5 Ways to Help Your Design Team Focus

I’ve tried to write this post on helping your design team focus for days and am finally sitting down to put pen to paper, er…fingers to keys. I’ve been staring at a blank screen for the last 5 minutes hoping to get at least one paragraph down. I contemplated using ChatGTP to write this since that’s all the rage, but something about using that makes me feel dirty. So far, the distractions have been winning. The kids have come in asking for breakfast, a snack, ice cream, or popsicles – since the sun has decided to finally make its appearance in West Michigan for maybe the second time in February – and just now asked if I could come outside and play soccer for a couple of goals. I’ll be right back…playing with the kids’ trumps writing an article that 10 people might read.

I’m back. Taylor Swift is playing now and I completely relate to her lyrics, “It’s me, hi. I’m the problem, it’s me”.

Hey look, a squirrel!

Now, where were we? Oh right, let’s talk about focus.

Why is it so hard to find focus?

In a world that is constantly attempting to distract us, it is a struggle to focus. Social media, texts, snaps, alerts, calls, and notifications are constantly nagging us to look, click, and engage. To-Do Lists are beckoning us to get done. Projects and chores don’t get done on their own and you can’t walk around the house without noticing the other things that you have been neglecting. Kids, spouses, and friends are in need of our time and attention. Attention spans are shortened and expectations, requests, and lists are never-ending. And this is just as individuals.

As a design leader, I have seen this struggle to focus prevalent on the product design teams I lead. In 1:1s with teams I’ve led, one of the topics that seem to come up the most is around focus, distractions, or at the core, time management. How to get the work done. How to minimize meetings and other distractions to focus on the work. I feel it is one of my key responsibilities to help my teams focus so they can stay on target and do the work they are hired to do. The best work comes when someone can go deep and work without distractions.

Some distractions are external and as leaders, we can influence or remove them. By eliminating redundant meetings or blocking off deep work time. But other skills need to be taught to our team members to encourage better habits and give them the tools they need to focus.

As a Design Leader, You Can Help Your Design Team Focus

Finding ways to help your design team focus and stay on track is essential to ensure successful outcomes. Here are five tips to help your design team stay focused.

1. Inventory tasks and set clear goals

If your team doesn’t have a complete list of their commitments and projects, they can’t really prioritize what they need to focus on. Communicating goals, timelines, and expectations on a frequent basis keeps everybody on the same page and helps team members stay on top of and accountable for their tasks. (Incidentally, I love Notion and recently stumbled upon a template by Thomas Frank to use Notion as a Second Brain. I’m giving it a go and will likely report back if it works well.)

2. Establish a rhythm

Consistent routines can help your design team focus and stay productive. Ensuring that there are regular times for meetings is a step in the right direction. Eliminating or minimizing other meetings is even better. Empower your team to decline meaningless meetings. Help establish meeting hygiene and best practices. Make it acceptable to decline meetings that don’t have an agenda. This helps put your team in control of their day so they can focus on high-priority work.

3. Enable intentional productivity

It’s easy to get caught up in the trap of “being busy”. Many hours or even days can be lost doing a bunch of nothing. When you have 1:1s with your team, ask if they have the time and space to do the work they need to be doing. If they don’t, support them in finding or creating the time or remove the obstacles that may be getting in their way. Maybe they need to adjust their hours or block out their calendar to ensure they have time for focused work. You may even need to step in to find the issues and help address them.

4. Formalize focus time

So much good work happens when people get into the deep work zone. One of the easiest ways to encourage focused work is to simply put it on the calendar. Create a culture that protects work time. Make it a team norm to block out an afternoon or two for focused work. This only works if no one is allowed to schedule meetings over this time. Make it sacred. You, as a leader, will also need to respect this time and work with cross-functional leaders to make sure that they respect it too. Maybe even coordinating between designers and product, for example, as I’m sure they need focus time as well.

5. Respect the boundaries

We just talked about establishing routines and mindsets for focus work and even went as far as normalizing protecting work time. This will only work if the calendar, status message on chat, etc. are honored and respected. If you interrupt it, it sets the precedent for others to do the same, negating having the time in the first place. If you set the tone to respect the boundaries, others will too.

Now, where did I put that squirrel?

These are just a handful of practices that can help build a culture where design team focus is the norm and your design team members can focus on the work that matters. As a leader, it’s vital that you understand the importance of this time and use these principles to keep your team engaged and focused in an environment that seeks to keep them distracted. Stand up and support their ability to focus to help them create work that matters and they, you, and the company will win.

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