Leadership Matters | Winter 2020
Skate Shorter Shifts: A Strategy for Focus
Use this hockey lesson to remain focused amidst distractions.
Jon Lokhorst, CPA, ACC
Executive Leadership Coach, Lokhorst Consulting
If you’re struggling to stay focused throughout this pandemic, you’re not alone—it’s a
recurring theme for workers across organizations and industries. There are countless
distractions every day as coronavirus concerns, economic uncertainties, and social unrest
compound the challenges of working from home with partners, pets, and children. For most
of us, sustained focus is a real challenge these days. But for those of us looking for ways
to improve our focus, insight may come from a surprising source: your favorite hockey team.
Hockey is one of the only sports where players can enter and leave the game on the fly.
You don’t have to wait for a whistle or a stoppage in play, like in most sports. Coaches can
change players at virtually any time. The challenge is keeping players from staying on the
ice too long for a given shift.
At the higher levels of the game, players typically skate 45-second shifts. But at key times,
coaches will have their players skate shorter shifts. That might be near the end of a hard-fought
game, when the team has played several games in short succession, or at crunch
time during a post-season tournament. In those cases, skating shorter shifts preserves
players’ stamina, energy, and focus. Those shorter shifts can make the difference between
winning and losing. That is true of your work, too, especially during this unique, challenging
time. For you, skating shorter shifts means giving laser-focused attention in 50-minute
blocks that enable you to accomplish your top priorities and highest quality work.
Here are five steps to facilitating these focused work sessions.
Optimize Your Environment
Move anything from your desktop that will distract from your focused attention. That
includes the physical desk or table where you work, as well as any open windows on your
computer. Put away your smartphone, tablet, and any other device that can generate
notifications and other distractions that will steer you off course. If possible, close the door
to your office or workspace to block external distractions. If you work from home, coordinate
with your household to preserve your ability to work uninterrupted during this 50-minute
focused block of time. The same is true if you’re working in a company office. Enlist your
team members and coworkers to protect your undistracted attention. Consider using noise-reducing
headphones if you can’t eliminate distracting background noise.
Narrow Your Focus
Set a clear goal for what you want to accomplish during your focused work session. Identify
this goal at the end of the previous day or the first thing in the morning to anchor it in your
head and avoid wasting precious time at the start of your session figuring out what to do.
Determining your goal ahead of time will enable you to hit the ground running—or hit the
ice on the fly, as the case may be.
Dedicate these sessions to high-value, meaningful work that requires deeper concentration,
not routine tasks like processing your email or calendar issues. This is an opportunity
for intense focus and deep thinking. Make your goal clear and specific; think of it as a race against the clock for a significant accomplishment during this time.
Fifty minutes doesn’t seem like much, but it’s amazing what you can
get done when you stay laser-focused on the goal.
Keep a notepad to record other ideas and concerns that arise.
Moving them to the “bench” list will enable you to regain focus
rather than allowing them to take you down a long rabbit hole.
Set Your Timer
Many hockey teams assign an assistant coach to track how long
their players have been on the ice. The coach uses a stopwatch to
determine when it’s time to change players. By limiting their players’
shifts, coaches prevent fatigue from sapping the stamina and focus
needed for peak performance. This principle is crucial as you plan
your focused work sessions, too.
Start with 50-minute shifts and use a timer to keep to that limit.
Research shows that 50 minutes (give or take a few minutes) is
about the most an average brain can stay laser-focused on tasks
that require significant cognitive attention. With practice, you might
extend your ability to focus longer and adjust your work sessions’
Don’t overdo it; avoid going past the point of diminishing returns
when your performance starts to wane. I use a countdown timer on
a productivity app called Focus at Will to limit my time (which also
plays music scientifically proven to improve focus).
Take Your Break
Stop when your timer goes off. Put those last words down on paper
or numbers on the spreadsheet, then give yourself a break. Again,
research has proven that our brains need a break from intense focus
to remain productive. It’s no different from taking breaks between
exercises if you work out with a personal trainer or at a gym.
Make a note of where you leave off before you take your break, so
you can resume your work seamlessly. Then get away from your
computer screen, desk, or workstation. Your mind needs a break,
and so do your eyes, back, and seat. Take a short walk, refill your
coffee, or pet the dog.
Set your break timer for five to 10 minutes and when that time is up,
go back to work. Rinse and repeat. With practice, you can string
together a series of three or four focused work sessions before
needing a more extended break. You can maximize the value of
these focus and rest sessions by reserving regular blocks for them
on your calendar.
Plan Your Recovery
Despite your best efforts, at some point, one of your focused work
sessions will unravel. It’s inevitable. A coworker will interrupt you, a
family member will intrude, or the dog will bark at the UPS truck—
or you’ll simply find your mind drifting from the task at hand. Don’t
throw in the towel; stay in the game. You can prepare for these
disruptions and create a plan to recover after they occur.
When the interruption breaks your focus, first make a note of where
you left off so you can return to that point and then go ahead and
take your break ahead of time to deal with the interruption or clear
your head. Then return to work and continue toward your goal.
Give it a try. Skating shorter shifts will help you achieve greater
concentration amid the distractions of this challenging time. Once
you make it a practice, it can help you become a more effective
and focused leader.