Focus in a Distracted Era

Two people sitting next to each other on a bench in a lovely nature setting, both looking at their phones

I recently had the opportunity to attend my first Prometheus Retreat (more on that in a minute), and it got me thinking about the concepts of connection, distraction, unplugging, and focus, issues I’ve written about here before.

Twenty association executives (CEOs and EDs, AMC leaders, and consultants) gathered at a lovely resort in Pennsylvania to ponder some Big Issues together: AI, DEI, nurturing the next generation of association leaders, the role of voluntary membership associations in an increasingly polarized society, and, of course, boards boards boards.

At our closing circle, one of the other newbies mentioned that an experienced Promethian had, upon seeing her take out her phone to respond to email early in the retreat, advised her to put it away. My fellow newbie expressed her deep gratitude for that advice, which she chose to follow and which she felt dramatically improved her experience.

As I wrote back in 2009:

The thing about being “on” all the time is that it can seriously interfere both with our actual face-to-face relationships (and our ability to form and nurture them) and with our ability to really *think* about stuff. We’re not multitasking mavens – we’re just distracted…all the time.

“Connection” is ubiquitous today. We all always have a tiny super computer in our pockets that lures us with games and amusing (or infuriating) videos and the infinite scroll of social media platforms and “I’ll just take 30 seconds to answer this email right now and get it off my plate.”

But that doesn’t come without a cost. We’ve all seen – or been – the distracted spouse, parent, friend scrolling our phones rather than paying attention to the person in front of us. We’ve all experienced the Pavlovian response to the new email notification that “is just going to take 30 seconds” and yet interrupts our focus on whatever it was we were doing before it arrived for FAR LONGER than 30 seconds – that “switch tasking” (a more accurate descriptor than “multi-tasking”) can consume as much as 40% of your productive time.

How do we ensure that all this wonderful tech serves us rather than the other way around?

Some of the practices I follow include:

  • Turning off nearly all notifications on both my computer and my smart phone
  • Using time blocking for tasks that I know will require significant uninterrupted focus
  • Confining work, to the greatest degree possible, to my actual physical home office (I am fortunate to have a dedicated room)
  • Not keeping my phone on me at all times (a privilege of not having school-aged children)
  • Resisting the siren song of false urgency (just because someone wants something right this second does not necessarily mean that they need it right this second, aka “A lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.”
  • Identifying a few trips each year where I am NOT working (and letting clients, partners, and my various volunteer gigs know that WELL in advance)

What practices have you found to be helpful in preserving your ability to focus in a distracted era?

Photo by Gigi on Unsplash

3: Getting the Most Out of Your Consulting Partnerships

two women sitting in front of a computer monitor working together in an open office

Coming in at Number Three in the all-time Top 10 Spark blog posts: Getting the Most Out of Your Consulting Partnerships. (And it garnered a lot of pingbacks, which is probably one of the reasons it’s so high on the list.)

The original post was written about a year into the Spark journey.

So how did I already have a perspective on effective consulting partnerships?

Well, aside from having worked with consultants in my 13 years as an association exec before launching Spark, I’d also had the opportunity to do two years of consulting (one for a big firm, one for a small firm) before launching. (That turned out to have been seriously helpful when I did launch, as then I didn’t have to try to learn how to consult AND how to run a small business at the same time. But that’s a different post.)

I think my opening question: “Hire a consultant, or…?” is still a good one. Association execs do have lots of options: hiring or training staff, outsourcing, relying on member volunteers. Consultants are, I think, mostly useful for bringing an experienced, outsider strategic perspective in situations where you don’t need access to that type of expertise all the time.

The rest of the advice in the post remains solid, too, I think.

In the past decade, I have, however, noticed some things that can really cause a consulting relationship to go sideways:

  • Lack of agreement on the problem we’re trying to solve. Getting clarity on this is a shared responsibility that requires a willingness on both sides to be open and honest about what’s really going on at the association. If the client’s staff hides unflattering information from the consultant or the consultant is afraid to tell the client what she really thinks, everyone’s going to be working at cross-purposes and there will be a LOT of misunderstandings. And then no one ends up happy.
  • Lack of buy-in from staff and/or volunteer leadership. I’m thinking of a particular project where a VP hired me and then promptly quit – his last day on staff was the day of our project kickoff meeting. That left our project without an executive-level sponsor. The project team and I worked really hard for months, and it all turned out to be for nothing, as we discovered as we were delivering our recommendations that the CEO was never in favor of the project in the first place. Not good.
  • Negative organizational culture. The committee chairs are angry with the board. The board doesn’t trust the executive director. The staff is mad at the affiliate leaders or vice versa. Different departments maliciously conceal information from each other. There’s no agreement about organizational priorities. People don’t trust each other or communicate well internally. Everyone’s attitude is on a downward spiral, and everyone’s trying to sabotage their perceived enemies. The consultant ends up rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg. Yikes.
  • Unrealistic expectations. “We’d like you to triple our membership in six months or less. And we’d like a guarantee of success. And we have a budget of about $5,000.” Again, expectation setting is a shared responsibility and should happen early in the process – like during the proposal or, at the latest, at the kickoff meeting. But if what you’re asking for sounds crazy, it probably is.

