediate answer, paid in terms of the headspace of the person providing it. It may feel as if asking in-person is more productive and that chat or email are inefficient ways of getting an answer, but those tools allow the person providing the answer to crank out a series of such answers during a quick break from other work, and perhaps still within a relatively short timeframe. More urgent interruptions can still take place, but they must be balanced with the permission to block out further interruptions for a period of time that each person chooses themselves. Our headspace and their headspace will rarely occur in-sync.

Deserving Headspace: There is a flipside to this. In order to be allowed to focus, we must also prove ourselves capable of handling those queued requests in a responsive and reliable manner. Ignoring emails and not scanning chat channels for updates occasionally are certain ways to force people to interrupt us with more urgency, to grab our attention and to destroy our focus. If people learn that we will always respond within a reasonable timeframe, they will happily learn to queue non-urgent work for us.

Respecting the headspace of others may improve the output and depth of work produced by the whole team, by reducing cognitive switching. It probably also doesn’t greatly delay the answers our interruptions require, and it can be mixed with much more interactive sessions, standups, meetings and brainstorming to get the best of both worlds.

Headspace in teams, but also alone, isn’t easy to achieve. But what’s clear is that without it, the work we produce and the things we create will be mere shadows of what we’re capable of.

Maybe headspace and our ability to focus really are, somewhat counterintuitively, the most urgent things of all?

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