Great SEO requires focus. A highly technical SEO project is best done in chunks of several hours at a time: you need time to get deep into the data, look for patterns, and chase down the roots of any problems you see. A more creative or content-focused SEO project is also going to benefit from a focused effort; you need time to explore possibilities, do your research, plan, and create.
Focus is a core part of how we do what we do at UpBuild, and we’ve gone to great lengths to structure our company in ways that help us defend and use that focus.
Being a fully-remote, distributed team is essential to a lot of UpBuild’s identity; I honestly don’t believe that we would work as a business as well as we do if we weren’t remote.
Not only does working remotely allow us to work from wherever we are, it also removes the high distraction factor that comes from working in an office. Open-plan offices have increasingly been shown to stifle the very collaboration and communication they’re intended to create; in my experience, open-plan offices are the enemy of the kind of sustained focus that advanced SEO work requires. In any kind of office environment, but especially an open-plan one, distractions are inevitable. Even if you put on your biggest noise-canceling headphones and a “Do Not Disturb” sign, someone’s probably going to come by your desk “just to chat” about something, or to check in on an email they sent you.
In office environments I’ve worked in previously, it was common practice for people to work from home or a coffee shop (or sometimes just straight-up hide in a meeting room or supply closet) when they had work that required unbroken focus.
Open-plan offices have increasingly been shown to stifle the very collaboration and communication they’re intended to create; in my experience, open-plan offices are the enemy of the kind of sustained focus that advanced SEO work requires.
By contrast, when you work remotely, you can close your email, open up your project, and know that nothing will interrupt you unless you let it. At UpBuild, we have “office hours” (9 am – 2:30 pm Pacific) where we ask that the whole team be available for meetings, checking email regularly, and available to chat on Slack. The rest of the hours we work in a given week can be done at any time of day, while completely ignoring email and Slack, if that’s what works best for us.
Even during office hours, the asynchronous nature of email and Slack can contribute to increased focus. If I see a Slack notification pop up, I can finish my thought or work until I get to an intuitive stopping place before checking it; that gap of 5, 10, or even 30 minutes in between when I see the message and when I respond to it feels perfectly natural via an asynchronous communication platform. By contrast, if someone in an office stopped by my desk to ask me a question, and I kept working for 5 more minutes before I responded, I’d look pretty rude. Remote work allows us to accommodate interruptions on our terms.
Mike wrote recently about scheduling meetings into a few big chunks, rather than scattering them around throughout the week. He wrote about this practice in the context of preserving his energy as an introvert, but even I, one of the most extroverted people on the team, find a great deal of value in structuring my week like this.
It takes me several minutes to mentally disengage from one project and mentally engage with another. This means that if I have half an hour between meetings, probably only about 15 minutes of that can actually be spent accomplishing something – by the time I’ve emerged from the meeting, squared away any to-dos coming out of it, selected a task, and gotten started on it, it’s almost time to find a stopping point for that task and begin preparing for my next meeting. These little chunks of time are far less useful to me than one larger stretch where I can really engage with a project; when I do have a 30-minute block free, I tend to use it to catch up on email or read industry news rather than trying to accomplish a concrete task.
To try to ensure that the team can count on some large chunks of interruption-free time in their month, UpBuild has No-Meeting Wednesday every other Wednesday afternoon. This means we can still schedule one-off meetings, if needed, on the Wednesdays that aren’t designated “no-meeting,” but it also means we don’t schedule any internal or recurring meetings during that time, so even our “off” Wednesdays tend to be relatively meeting-free. This does tend to mean our Tuesdays and Thursdays are more crowded, but like I said above, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s comforting to know, even in a meeting-heavy week, that we’ll have some time to get heads-down on a project.
Low Clients:Team Members Ratio
Our commitment to focus is part of what drives our commitment to maintaining a maximum of 4 clients per Senior Marketing Strategist. The more clients a person has, the less they’re going to be able to focus on any one project for any one client. If you have 15 clients and they’re each paying for 5 hours/month of SEO services, that’s 75 hours of your 80-hour month already accounted for. Once you get done with a monthly report and client call, you might only have an hour or two left to actually accomplish anything for your clients. When you have 30 or more hours per month to work for each of your clients, on the other hand, you can spend time going deep and getting results faster. You can also take the time to build out longer-term SEO strategies, so every month isn’t just reacting to what happened the previous month.
Tools of the Trade
Of course, the flip side of remote work removing the distractions of working in an office is that working from home can come with its own distractions. There’s always that laundry to do or that pile of dishes in the sink; your pets may need a distracting amount of cuddles; and there’s nobody around to notice if you accidentally spend half an hour taking Buzzfeed quizzes instead of working. Here are some tools and tactics we use to maintain focus at UpBuild:
Schedule Time in Advance
We encourage our team members to block time off on their calendars if they know they’ll need an unbroken stretch of time to work on a project. Just because an appointment is with yourself, doesn’t mean it’s not a meeting! Blocking off time on your calendar to work on something guarantees you’ll have a distraction-free period to dive in. You wouldn’t be able to check email or be on Slack while you were in a meeting, so it’s OK to shut your email, mute your Slack notifications, and go heads-down on something. By creating a culture where we respect these self-meetings as much as we respect other appointments, we can support each other in maintaining focus.
Boomerang for Gmail is a tool I use all the time, and I know several other Builders use it as well. It allows you to dismiss an email from your inbox and set it to surface again, unread, after a period of time – whether that’s in 2 hours, tomorrow morning, or a date sometime in the future. This means that unanswered emails aren’t taking up mental space for me; if there’s something I know I’m not going to be able to get to until later, I can remove it from my inbox until a time when I can really give it the focus it deserves.
I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro method for completing tasks (in fact, I’m writing this blog post using a Pomodoro right now). Basically, you set a 25-minute timer and, for that 25 minutes, only focus on one task. At the end of that 25 minutes, you take a 5-minute break, and then, if you have another 30 minutes of time, you can hop back in.
Pomodoros have proved invaluable to me, because I naturally gravitate toward a “multi-task” state, wherein I’m flitting like a hummingbird from task to task. Oh, I’d better take care of that right now, while I’m thinking about it is a common refrain in my head. This style of work can be useful when you have a bunch of small tasks to do, especially if none of them are time-sensitive, but it can be hard to turn off that hummingbird brain when it’s time to buckle down on Just One Thing. The 25-minute time frame of a Pomodoro is small enough that any time another task occurs to me, I can tell myself I’ll get to that in [X] minutes.
To time my Pomodoros, I use tomato-timer.com, but there are plenty of browser extensions and apps that work the same way.
Another fantastic way to combat “hummingbird brain”? A simple to-do list! It sounds super basic, but writing down a task has the same effect that Boomeranging an email does – it lets you relax, knowing that you’ll remember to do it when you have the time. For some reason, I was really resistant to to-do lists for a long time – it seemed like I should be able to just keep track of everything mentally. Having a part of your thoughts devoted to a constant refrain of don’t forget to do X, Y, and Z things can make it harder to (you guessed it) focus on the task at hand, though. I find to-do lists are effective not only as a productivity tool, but also as a stress-management tool, allowing me to store my to-dos in a place other than my busy brain. Good old-fashioned pen and paper works fine for this, but a lot of Builders use apps such as Todoist or Toodledo to manage their tasks as well.
What tools and tactics do you use to maintain focus? Let us know in the comments!