Posted by: Liz Massey | February 25, 2011

The Creative Person’s Guide to Focus, Part 5: Collaboration? Or Interruption?

Photo courtesy SXC.

The history of artistic creation is overflowing with examples of successful collaboration: Ira and George Gershwin, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz, etc. But many of us lack the experience of collaborating at that level, or the satisfaction of producing results of the caliber of the aforementioned masters.

When undertaken in an reflexive, mindless sort of way, attempts at creative collaboration can quickly devolve into a hell of interruption. This is particularly for artists and innovators who do some or all of their collaboration at their day job or in a standard office environment.

“Can I have a word with you?”
Research by Gloria Mark of the University of California-Irvine indicates that the average worker is only able to stay on-task with a project requiring concentration for 10 minutes before encountering either an external interruption or a reason to self-interrupt. Once interrupted workers take more than 20 minutes to get back to their task, and 40 percent of the time, they simply never return to the original task at all.

A related challenge to creative focus is found in the design of contemporary offices. While open floor plans are definitely superior to cubicle farms for encouraging impromptu conversations and other collaborative activities, not all companies remember to pair open seating with concentration zones to allow creative professionals the opportunity to think in private.

At its worst, this sort of work environment can create a mindset characterized by what writer, speaker and consultant Linda Stone terms “continuous partial attention.” This is even less desirable than a multitasking mindset, she says, because while multitasking exists for the hope of productivity gains, continuous partial attention is ruled by fear.

She writes:

“Like so many things, in small doses, continuous partial attention can be a very functional behavior. However, in large doses, it contributes to a stressful lifestyle, to operating in crisis management mode, and to a compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively.

“In a 24/7, always-on world, continuous partial attention used as our dominant attention mode contributes to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and to a sense of being unfulfilled. We are so accessible, we’re inaccessible. The latest, greatest powerful technologies have contributed to our feeling increasingly powerless.”

How to Collaborate with Focus
So how does one partner with others without becoming a pest, or suffering at the hands of one? There are a number of steps that can be taken to ensure joint projects flow smoothly.

Discuss what collaboration means to you and your partner(s). Even if you regularly work with a collaborator, it doesn’t hurt to clarify roles and expectations from time to time, especially when you begin a project that differs from ones you have done together in the past.

Enforce time boundaries. Karen Leland, writing on GigaOm, suggests time-shifting non-emergency interruption requests. Make an appointment for later, when you do have time to attend to it. She also suggests that you set an aggressive time limit for dealing with the interruption and sticking with it, noting that this can compress the amount of time required to devote to it dramatically. “Most people, when pressed to make their point quickly, will get to it in about half the time it would normally take,” she says.

Bypass the story. Another good suggestion by Leland, which requires that parties interrupting you summarize in a single sentence:

  • What they need from you
  • The solution they propose
  • The exact time they need the deliverable requested of you.

Change locations. Both Leland (who encourages interrupted folks to commandeer empty offices) and Jason Fried, founder of 37Signals (who has proclaimed the death of the modern office as a place to get work done), extol relocation as a valid strategy to regain one’s creative concentration. There’s also some evidence that changing where you engage in a concentration-heavy task can improve the retention of new information.

Avoid the “M and M’s” — meetings and managers. Fried openly mocks the usefulness of both:

“If you listen to all the places that people talk about doing work — like at home, or in a car, or on a plane, or late at night, or early in the morning — you don’t find managers and meetings; you find a lot of other distractions, but you don’t find managers and meetings.  …

“Managers are basically people whose job it is to interrupt people. That’s pretty much what managers are for, they’re for interrupting people. They don’t really do the work, so they have to make sure everyone else is doing the work, which is an interruption.”

Since most of us can’t chuck the M and M’s entirely, it can be helpful to clarify up front when encountering them … is this a collaborative moment, or is this meeting/manager interface a request for a status update or progress report?

Bonus Links – Online Tools for Creative Collaboration

Google Docs
Google Docs allows you to access your files (spreadsheets, written documents, presentations, forms and drawings) from any computer or mobile device. You can also share these files with others easily.

Google Sites
This free and easy website builder has become popular with workteams interested in creating private project sites for sharing internal information safely. Here’s a post showing an example of how to use the Sites function for managing a project with multiple collaborators.

WordPress isn’t the only blog platform out there, but it’s open source and has a robust development community. It’s also become extremely popular for individuals and teams wanting to build “project blogs” to facilitate collaboration. Here’s a post from that discusses how to use a self-hosted WordPress blog to manage a project. (Warning: there is some techie-speak and HTML involved.)

Basecamp is a product of 37Signals, Jason Fried’s company. It seeks to simplify the communication that is part of a long, complex, multi-person project. I have not personally used the software, but I know web managers and creative people who swear by it. And it may say something that the three examples of project management currently (February 2011) on the Basecamp home page are from a brand design firm, an independent art retailer and a high-end wedding planner. However, be aware that Basecamp is the only link on this bonus list that doesn’t have a free version.

Interesting software that allows companies and organizations to collaborate privately in a social network type environment. A free version is available, but when signing up, you MUST use an organizational or company domain e-mail — no Hotmail or Yahoo.

Work Together: 60+ Collaborative Tools for Groups
A great roundup of sites that offer collaborative work options.


  1. Excellent article. I never really looked at my work interruptions as part of the collaborative process, but of course they are. If I could graphically map my workday and where my time is spent and the rabbit trails I chase all day it would boggle the mind.

    • Thanks, Joy. I was staggered by the research I cited — that office workers usually can’t stay focused for more than 20 minutes before being distracted. A LinkedIn group I belong to for creative professionals is engaging in a discussion right now about whether “open floor plans” encourage collaboration or merely interruption. One thing I learned recently in terms of research that’s really interesting is that some creative people have a harder time “filtering” background noise, etc. The “cross-pollination” from the unblocked out stuff probably makes them more creative, but it also increases the chances of just feeling interrupted and distracted. That’s certainly been my experience with open floor plans …

  2. […] of greater creative focus by developing plans to unplug, single-task, cultivate flow, and collaborate to suggest you can increase focus by eschewing plans and improvising. But engaging in spontaneous, […]

  3. […] with creative partners of all sorts. The segment is based upon my “focus + collaboration” post, as well as more recent material on creative collaboration that I’ve run […]

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