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Less distractions, more focus: how to survive in the field

“If you chase two rabbits, both will escape” said an unknown sage. And she was right. I doubt you have rabbits to run after, but no doubt you have way too many commitments, meetings, paperwork, reports to write. Life in the field is on constant ’emergency mode’, even when there is no emergency. This way is built into the fabric of NGOs, and it’s one of the reasons why so many people burnout. You may even be telling yourself that you have no time to read this post now.

If you have staff or co-workers who rely on you, you might be constantly interrupted – in person, by phone, via instant messages, by email – by people who need decisions made, conflicts managed, problems solved, requests fulfilled. You know exactly what I’m talking about. In an era of ‘mass distraction’,  it’s amazing what focus can do for your wellbeing.

Some thoughts on how to focus: mindfulness at work 

So how do we find focus with these kinds of constant, urgent interruptions? There are many possible solutions, and not all will apply to everyone, but here are some ideas:

»  Remove yourself as a bottleneck. It’s almost impossible to find a moment of peace when all decisions, all problems, must come through you. So train others to make these decisions. Set guidelines for making the decisions so that they’d make the same decisions you would in those circumstances. Set criteria for calling you or interrupting you, so that only decisions above a certain threshold of importance will come to you. Find others who can handle the problems, instead of you. Sure, it’ll mean you have less control, but it’ll also mean you have fewer interruptions.

»  Set hours of unavailability. Set office hours, or hours when you must not be interrupted except for absolute emergencies. Then you can deal with problems/requests at certain times of the day, and focus during other times.

»  Delegate a backup decision maker. If you’re a manager, set up a second-in-command, so that when you’re away from the office, or if you take a few hours off for uninterrupted time, problems can still be solved. Train the second-in-command so that she knows how to make the decisions appropriately.

»  Set expectations. Staff or coworkers only interrupt you because they have the expectation that you’ll respond and that it’s OK to interrupt you at any time. If you change those expectations, you can channel the requests/problems to a time that you want to deal with them. For example: tell people that you only check email at 3 p.m.  because you need to focus on other work, and that they shouldn’t expect a response sooner. Experiment with what works for you — the point is to set a plan of action and manage the expectations of others so that you can stick to that plan.

» Be in the moment. If you’re unable to get away from the interruptions, then learn to deal with each interruption one at a time, when possible, and give your full attention to each person, each problem, as you deal with them. This allows you to be less stressed and to deal calmly and fully with every person who needs your attention.

» Focus when away from work. If you can’t find focus at work, because of the need to be interrupted at all times, at least find time away from work when you can clear away distractions and find time for quiet, peace, reflection, reading, writing, creating.

Sanity is a practice, and focus its one of its tools. It’s up to us to set boundaries and expectations. The field will eat you alive if you don’t.


Adapted from Leo Babauta‘s uncopyrighted Focus. A Simplicity Manifesto in the Age of Distraction.

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Mindfulnext by Alessandra Pigni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.