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How to Focus in a Distracted Work World

With insights from Modern Tribe leadership, here are six steps to encourage focus time and better support your teams.

You’re at the end of another busy workday. Where did the time go?! Oh, right. You responded to approximately 942 emails. Sent the birthday boy a hilarious GIF. Spent three hours on calls with clients and colleagues (a light meeting day!). And maybe managed to chip away at a couple big client projects.

This might sound like a pretty productive workday. After all, you didn’t stop—you even ate lunch at your desk! But here’s the thing: You’re probably not in the business of responding to emails and sitting in meetings. You probably have to produce something substantial each day to move your company forward.

Distractions are a major problem in the modern workplace, and they’ve only been compounded by COVID-19 and the widespread shift toward remote work. As the virus continues to spread in the U.S., many companies have told their employees that they’ll be working from home indefinitely. Some have even decided that employees won’t be returning to the office until at least 2021.

That means home will continue to double as workspace for many of us in the months ahead. How do you deal with the dozens of pings and people pulling you away from your most important tasks? How do you focus in today’s distracted digital work environment?

Modern Tribe’s leadership team has been trying to answer these questions for some time now. We’re in the business of building cool stuff for some pretty discerning clients, which requires more than just chipping away at a big deliverable every day (though we always make time to send birthday GIFs).

Following, we share lessons learned as we’ve operationalized focus time for our team, as well as what challenges we hope to solve for next.

Six steps for making focus time a work-wide initiative

1. Establish how your business will benefit from focus time.

First and foremost, the research is clear: Multitasking isn’t a thing. What we think of as multitasking is actually serial tasking, which is way less efficient than single tasking. According to the American Psychological Association, “doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity.” How much of a toll? Shifting between tasks—even when it takes just a few tenths of a second to make the switch—can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time, the APA reports.

Task switching can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.

While this research probably makes enough of a case, it’s essential to frame the consequences of multitasking in terms of your own business objectives. “When project teams don’t have enough focus time, the work is of a poorer quality—more errors, less thoughtful,” says Carly, our agency director. “I think it actually takes longer when, instead of focusing, people have to produce things in small chunks. This requires more back and forth with QA, bug fixing, etc.”

Consider the emotional dominoes effect of limited focus time, too. “We strive to work calmly,” says Reid, partner and creative director. “Frantic folks are inefficient. Switching contexts and having external pings heighten everyone’s anxiety and stress.”

The more specific you can get about the problems that a lack of focus time causes your team (e.g., working more nights to catch up), the better your ability to determine the underlying issue and implement standards or tools that will help.

2. Define what focus time actually means for you.

It seems simple enough: focus time is, like… time to focus?

We’ve learned that it helps to be more specific. Try defining length of time and activity. Kat, agency project manager, defines focus time as “a point in the day without meetings, in a block that’s longer than 30 minutes.” For Ashley, agency delivery manager, “Focus time means time away from Slack where we are working on one feature or deliverable with minimal interruption.”

Definitions of focus time will vary by team. Reid, who manages many of our colleagues doing creative work, says focus time needs to be three hours—minimum—working on a problem without distraction or context switching.

“Density of time is important to do good work,” he says. “Work produced in one four-hour block is better than work produced in four one-hour blocks.”

Work produced in one four-hour block is better than work produced in four one-hour blocks.
Hey, give me back my smile. Reid Peifer Chief Creative Officer, Modern Tribe

At Modern Tribe, focus time, or “heads down time” as we often call it, is typically a block of time that we put on our individual calendars as moments when we’re not to be disturbed if possible. “Focus time gives us ‘guaranteed’ time to be able to do a deep dive into something,” says Nell, agency project manager. Some teams choose to have consistent heads down blocks built into their schedules each week. But it can also manifest as a more abstract value: ““We don’t have set focus time hours on our team,” Nell adds. “I just work to schedule meetings in clusters, so they’re less disruptive.”

3. Offer your team initial methods to try.

Some initiatives we started with included creating dedicated meeting agendas; encouraging individual team members to add focus time blocks to their personal calendars; and sharing tools we all could try, like Clockwise, a calendar app that syncs to both your calendar and Slack and uses AI to support uninterrupted blocks of work time.

“We use a daily hotsheet, and I consolidate non-urgent questions there,” says Nell. “Then, team members can take a look when they’re starting their day and address the questions whenever works best for them.”

Regardless of what strategies you start with, the golden rule of focus time is that it works best when it’s scheduled and respected. Block it off on your shared calendar so anyone scheduling meetings for you can see what time is, whenever possible, off limits.

The golden rule of focus time is that it works best when it’s scheduled and respected.

“We make an effort to not schedule team-wide or recurring meetings in the mornings of Mondays and Wednesdays,” Kat says. “And typically Fridays are pretty meeting light.”