It’s important for association execs to remember that consultants don’t just want you to pay us for our expertise (although of course we do want that), we want to help you with your problems and for you to be happy with the results. We want to come up with solutions for you that you can actually implement and that work. Don’t treat us as adversaries – we’re not. Most of us have, at one point or another in our careers, been in your shoes. We empathize, but we also have perspective. Take advantage of that.

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash

Tips for Working from Home

computer, cup of coffee, glasses, on a desk

I have to caveat this by saying I can’t help you with what do to with your kids (I don’t have any myself) or with your team telework tech (it’s just me here at Spark).


I have been working for myself from my home office for nearly eight years. Here are some things that work for me, to keep me productive without letting work consume my entire life (well, at least until the times that things get REALLY busy with client work).

  • No working in your PJs. Put on pants, even if they’re yoga pants or basketball shorts. Take a shower, comb your hair, brush your teeth, make your bed. Don’t go feral 🙂
  • Dedicate a space to work. I have an actual office, as in a separate room with a door where I can close out my spouse (who also works at home full time) that’s set up with a desk and chair, my computer and printer, my file cabinets, etc. You may not be able to do that in your temporary situation, but pick a spot where you do work, which means that everywhere else in your house, you DON’T do work.
  • No snacking. You don’t have to confine yourself to “three squares,” but when you’re going to eat, close your computer, go to the kitchen, put the food on a plate, sit down and eat it, clean up, and then go back to work.
  • Leave your house once a day. I know we’re social distancing, but you can still go out in your yard for a few minutes or take a walk around the block without interacting with other people. You need sunshine to make vitamin D, so go get some.
  • Beware social media. It can be a real time suck. Do you actually need to have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. open on your computer? No? Close it down. Same thing for email. Turn off auto-notifications, set a few times throughout the day to check all that stuff, check it, then shut it down.
  • Get some exercise. That walk counts, but make sure you’re getting up and moving around periodically throughout the day, too. We tend to feel guilt or like we have to prove ourselves when working from home. “I can’t leave my computer for 10 seconds, because the way I’ll prove my dedication and that I’m not slacking off is to respond to every type of message that comes in the second it arrives.” Do you do that when you’re in the office? No, you do not. And your colleagues understand that you might be getting a cup of coffee or running a quick errand or chatting with a colleague, and it’s fine. It’s fine when you’re working from home, too. Take a 10 minute yoga (or dance, or jump rope, or squats) break.
  • Stick to your work hours, whatever they are. And with your kids at home, they might need to be something other than 9 am to 5 pm. When quittin’ time hits, QUIT. Close up/turn off your computer, put away your documents, stop checking email and Slack, leave your workspace. Maybe do something as a ritual to end your day. I often make myself a cup of tea, look at what’s coming up tomorrow, and then write in my journal.
  • DO NOT check in before bed. Also, DO NOT read the news or social media right before bed (that’s generally good advice but particularly so right now). Relatedly, take at least one day each week completely off work.
  • This one is for bosses: your staff is dealing with a lot right now. Everything is not going to be exactly like it always is (other than the fact that people aren’t in the office). Yes, productivity is likely to suffer. People are having to take care of their kids. We’re all under a lot of stress. Focus on what REALLY NEEDS to get done, and maybe let what doesn’t slide for the moment.

Regular teleworkers: What other tips do you have for people?

New teleworkers: What questions do you have for those of us with more experience? 

Leave your advice and queries in the comments! 

Photo by Djurdjica Boskovic on Unsplash

In Order to Advance, Sometimes You Have to Retreat

Water - Water resources

Next week will mark one year in business for Spark Consulting. Thanks to the advice of several wise friends who’ve been down this road before me, I scheduled my first “get outta Dodge” corporate retreat, and spent the early part of this week in Berkeley Springs, WV, reflecting on the past year, planning and dreaming for the coming year, and thinking about the larger “why” of doing this. The picture to the right is of my view from my retreat location.

