I recently read Deep Work by Cal Newport about the importance of focus for knowledge work. It’s a very compelling read and provides plenty of justification and strategies to improve your ability to focus. It touched on many distraction issues that had been nagging me for a while so I knew I was in the company of a kindred spirit.
It may seem obvious that focus is important for getting work done, but look at your environment and its clear there’s not much space given to focussing. You have the power to remedy this and there are three things to bear in mind when it come to doing “deep work” or getting into “flow”.
1 – Context switching is a serious productivity killer and should be avoided where possible.
There are a lot of sources of distraction that can cause you to lose focus and when that happens you do a context switch. It might be pausing to check a notification, a spike in noise nearby or attending to an email or chat discussion. You move your attention to something else and not only have you stopped working on the first task, but when you switch back again there’s an overhead cost to your brain to get back to where you were. Do this often enough and you’ll soon be working flat out and getting nothing done.
This also obviously happens when you’re trying to multi-task. You’re much better off trying to finish one task at a time, than flicking back and forth between them. Occasionally there’s a good reason to switch to another task, you might be waiting for a response to a question or your PR to be approved. If you’re going to be waiting more than half an hour, then the context switch cost is offset anyway so you may as well do it. Just try and finish that other task off completely before switching back.
2 – Focus is like a muscle; if you don’t use it, it will atrophy.
Start off small if you’re getting back into focussing properly. Say 30 mins per block and increase gradually.
Next time you find yourself in a queue waiting for a few minutes, resist the urge to check your phone. You’ll get better at it with practise and live in the moment more while helping that little focus muscle get stronger.
3 – You must remove as many sources of temptation or distraction as possible from your work environment so you don’t have to expend effort resisting them.
You have a limited amount of discipline and stamina to focus per day. If you have a chocolate bar in front of you all day, sooner or later you’re going to crack and eat some. You expend a lot of mental energy when you have to resist temptation. That mental energy is better spent on the valuable work you want to focus on.
I work as a developer and there are many potential distractions that can slow you down and cause you to lose focus. Let’s take a look at some of the worst offenders and how you might handle them.
Digital media has turned many into dopamine addicts, craving that next “like” or notification ping. There’s nothing inherently wrong with digital media but you should take a quality over quantity approach. Mindless scrolling can too easily become your default activity when you have nothing else to do. It seems harmless to frequently check for notifications while waiting but do it often enough and it’ll become something your brain turns to when confronted with boring or difficult situations. Then you’ll find your mind looking for it’s next little dopamine hit at inopportune moments like when you’re troubleshooting a tricky bug or coding up a complex feature. Solving bugs or writing elegant code is satisfying but takes longer to complete and feel rewarded, whereas that little pull-to-refresh on your phone is always just a moment away.
Ask yourself if you need to be on every single social media platform. Is TikTok really the best use of your limited time on earth? If you can’t bring yourself to get rid of them all, try to keep your social media usage to a small window at the start and end of the day.
Email & Instant Messengers
WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Gmail, Google Chat, Twitter DM, Signal, Telegram, Outlook. The list is endless and they all clamour for your attention. The desktop versions of any of the above are particularly bad; they’ll plague you with requests to allow desktop notifications. Do not fall for it, the suggestion that you must constantly be online and respond to messages quickly is a lie cultivated to give the impression of busyness. But “busy” is not the same as “productive”. There are exceptions of course, like if you’re on call for production support or participating in an important discussion, but in general there’s rarely anything that urgent.
In the context of work-related messaging there’s a balance between individual productivity and team productivity. If someone is stuck on something and they ask for help, how long should they reasonably have to wait for assistance? I was away on holidays recently and forgot to set my out-of-office notifications. Interestingly there were a handful of chat messages waiting for me when I got back that started out with “Hey, can I get your help with something?”, followed half an hour later with “oh never mind I figured it out”. That suggests to me that there’s a tendency to ask for help before they’ve really made a good effort to solve it themselves.
My approach is to try to carve out blocks of time in my day that are designated as focus time and mix them with periods of syncing up and co-ordinating with others.
Here’s roughly how I’ve been trying out running my day.
09:40 – 10:00: Team stand-up meeting.
10:00 – 10:30: Help anyone on the team who needs a dig out and deal with any emails or chat messages.
10:30 – 12:30: Focus time. Fully close all news, email and chats; even having the tabs open is a tempting distraction.
Flip my phone over into do-not-disturb mode but allow phone calls for urgent matters.
Work work work!
12:30 – 14:30: Reopen email and chats and sync up with my team.
Deal with any issues, queries or pull requests.
14:30 – 16:30: Focus time again. Close all those tabs. Zero interruptions unless it’s a phone call.
16:30 – 17:00: Re-open email and chats to catch up for the end of the day.
This works better some days than others. Meetings are an important co-ordinating activity be it planning, brain-storming, reporting, whatever. Ideally I’d like to try group any meetings for the day together to allow either the morning or afternoon focus block to remain intact.
I’ve found I can make better progress on the task I’m working on for the duration of the focus block. At the same time my team members rarely have to wait too long if they have a PR or need a hand with something.
I would expect this daily structure to vary a lot depending on your role and type of work but it’s a good starting point.
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Even if you only manage a single 2-hour block of focus time per day, I’m sure you’ll find yourself getting a lot of great work done. Just don’t let the blocks get fragmented because then you’ll be context switching.