It’s helpful to kick off your new focus time strategies by reviewing some no-brainer (but still hard!) best practices with the managers who will lead the charge and set expectations with staff:

  • Pick one goal to accomplish during heads down time.
  • Only open applications on your computer if they’re ones you need for the task at hand.
  • Turn off notifications and close your messaging platforms, including email.
  • Put your phone on silent and hide it away in a drawer or somewhere else out of sight; even if it’s turned off, just having it next to you can diminish your focus.

4. Document what works and what doesn’t.

We’ve learned that one thing that definitely does not work is simply telling people to “focus more.” It comes across as confusing at best—what does it meaaaan?—and condescending at worst.

Workplaces need institutional support to promote focus. At Modern Tribe, we have the additional challenge of a fully remote and often asynchronous work environment. We need to have formal methodology in place to coordinate work effectively so we don’t devolve into an “ask anyone anything, anytime” mentality.

Successful strategies we’ve found for this include pinned team agenda channels on Slack, so team members can pocket a discussion topic for later, and dedicated focus time coordinated across a team—a whole team heads down at the same time helps colleagues outside the group plan meetings around your general workflow.

A formal focus time methodology helps avoid an ‘ask anyone anything, anytime’ mentality.

“We respect heads down time when we can, although sometimes we do need to overwrite it,” Ashley says. “We are always willing to prioritize and clear plates when asked, and we do so often.”

Obviously, focus time is always in flux. Your new client, for example, may only be able to meet during routine team focus time, and you’ll have to make some adjustments. It’s impossible to one-and-done something this complex. Instead, talk about focus time at least once a month with your team and track what’s working and what’s not. You could add it as a line item to those wonderful dedicated meeting agendas you started making in Step 3. 🙂

5. Iterate on what’s working.

An example: We love the #bananas out of Slack. It’s such a stellar communications tool, especially for remote teams; however, we found that the amount of discussion and real-time chatter make it difficult to track important project-related communication for future reference. It didn’t make sense to have a channel for the myriad projects a team was working on each sprint, so we decided to make a clear distinction between the types of discussions that go in Slack vs. the decisions and direction that belong in our project management tool.

This example might seem unrelated, but focus time helped support the idea to migrate to Jira, a more flexible and interactive project management tool than our legacy system. While we hunkered in heads down work, we found ourselves re-opening messaging systems to catch up on or find project notes… which then opened us up to endless scrolling, ping alerts and more… d’aw look at this cute puppy in the #tribe-pets channel! Now our communications systems work more in tandem and support different moments of our workflow.

You’ll find that by prioritizing focus time for teams, you open the door for other time-saving or productivity solutions simply by establishing that your company values time management and giving space for ideas to happen. Kat’s team, for example, uncovered a way to improve weekly scrum meetings.

“We recently started alternating who runs scrum and it’s pretty great,” she says. “I feel like whoever is running it feels a bit more invested, and it’s pretty awesome hearing them frame work within the timing of the sprint, checking with team members if they think they’ll make code freeze and just the fact that I’m not the one having to point out that date!” Kat points out that rotating the facilitator role works best when all team members are working on the same projects.

By prioritizing focus time for teams, you open the door for other time-saving or productivity solutions.

6. Plan for a focused future.

An unfocused team will cost you—in more ways than one.

“Having focus time allows us all to make meaningful progress in our work,” Kat says. “I think it also helps to alleviate a blame-type environment. If you have your team constantly in meetings and unable to wrap their heads around their actual work, negativity rises up and folks will start to point fingers, and the way the team jives is totally different and not healthy.”

As your focus time initiatives take root, allow opportunities for them to grow. Try incorporating focus time definitions and tools into onboarding processes, or make time for teams with focus-wins to share what worked and why during all-staff meetings.

We’re still working to find the best ways to incorporate focus time across our organization. Our ideas for the future are individual (“Using a bullet journal for personal focus has been a big personal win for me and I think it could be really helpful to others on the team,” Reid says) and company-wide (“I would love to kill all recurring meetings and schedule as needed,” Carly says).

At Modern Tribe, we find inspiration in every challenge, including time management ones. Striking the right balance between culture and workflow, individual heads down time and team collaboration, is not easy, especially as a fully remote agency, but we’re already certain it’s worth it. Focus time helps our team members feel respected and helps us deliver fully on our mantra — living well and doing good work.

How does your team create focus time? Get ideas with our Better Connected newsletter.

We’d love to hear strategies that have worked for you. Email and your idea could be included in a future edition of our new monthly newsletter, Better Connected by Modern Tribe. Subscribe to Better Connected for more business ideas, digital insights and maybe even a few helpful GIFs. We promise not to be distracting.




Jackie Mantey is a writer, editor, and content strategist. She’s currently Lead Writer and Editor for the Marketing and Communications team at California College of the Arts, working remotely from Chicago.



I'm an art director hailing from the great northern state of Minnesota. After a decade in the industry, I'm only interested in projects where we get to add real value. I believe in making grids, breaking grids, clean code, good type, 70's motorcycles, and Raymond Chandler novels.