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.

What is fear?

Today I experienced something that I haven’t experienced in a while, fear. My wife made a reservation at a local boathouse to go paddleboarding and kayak this morning. I am the one who chooses the paddleboard due to an excellent experience I had in Honolulu a few years ago.

All week, I have been waiting for this, I was excited, and I was ready to get on that paddleboard and own it. My previous experience with it was in a very manicured and very calm laguna next to the ocean in Waikiki. Since the water was tranquil and not too deep, I felt comfortable on the paddleboard from the very moment I got on it. That was my experience, my only one.

This morning we wake up, eat breakfast, drink some coffee and water, and head to the boathouse to get our equipment and onto the water. This boathouse is located in a bay in Bellevue, WA. Its name is Meydenbauer Bay Park, and it’s the home of a beautiful beach, boat docks, a beautiful picnic area, and of course, the boathouse.

After signing up the usual release forms where you promise not to sue anyone if you die there, we walked directly to the beach to get on the paddleboard and kayaks. The first question I got from the staff at the beach is, “have you ever been on a paddleboard?” and of course, my answer is an energetic, yes! and then he recommends to stay on my knees until I can pass a bridge, and then after that, I can stand up and go on my way.

Just a minute or two later, I pass that bridge, but since I feel comfortable on my knees, I decided to stay like that until I get out of the beach area. I don’t want to scare away swimmers with my paddle-boarding skills now, do I?… or perhaps this is when I start to feel nervous, it’s evident to me now that this isn’t going to be like my Hawaii experience.

We are in a bay, not a lagoon. Boats are coming in and out, passing by, swimmers, kayakers, other paddle-boarders, ducks and their ducklings, and even one or two seaplanes nearby. This is different, it’s alive, and everything moves. I decide to stay on my knees on the paddleboard a little longer. My two sons are nearby in the kayak; they are having a good time. My wife is a bit far from me on a “pedal” board, it’s like a paddleboard, but with pedals and handlebars, she looks nervous, but she’s also enjoying it.

After over 30 minutes of using the paddleboard while on my knees, I end up near the moorage surrounded by boats of all sizes; the water is quiet, a lot calmer than around the beach where I started. But, my mind wonders, telling me to stop being a baby and get up and paddle. After all, this is a “stand up” paddleboard; the idea is to use it while standing.

Several minutes go by, and then I try to “park” the paddleboard near a dock. My idea is to hold on to the dock while I try to stand up and then just take it from there. As soon as I try that, the paddleboard moves from under me, and I almost fell. Fear increases, and I am ready to give up. My mind wanders a bit more, and then I imagine trying to get up near the dock but falling and hitting my head in it, then drowning and dying in a very freakish way.

The water is calm around the docks, all the boats here are mooring, it feels like the appropriate place for me to try to stand up on the board. So I move away from the dock. I don’t want to hit myself with it if I fell. I then realize that my wallet and phone are in my pocket. If I fell on the water, I think I’ll be fine since I am wearing a life jacket, but my phone and wallet will probably go to the bottom, and I’ll lose both forever.

I start to convince myself that this is a bad idea. And at the same time, I want to get up and try it, then show my wife and kids how awesome I am. I take my sandals off, thinking that it is more natural to be standing without them as if I will have a better grasp with my toes and get a better balance. I move my left knee up, placing my left foot on the board as if I am proposing to someone, I do the same with the other leg, and just like that, I am up!

After getting up, I feel happy for a second, but both of my legs start to shake vigorously, and while the water is calm, my legs are moving the board with all the shaking. I know it is fear and not a lack of balance. My first thought is to go back on my knees and just continue enjoying my paddleboard adventure that way. But I don’t do that. Instead, I try to use the paddle to see if moving the board forward will help. It does a bit. Then I concentrate on my breathing, trying to calm myself down, and it works.

Standing on a paddleboard
Standing on the paddleboard

After what felt like an eternity, probably 2-3 minutes with both of my legs shaking, it suddenly stops, the shaking is gone, and my body feels more attached to the board. I feel stable standing up on this paddleboard. I start paddling towards the beach area again, I see a boat coming my way, about 30 feet from me, and I know that soon, I’ll be feeling the ripples and wakes behind that boat. The first thought is to go back on my knees, but I don’t do that. Instead, I get closer to a moored large boat to my right, thinking that if I stay away enough from the passing boat ripples, I’ll be OK.

