How to Secure the Isolation You Need to Be Effective

Posted on April 10, 2013 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion, Individual Solutions
Lone house

The acclaimed American novelist Jonathan Franzen has an unusual way of ensuring he can concentrate and be creative. To quote the NY Times:

Some days, Jonathan Franzen wrote in the dark. He did so in a Spartan studio … behind soundproof walls and a window of double-paned glass. The blinds were drawn. The lights were off. And Franzen … wore earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold.

Kudos to the Franzen for being a touch typist, but here I want to focus on his statement: “It’s very, very hard to concentrate. You have to hold your mind free of all the clichés”. Now, his means of getting this freedom may verge on the eccentric, but the underlying question remains: do we need this sort of isolation for intellectual work?

The upside and the downside of true isolation

Yes, we do. The need to eliminate interruptions and distractions has been studied and discussed by many researchers. Distractions have been shown to cause severe degradation in creativity, quality, accuracy, and productivity of knowledge workers. It follows that removing distractions, as done in the well known Quiet Time experiments, can improve all these parameters, and indeed it does.  I’ve summarized some of the highlights in a recent insight article.

These experiments, however, never go so far as to use earplugs and blindfolds; they attempt to control incoming interrupts like email, phone calls and coworker inquiries. Once you do that, the removal of auditory distractions is left up to the individual, and seldom goes beyond music in a headset.

On the flip side, isolation is anathema to a key element of the modern workplace paradigm: teamwork and collaboration. How can you collaborate with your coworkers when each of you is hidden behind earmuffs and email blockers?

Isolation is not an issue for a novelist, or for a monk, but a full withdrawal from interaction would never work for knowledge workers in an enterprise – I’m sure you’ll agree. Which brings us to that fuzzy but necessary task of trying to find the golden mean between real isolation and in-your-face interruptions.

Balancing opposites

I’m not an advisor to eccentric novelists, but my work with knowledge workers taught me that a certain measure of isolation from distractions is highly desirable, as long as you leave enough available time for interaction with others. There are two ways you can get the isolation without going off the deep end:

1. You can secure complete isolation part of the time. That is, accept that much of your work time is interruptible, but set aside times when you will not be interrupted at all. There are many ways you can achieve this, for instance:

  • You can avoid the office and work from home part of the time – a day here and a day there. This is best done in the context of a formal Telecommuting program, but some people do it ad hoc – I’ve even seen people who call in sick merely so they can focus on creating some report nearing its deadline.
  • You can leave the office for a week or so at a time. Some companies actually send their managers to retreats in remote locations; some senior managers, like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, do so on their own.
  • You can implement a Quiet Time arrangement where your team recognizes certain times – usually in half-day chunks – as interruption free.
  • You can travel – no place like a hotel room in a remote city or country to get some focus time, and for those whose routine includes many business trips this actually has an impact (at least for me it had – my best ideas came to me during such trips).
  • You can start work earlier than everyone else, or stay much later, to work in peace (but it is getting harder to do so).

2. You can secure partial isolation most of the time. This means you go to the office normally but reduce the impact of interruptions on your work there. For example:

  • You can use a headset to hear music while you work. This not only reduces the inevitable noise pollution of an open space office area, it can also be relaxing if you choose the right music. Another variation on this is using white noise type sounds, like surf noise, in the headset. And either way, seeing you like that may deter some of the people popping into your cubicle.
  • You can use a “Do not disturb” barrier on your office door. This won’t keep out the noise, but will deter the less persistent interrupters.
  • You can block incoming messages and alerts – some, like “you’ve got mail” pop-ups, are best blocked all the time; others you may want to block only during times you set aside for thinking work.  There are software tools that help you do this easily; I’ll give a list in a coming post.
  • You can seek refuge in a conference room away from your office (a wasteful solution in real estate terms, but many use it), or in the cafeteria (an effective solution much in use).
  • You can sneak some work time in coffee shops, at customer offices, or in a different building of your own company. You can even do so on a train, if you use one in your daily commute.
  • You could get an office with a door. Of course your  employer would need to support this mode (mine never did… sigh).

What you should do

As you see, you have quite a selection of methods… take your pick! Just remember to incorporate in your schedule both protected thinking time, and time you’re open for group interaction. How much of each? That’s your call, although for most typical enterprise jobs I’d say 15–20% isolation would be  about optimal.

Let us know in the comments what works best for you!


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