Focusing despite technology


One of the hard parts of leading a remote project or team, is that using technology to communicate can feel like we’re looking for an address in a rainstorm. Here’s what I mean: Have you ever driven late at night, in the pouring rain, looking for an address, and had to turn down the radio so you can see better?

That’s because our brains can only focus on one thing at a time. We turn off the music, not so we can “see”, but to focus on the task at hand. The same thing happens in meetings and day to day work with our remote teams.

Here are some ways to limit the distractions technology creates:

Email is the “radio” in this example. When having a one-on-one coaching session or a team meeting, explicitly request that everyone (that includes you) turns off any distractions. Email and Instant Messaging are important, but so is what you’re doing. When we realize it’s more effective to handle the task at hand rather than indulge our Pavlovian responses to the incoming message, we’ll develop the discipline to focus and do better work in less time.

Develop “muscle memory” when it comes to the technology. When we learned to drive, everything we did took concentration. We looked at the dashboard, we looked in the mirror, and had to think about all those actions. Now we do it all in split seconds, and often without realizing we did it.

That’s because it’s become “muscle memory” and doesn’t require as much of our active brain. That frees us up for high-level thinking. By the way, it only takes about half a dozen times using something like the Whiteboard in WebEx to develop those skills. The bad part is you can’t develop them any other way.

This goes for your audience, too. The more your team uses a technology as part of their every day work, the less of a distraction it is. My partner at the Remote Leadership Institute, Kevin Eikenberry, has a great example of this. He often uses Skype to communicate with his team, and never insisted they use their webcams, unless it was critical that he look them in the eye. Word got out that if he asked them to use their webcams, the meeting was really important, and probably bad news. By using it for every occasion, it removed the stress associated with using the tool.

Have someone else drive. The simplest way to find that address is to have someone keep their eyes on the road while you scan for that elusive house number. Or you can drive and have them look. Either way, if you can offload some of the technology distractions like having someone else monitor the time, or deputized to let you know when you’re getting off track, or even writing on the whiteboard for you, it frees you up to do your job.

As a remote leader, technology is the way you communicate. It should be a conduit to better information flow, not a bottleneck that constricts it. Until they develop a GPS for teams, it’s up to you.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.