Focus and avoid context switching

My day job as a software engineer requires a great deal of focus and organization. Writing code is one of the last steps you do in software development. Writing code only comes after gathering enough information and understanding what changes or features we need in an application.

Focusing on one task, but more importantly, one project at a time is critical. When working on more than one project at a time, there is a lot of context switching, which is terrible for you and your productivity.

Focusing on one task also allows you to fully immerse into the details of the project, expand your domain knowledge about the work area, and as a result, be thoughtful about the way you approach the project, its problems, and the solutions.

Context switching while doing any work that requires concentration decreases the project’s opportunity to succeed and your productivity as well. The result is a net negative, and I don’t see any reason to do it. The only reason we do it might be due to our inability to focus on one task or the constant interruptions that are common in the workplace.

Focusing today is more challenging than ever. We have many tools around us that trick us and push us to pursue distractions. The handheld devices we all have are the number one reason for this, in my opinion. These devices are the window into a lot of addictive content out there, and trying to stay focus while having these devices next to us requires a lot of discipline.

It’s not all our fault. We are the victims of advanced algorithms that know us well and learn how to get our attention. It takes a lot to turn off notifications and not open our favorite apps to see the latest micro-piece of content. But, it’s a very effective drug that works against us.

Of course, there are simple ways to minimize this. I, for example, have most of my notifications off. The only place where I turn notifications on is on my family chat. Other than that, I never get pulled in by an app since I don’t get notified about anything. So that works, but just a little.

There are other things I do to keep myself focused and stick to one task at a time. For example, I set up specific times (timeboxing) to do the other distracting tasks such as checking email, social media, the news, etc. I timebox these tasks and try hard not to allow myself to break that rule.

Timeboxing helps a lot. In the past, I spent a lot of time checking, reading, and replying to emails. Nowadays, I check email maybe once a day, and I do not respond to emails unless strictly necessary. I do the same for social media apps, and if you use an iPhone, the Screen Time feature can help you a lot with this.

For non-digital distractions, you can also use the concept of timeboxing. For example, at work, I set up “focus time” in my calendar to make sure people know when I will be available to join a meeting and when I am not. Setting focus time in your calendar sets the expectations of other people around you. It will make it easier for them to know when you might be free to talk, have a meeting, or help with some other task.

I break my workday into four areas, the first block of time, 7-9 am is OK for meetings and open tasks, from 9-12, my time is blocked for deep/focused work, lunch from 12-1 pm, and finally from 1-4 pm I have open it up for meetings and time to reply to email and other office messaging apps.

I started doing this more than a year ago, and it works very well. I get very few if any distractions during my “focus time,” which is enough to make me productive and more relaxed. Before doing that, I checked email constantly, responded as soon as possible to any message, and accepted all meetings at any time. Unfortunately, that caused my productivity to drop considerably and, with it, my motivation and energy.

Context switching is tough for tasks that require concentration. You cannot concentrate with the endless amount of notifications coming from our devices, from people around us, and from our lacking ability to concentrate. We have to set clear boundaries with ourselves and be assertive and disciplined to make sure we and others around us respect them.

Setting limits and structures around my life is not something I often do. I prefer to live the moment, be casual with what I do in life, and allow myself to do unexpected things. However, when it comes to working, whether it is personal or professional, setting boundaries and allowing yourself to focus on tasks is a game-changer.

This advice is not only about being more productive. Focusing on tasks is also less stressful and much more enjoyable once you learn how to do it. I hope this is helpful for you, and please, if you have any other suggestions, questions, or any feedback, please let me know here in the comments. Cheers.

Focus and embrace new habits

About a while ago, I wrote a note about slowing down, taking the time to enjoy what we are doing, and focusing on one thing at a time.