Driving out, I was worried: would I be successful in shutting out the day-to-day work of actually running the business long enough to focus on assessment and planning and visioning? Would I really get what I wanted and needed out of my retreat?

When I arrived, I shut off my email synch to both my smartphone and my tablet, set my phone on vibrate, and got to work.

And it worked. I was able to keep my attention on the larger issues I needed to think about, and stay away from email and phone calls and social media, at least for two days. The amount of deep focus and perspective and learning I enjoyed was remarkable.

On the drive back to DC, I got thinking about the concept of a retreat. It has (at least) two connotations: one being a military retreat that signals that your battle plan may be in trouble, and the second being the idea of withdrawing into safety, privacy, or seclusion for purposes of reflection.

I think they’re related, though. Sometimes, in order to progress, we have to take a step to the side and regroup. And that deviation from the planned route can give us a different view of the whole landscape around us, and our place in it.

Which is hard to do. Small businesses face a lot of pressures on our time and resources. Associations face a lot of pressures on our time and resources. We tend to experience the cycle of business and the fiscal year and events and renewals and campaigns speeding up and speeding up and speeding up, with no way to get off or even slow down.

But that’s a lie. Even if it feels hard and painful and maybe impossible, we need quiet time to reflect periodically, to back up and see the whole picture not just the details in one tiny little corner, to lift our eyes from the problems right in front of us that seem insurmountable and get the perspective that comes from seeing the entire horizon.

What are you doing to secure that vital introspective time for yourself? For your association?


Unsuck Your Meetings

WAY back on Tuesday, August 1, the weekly #assnchat topic was productivity and time management, a personal favorite.

I didn’t exactly do a rigorously scientific poll, but the #1 answer to “biggest productivity killer” was: meetings. Planned meetings, unplanned meetings, drop in meetings, “do you have a few minutes?” meetings – just about everyone hated meetings.

“Of course!”, right?

Confession: I have an (earned) reputation as someone who is high-energy, highly productive, never misses a deadline (99% of the time, I deliver early), cranks out the work, usually at above-average quality.

I am about 1000% *more* productive now that I’m working for myself and not spending 25%-50% of each day in meetings.

(Look out, world.)

Given that everyone was sharing the hate for meetings, I pretty quickly posed the question: “how do we unsuck meetings?”

Answers included:

  1. People receive a formal agenda in advance. No agenda = no meeting. After all, if there’s nothing you need to cover, why force everyone to sit around a conference table for an hour?
  2. There are defined outcomes. Again, if you’re not trying to accomplish anything – or you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish – why are you wasting everyone’s time?
  3. Collaboration takes place. I’m not so sure about this one (more below).
  4. Clearly defined and communicated action items. This is more of a post-meeting item, but I agree that any decisions that are made need to be documented, any tasks that need to be done need the same, and you must assign responsibility and due dates.
  5. NO standing meetings. Ooooo. This is a tough one. If you have a busy, high-profile group, there’s pressure to have standing meetings, or you fear not being able to get them together when you need them. On the other hand, if we dramatically cut down on the number of meetings we have (by, say, killing standing meetings), the problem might fix itself.

On the whole “collaboration” issue, I agree that TRUE collaboration can bring about better results. But it seems like “working collaboratively” has been dumbed down to “let’s have a zillion meetings and include anyone and everyone who’s even peripherally related to what’s going on.” And that demonstrably make us less creative and ultimately, less productive. Turns out, the best way to work in teams is to assign out pieces of the project to individuals, let them go away and do the work on their own, and come back together periodically but briefly to attack problems people need help with, and have ONE person (the project manager?) assigned to do the coordinating.

Finally, a thought exercise: the next time you’re in some interminable, agenda-less, all hands on deck type meeting, look around the room. Who’s there? Guesstimate her/his hourly rate (annual salary/2 and drop the thousands is close enough, plus about 30% for benefits – so $100K a year = $65 a hour), then add it up around the room and multiple times the number of hour/s you’re all stuck there.

Does it still seem worth it?

It’s not a meme, but…

What are your professional learning habits?

Jeffrey Cufaude poses this question and answers it well.

