One word: focus!

We live in the age of distractions and interruptions: the world is moving really fast, everyone is out of patience, we get bombarded with email, the deadlines are piling up, we want to stay updated with news, status updates from Facebook and twitter, your friends are texting you, your calendar is popping up with a meeting reminder and you just remembered that your wife asked you to pick up the laundry on your way from work. Whew! does it ever end? Can we get something done around here?

I’ve got one word for you: FOCUS! Learn to focus on what’s important and you can go back to being in control of your life. I think it’s that easy.

What does focus mean?

You may have heard this before: Focus! What does it mean, after all? Here’s what it means to me:

  • choosing to work on what’s important
  • minimizing distractions and interruptions
  • finishing what we start

In the rest of this blog post I’m going to list a number of tips and techniques that have really worked for me over the years.

However, before I do that, I’m going to let you in on a secret: You’re completely in control!
Let me say that again: You can decide what to work on and how to do the work! not your co-workers, not your email, not your task list and not the reminders on your phone.

Controlling what to work on

Focus on the right objectives by defining priorities.

Am I working on the right thing? Are these tasks equally important?

  • make sure you understand what is important
  • estimate effort, assign deadlines and use them to drive priorities of your tasks
  • understand the difference between urgent and important
  • start your tasks in priority order
  • try to re-negotiate a deadline if already at risk or if it impacts with higher priority task

Manage scope

  • start by solving the minimum viable solution to the problem at hand; start simple and build from there
  • control scope aggressively
    – found a bug that’s not a blocker? Log an issue
    – getting a new requirement? Log an issue, add it to the (bottom of the) list
    – great improvement idea? You get the point, log an issue

Do I really need to do everything? Right now?

Don’t start too many things in parallel, lots of simultaneous projects generate lots of context switching that kill your focus and concentration

  • try to visualize your workload: the whole list and what you’re working on right now
    – I use trello with a very simple flow: Todo, Started, Completed (sort of a personal Kanban1)
  • minimize work in progress (don’t start more than 1-2 projects at the same time)
    – this is a core Kanban principle that guarantees higher through-output and higher quality work

Plan your day in order to control how you spend your time.

If there is only one important thing that I get done today, what should that be?

  • review the list of things you want to accomplish in that day and set an objective
  • review your calendar for the day – always start here instead of email
    – you can configure Outlook to start in the calendar view, not email view
  • schedule your work on the calendar:
    – solve conflicts between what you want to accomplish and how much time you have available
    – make room for work: cancel or postpone meetings, re-negotiate a deadline, work from home, whatever it takes to get the important job done
  • never start your day with email! it puts you in a reactive mode, and you want to be in control

Controlling how you do the work

Get in the zone

  • Prepare your mise-en-place2
    – If you’re working on a computer, close or hide everything that’s not related to your task (especially email, but also calendar, reminders, chats, etc)
    – gather everything you need to get the job done before you start: requirements, specs, links, spreadsheets, etc;
    – on a Mac I use the screens feature to have complete workspaces for any given task; this hugely minimizes context switching, finding information, getting back in the zone after an interruption
  • Free your mind: write down anything that’s on your mind you but it’s not related to the task at hand, come back to it later

Stay in the zone. Minimize interruptions.

Try to achieve concentration and maintain it for a long period of time.

  • turn off phone notifications, desktop alerts, etc
  • politely decline ad-hoc invites
  • check email in blocks a few times a day, then close outlook so you don’t open it even by mistake :)
  • when interrupted, make it clear to coworkers that you’re working on something important, ask them to come back later or promise to get back to them

Learn to manage email. This is probably the biggest source of interruptions and frustration in corporations so you’ll need to become a master at using it.

  • email is a communication tool
    – don’t use it for decision making except for the simplest decisions
    – don’t use it as a database for information (use shared spaces, wikis or issue trackers for anything that needs to be persistent)
    – assume people won’t read your email or that they will delete it – is that your only weapon?
  • read all email, delete most of it, flag those that need your input and take action in priority order
    – don’t make a habit of replying to every email; do it only if you have something unique to add
    – it’s ok to miss email from time to time; if it’s urgent people will get back to you
  • don’t be a hero: you are still judged on how many of the important things you finish, now how fast or how much you reply to emails

Closing thoughts

One of the nicest books I read on the topic of getting things done defined productivity more or less like this: consistently finishing important work.

In my opinion, the most important thing you should do is to learn how to focus your energy and immediate attention on those important things and not let various distractions come between you and getting the job done.

  1. Wikipedia page on Kanban 
  2. Anthony Bourdain’s 10 minute ritual