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.

Here’s one way to cure procrastination

Writing is something I enjoy doing, , but to be very candid, it is hard for me to sit down and start writing. It’s the same feeling I have about working out, for example, love the feeling while exercising and then after when I’m done, but it isn’t easy to start an exercise routine; starting is what’s difficult for me. Does that happen to you? Well, it happens to me, and one word for it is procrastination.

Procrastination is something that happens to everyone, we know we need to do certain things, but we push them to the back-burner until that decision comes to burn us one day. Why do we do this? Why do we procrastinate?

As procrastination builds, it can start to affect us severely. For example, I’ve missed several flights, hotel reservations, tax returns, and a lot of money due to this by procrastinating. Since wasting money is not enjoyable, I had to change my ways so one day I sat down and decided to do something about it – hey, at least I didn’t procrastinate on that!

The Plan

The first step of my plan involved finding and installing popular to-do apps like Todoist, Microsoft To Do, Wunderlist, etc. and while some of these apps are well designed and helpful (I still use Microsoft To Do for simple items), I continued to procrastinate. Then I tried writing these tasks using pen and paper, it didn’t work either, but at least I now own a neat journal and beautiful and inexpensive pens from Muji which I use for other things. I’ll share more about that on another post.

After these two failures, and thinking about it retrospectively, a moment of clarification appeared and a new idea was born. That process alone helped me figure out an important truth, I wasn’t giving these tasks the priority that they deserved. You see, I had it all wrong, I was attempting to create a to-do list but what I really needed was a dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list. What’s the difference you might ask? Keep on reading dear friend, you’ll soon find out.

With this information in mind, I decided to experiment. What if I treated my other tasks with a higher priority and added them to a dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list? The initial idea was to create this list in a spreadsheet and include a column listing the specific consequences of not getting these things done. It’s very innovative, I know.

The dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list included items like the following:

  • Apply for the Nexus program for my kids
  • Replace car’s headlamps with new ones I already bought
  • Other personal items I do not care to list because they are for me and not for you dear reader.

These are a few items that I have been dragging for months, and I know they are important, but can’t get myself to remember them enough to do them. These items were the first ones that I added to my dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list along with the consequences, and it looked like this:

To-doConsequences
Apply for the Nexus program for my kidsBecause if I don’t, the next time we travel to Canada we could end up waiting in line at the border for a long time as we did last time.
Replace car’s headlamps with new ones I already boughtBecause if I don’t, the driving visibility at night will not improve and then I might have to deal with more serious consequences.

Great, now I have a list of things I don’t want to do with a fearful description of what could happen if I don’t do it. Perfect? Not quite.

A better plan

While this was a bit more motivating than just have a simple to-do list, it still wasn’t enough. To keep these items top of mind, I decided to list a few benefits gained if I did these things; I am not driven by fear, so listing the consequences wasn’t enough for me.

To-doConsequencesBenefit
Apply for the Nexus program for my kidsBecause if I don’t, the next time we travel to Canada we could end up waiting in line at the border for a long time as we did last time.Reducing time by using Nexus or Global Entry kiosks when entering the United States. Saves a lot of time.
Replace car’s headlamps with new ones I already boughtBecause if I don’t, the driving visibility at night will not improve and then I might have to deal with more serious consequences.Increased night visibility.
The car looks better.
Increase car’s re-sell value.

Ta-da! At first look I was excited, I really thought I had it, in fact, just writing the benefits and negative consequences motivated me to the point I wanted to take care of these things as I was adding them to this dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list. But after looking at it for a few minutes, I noticed something wrong, something very wrong in fact that I almost ditched the whole idea right away.

In my attempt to prioritize and motivate myself to do these things, I spent a great deal of time writing a lot of words to convince myself that this was a good idea, but it wasn’t. Some of the items in this list could have taken me only 5 minutes to complete, and instead of getting them done, I spent a great deal of time thinking and writing about the consequences and the benefits of getting them done. Fail. Big fail. Huge fail. So what now?

I really liked the list and how it made me feel, but I couldn’t possibly maintain such a to-do list with so much detail describing consequences and benefits because that wasn’t going to scale. If you want to stop procrastinating, you have to lower or remove all barriers between you and what you want to get done.

What can be changed? I asked myself, what if I removed the consequences column, shortened the contents of the benefits column, and added a due date, after all, what’s a to-do list without a due date right? After those changes, the dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list looked like this:

To-doBenefitDue date
Apply for the Nexus program for my kidsSaves a lot of time when entering the country.2/1/2020
Replace car’s headlamps with new ones I already boughtIncreased night visibility and car’s re-sell value.2/1/2020

Finally, a to-do list that is informative and manageable. It requires enough effort that keeps items top of mind by reminding me about the benefits of getting them done. Does it work? Only time will tell. So far I have been using this version of the list for almost a month, and since then many items have been completed, it seems to be working.

Conclusion

When going through the process of creating the dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list list I learned something about myself I didn’t know. I’m driven and motivated by the potential benefits than by fear, knowing about a positive outcome moves me more than knowing the negative consequences of not doing something. I didn’t know this about myself. The process of writing the benefits along with my to-do items takes a little more time, but this extra time is well spent as it helps me understand better the reason I need to do it.

That’s it folks, hope that my experience with my dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list helps some of you as it helped me to cure the procrastination and get more things done. Cheers.

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

Remote employees: Best tools for collaboration and communication

Working remotely has become a common way of working for a lot of professionals, and while it is a lot easier to do this than years ago, working remotely still has some challenges. The one thing we can all agree with is that not having to worry about a busy and/or long commute is awesome (see photo above). The ability to stay connected to your peers and be able to collaborate seamlessly is necessary for remote teams to be successful. All companies use email and most use some sort of instant messaging tool, but this isn’t enough.

In recent years, many software companies have created multiple tools to make remote collaboration and communication easier and less intrusive, below are some of the tools I consider the most useful and enjoyable for the remote employee and remote teams. Remote employees: Best tools for collaboration and communication

Use your time wisely, it is a finite resource

Everybody talks about productivity and optimization these days. The get things done (GTD) popularity has been around since I can remember and most of us are still suffering of constant distractions that affect our productivity and concentration to perform our professional or personal tasks effectively. Also, there are many tools these days that claim they can help you by organizing your email, helping with to-do lists, notes, etc… Some of those tools can be helpful but they require commitment and some of them have a learning curve, and so these GTD apps and tools just become part of the daily distractions.

I recently read a study in the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing that showed that most people have developed a habit of checking their smartphones multiple times a day without having a real need to do it. Use your time wisely, it is a finite resource