He also asked other people to weigh in, so…


Read voraciously

And not just business books which, for the most part, at least in my experience, are just going to make you dumber. Don’t just read “fast food” fiction either. Read non-fiction. Read literary fiction. Read great magazines like MIT’s Technology Review, the New Yorker, and GQ (where the feature writing is OUTSTANDING). Read classics. Read stuff that’s been translated from some other language. Read the paper. Read smart bloggers, and not just those who blog about association management. Re-read the books that changed your life in college or grad school. Read.

TED Talks

I definitely second Jeffrey’s TED Talks recommendation. Smart people talking about interesting stuff in 20 minutes or less. Again, don’t just view what you know – seek out stuff that’s completely unfamiliar.


When you get invited to speak, attend the full conference if at all possible, even if it’s not specifically in your field. There are limits to this. I had the opportunity to attend the AAP conference when I first started at NACHRI, and I attended the general sessions, but the breakouts were way the hell over my head. But I went to the general sessions, and heard some great talks. And when you’re there, use the opportunity to talk to people (aka “the other attendees”) you otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to meet, particularly if they seem different from you in some major way (age, gender, where they live, race/ethnicity, profession, seniority, etc.). Actually, that’s good advice for life in general.


This is a topic I revisit here periodically, but I cannot overstress the importance of occasionally going off the grid for awhile. Our brains, our psyches, and our hearts need time away from the electronic hamster wheel. Different people need different amounts of time away and at different intervals of frequency, but we all need some time out to process, think, recharge, and refresh. (And yes, I think Seth Godin’s “if you really loved what you were doing, you’d never need time off” position is complete and utter bullshit.)

What are your professional learning habits?

It’s Not Personal

Recently, I made the decision to disconnect from a bunch of “Facebook friends.” I culled my list by about 20%. My criteria? Not totally scientific, but if I’d never met you in person or had any significant direct interaction (or it had been 20+ years since that last happened), you only contacted me when you needed me to do something for you, or you were primarily using FB for business/promotional reasons, you were pretty much guaranteed to get axed. I dumped virtually all the brands I was following at the same time, too, taking that list from 150+ down to under 25, most of which are in my neighborhood.

There’s been some blowback. To say the least.

But here’s the thing: it’s not personal. Really it’s not. That’s why, if you’re one of those who did get cut, I’m probably still following you on Twitter and/or connected to you on LinkedIn. I’m not trying to be a douchebag, and I’m definitely not trying to say I’m too “important” for anyone.

What I am saying is that I’m really, really busy. We all are. Cases in point:

  •  I haven’t seen my best friend from grad school in over 2 years, and he lives less than 100 miles from me.
  • I have two nieces and a nephew I adore, and I only see them about 2-3 times a year. I talk to their father, my only sibling, maybe twice a year outside those visits.
  • Up until recently, when I’ve been fortunate enough to see him 3 times in the last month, I had only seen one of my best friends in DC twice since his son was born. His son will be two in two weeks.
  • I haven’t seen a dear girlfriend and her new son in over 6 months. Other close friends? I saw them in the past week, but it had been 3+ months since the last time, in which time their little girl got her first tooth (two more on the way) and is standing with almost no help.
  • Another girlfriend and I recently had to set up a regular monthly “date” to make sure we didn’t fall off each others’ calendars, and she and I have been close for almost a decade.

Clearly, I have a hard time keeping up with those who are truly my nearest and dearest. Do I really care about the latest promotional blog post from someone I met once at a conference or what someone I haven’t seen or spoken to since 1989 did last weekend? Well., maybe, but remember: attention doesn’t scale (which may be my new motto).

What hard choices have you made recently to enable you to focus on what – and who – really matters?

It’s Not the Tools, Yo!

It’s the management!

One of the MAIN points I make in any presentation I do on SocMed is that people who want to ban b/c of “productivity issues” are focusing on the wrong thing. Big time.

What they’re talking about isn’t a technology issue – it’s a management issue. If someone is inclined to screw around on the job, they’re going to do it by whatever means necessary. Block social media tools? They’ll play solitaire on the computer. Uninstall solitaire? They’ll surf the web. Block web access? Personal phone calls. Turn off the phones and block cell service? Coffee breaks and walks around the block. Lock them in the office? Bathroom breaks. Monitor bathroom breaks? Aside from turning into the USPS, you can’t prevent people from daydreaming.

Any tool – ANY tool, including a pencil and a piece of paper – can be mis-used. That doesn’t mean we should run around banning things that are useful, just because someone might use it to be less maximally productive every single second of every single work day.

And where did we EVER get the idea that people can be laser-focused for 8 solid hours, 5 days a week, anyway?