The boat passes, and the ripples and wakes get closer and closer. Finally, I am next to a still and huge boat, thinking that the water will be calm there. Once the ripples and wakes start to reach me, they are weak, and I manage to stay up and dry. And then a few seconds later, I feel a vigorous shake, it’s coming from my right side… it’s the ripple and wakes bouncing off the bigger boat, causing new and stronger waves and wakes right next to me. I try to move away faster, I manage to stay up, and all is fine.

A few minutes later, I am near the beach. My sons and my wife take pictures from the water, I get closer to show them how I am standing up, and while they don’t seem to be amused, I feel proud of myself. I know that this simple water outing today was tremendously helpful for me. The experience of fear and then overcoming that fear will have substantial positive ripples and wakes in my future.

So what is fear? I think it’s what happens to you right before you experience something new. It’s a profound learning experience, and hopefully, a positive one.

Have a great weekend and a safe 4th of July. Cheers!

The logbook – part 2

Back in January, I decided to start writing on a logbook. The idea was to make it easier for me to write down things I thought were important about my day. Think of it as a minimalist version of a diary or journal.

The fact is, I haven’t been keeping up with it as I wanted. The first two months, I did it every day, it worked. But then I left my logbook in my backpack, and I didn’t write on it for over a month!

Why haven’t I been keeping up with it? Well, it is a new thing, and I didn’t spend enough time on it to help it become a habit. I know this because I’ve read The Power of Habit book by Charles Duhigg but haven’t applied what I’ve learned about it. At least not yet.

Another one of my habits that has stopped being one is reading at least one book every month. I’ve been doing this for a while, but this habit stopped being one since the middle of last year. I need to get back on it. I enjoy reading books and everything that comes with it.

I stopped reading at least one book every month because I replaced this good habit with another one, streaming content and social media. That’s right, with everything that was happening last year, COVID-19, the elections, police brutality, etc., I found it easier to watch the news, social media, and streaming content than to read books. What a waste of my time.

I did not come to this realization on my own. I knew I was spending more time than ever on social media and streaming content. Still, I didn’t do anything about it until I read this post by Om, where he mentions a video by Max Joseph showing us beautiful bookstores and, more importantly, an easy-to-follow method to read more books.

Reading books is something I enjoy, but with so much content available these days, it’s hard not to get distracted by it. I am going back to my reading habit, I’ll start by reading for 30 minutes to an hour each day, and the logbook, well, I’ve been writing on it every day again for about a week now. It feels good.

Are you an amateur, enthusiast, or a pro?

Many of us have hobbies, things that we enjoy doing but not necessarily spend a lot of time, money, or much effort. Some of us have other passions where we dedicate more time, more money, and a lot of effort; I think we can call ourselves enthusiasts on those topics.

Professionals are defined, I think, by the fact that they will get paid in exchange for the work they do. For example, a professional photographer is that person who gets paid to photograph products, people, homes, etc.

An amateur photographer will take photos, get a good camera, although not an expensive one, and probably won’t get too deep into the world of photography.

Now, and this is my opinion, an enthusiast photographer is that person who might be as skilled as a professional photographer but doesn’t yet do it for a living while still dedicating a fair amount of time to this task, and enough money to get a better camera, or cameras.

Who cares about this? I am not sure. I am writing this because I was thinking about my progression as a photographer, and while I don’t do it for a living, I spend a lot of resources on it.

This all came up when I decided to update my bio on Twitter and Instagram. I was about to type “amateur photographer” but changed it to “enthusiast photographer.” It fits better.

After all of these years, countless hours, trips, money spent on equipment, walks, etc., I think I have graduated from an amateur to an enthusiast. It also sounds better, right?

Started using a logbook

This year I started writing a logbook to capture daily events, so far it’s been working well, it’s really easy for me to write daily events and other things and just do about a small page per day. I write down things like the food I ate, important events, meeting summaries, etc. Anything that I think I should record I add to this daily logbook.

Logbook: an official record of events during the voyage of a ship or aircraft

definition by Oxford Languages

The logbook is easy to maintain, I’m using this Moleskine 12 month daily planner, its small size makes it easy to carry. Also, the small size motivates me to write down on a page every day knowing that it will fill out quite quickly.

logbook image

This is not going to replace my journal or the planner I use for work, instead, it’s just an easy way to write down highlights of my day in a quickly and effortless manner. I have been doing this just for a week and it’s already paying off as writing down these specific daily events help me remember them better.

logbook image

I’ll report back and tell you how it’s going later after using the logbook for a few more months.