I am running an experiment in my own life. I’m trying to slow down and focus intimately on the task at hand, which is not easy. Distractions are everywhere, and technologies such as our smartphones and social media make it nearly impossible to escape their digital crack. I want to allow myself to enjoy my surroundings and enjoy the present instead of focusing on just what’s ahead, or worst, what’s in the past.

In the book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes about ways of creating new habits. He describes the habit loop as a practical way to create long-lasting habits. The habit loop consists of a cue or trigger, a routine, and finally, a reward.

The habit loop is a widely used method by many industries, including the game and social media organizations, to get us addicted to their products. A good example of this is your smartphone notifications; that’s what triggers your craving brain, it makes you look at you social media app or email without thinking about it, and finally, it gives you a reward in the form of a new reply, a new like, or a new follower.

This habit loop is something we can use to our benefit, we can replace or use an existing trigger and follow a new routine and a new reward to accomplish something we want, instead of something someone else wants us to do or see.

So the habit I am trying to replace is the habit of reaching out to my phone or computer as often as I do today. And to do this, I am experimenting with using existing cues that make me look at my social media, email, etc., and instead use those same cues and triggers to do something else. I really want to do something that will keep me focused on my goals and the tasks I assign to myself.

For example, every morning, when I wake up, I see my phone, which immediately triggers my brain into picking it up and going through emails, scrolling through my social media apps, etc. Lately, I have been placing my kindle or a book in place of my phone, and every morning when I wake up, I don’t even think about it; I pick up the kindle or book and read for at least 20-30 minutes. Reading a book is more beneficial and relaxing than wasting my morning time with the digital crack, making me feel anxious and stressed.

If you see, the cue is the same, the routine is the same as I’m still picking an object and looking at it, but the reward is even greater now; at least for me, it is. I replaced a bad habit with one that fulfills my goal of reading more books, and at the same time, I feel focused and accomplished doing this.

Changing habits is what I am focused on right now; in the past, I focused on creating new habits without replacing bad ones, and that was a mistake. The best way to focus, to slow down, and to be more present is to change your habits, but doing it without adding complexity or having to remember to do new things. Make it as simple as possible, use the same triggers that make you waste time looking down at your phone, and pick better routines.

You owe it to yourself and to the people around you.

Identify Bad Habits and Create Not-To-Do Lists

There are many to-do lists out there describing what you should do to be more productive. There are many techniques you can follow and tools you can use to be more productive. Yet, the easiest way to gain focus and get things done is to avoid certain things. Below is a list of things you should stop doing that will help you be more productive.

Sometimes is hard to follow to-do lists, too much to do! but not-to-do lists are usually smaller and easier to follow. It allows you to identify bad habits and then spend more time doing productive things. Identify Bad Habits and Create Not-To-Do Lists

Making progress, slowly but surely

I can’t believe it’s been about a year since I started with the idea of TidyContact, time really flies, especially when you have a busy life full of projects, kids, family, etc, and I am blessed for that. So far I have learned lots of things building TidyContact, most of the things I’ve learned are related to the web framework I am using (ASP.NET MVC), and the service oriented architecture I am implementing with this project. Yes it is taken longer than I expected and I know this goes against the Lean Startup methodology, but frankly, I do not care since what I am doing is fun (to me at least) and it is also a way for me to learn about third-party apis, frameworks, databases, etc… it is geek fun.

During this time I have been able to collect about 60 names of people who are interested in TidyContact, and about half of them showed enough interest to actually pay a monthly subscription for it, that is good. It is truly difficult to develop a product from scratch without any help from other developers, designers, etc… at the same time, it is rewarding every time I reach a milestone such as completing a feature, finishing a module, getting the landing page done, etc… I am looking forward to launching the beta version soon and hope to get valuable feedback to make the application better before the first version launches. I would say I am about 70% done with the version I want to release to beta users, I believe in releasing a minimum viable product and all that stuff, but since this application is something we’ll be using internally in TodoTax.com it won’t make sense to release it if it doesn’t do at least what we want it to do. Making progress, slowly but surely