How I keep focus

(and prevent a burnout)

4 minute read

Recently I came across this article by Sophie Shepherd on dealing with context switching. I’m a bit late to the game as she wrote this in June of last year, but I recognize a lot in her story. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. It’s one of my favorites from last year.

Focussing tools Focus.

Back in the day

When I was still working at Chef du Web I had to deal with context switching a lot. Working in a team is just a lot more difficult than working alone. Especially when people are looking to you for decision-making.

The job meant constantly switching activities. Tasks ranged from making design descisions, to helping people, to doing support, to regular ol’ development. Usually all in the same day. For a while I loved this. I loved the fact that I was able to keep up with this insane pace. I didn’t notice that the quality of my work was getting worse.

Eventually I fell into a vicious cycle of dealing with everyone else’s issues first and then working through the evening (and sometimes night) to finish my own work. I also had no idea what my work rythm was doing to my wife and son.

Looking back now it seems like such an obvious mistake to make. I’m glad I know how, at least in part, to steer clear of this trap now.

Context switching

Sophie is right when she says context-switching is one of the biggest causes of burnouts. And that’s because It’s very hard to focus on actual creative work when you do it in short bursts of time. Eventually this will spiral into stress, anxiety and working nights, like it did with me. And if you’re not careful it can end up in low morale and depression.

For any kind of creative work long stretches of uninterrupted time are very important. Author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this “Flow” in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”.

Once we achieve a form of flow; our productivity skyrockets. Sadly, it can take quite some effort to get into this flow in the first place. Add to this that every quick question, every phone call and (at least in my case) basically any other excuse takes us out of flow and you’ve got a problem in almost any office.

Focussing tools

Fixing this

I’m not going to tell you that I’ve created a fool-proof system. I still struggle when loads and loads of responsibilities pile up and there’s no more time left for actual development. For instance: I’ve recently been through a rough patch (workload-wise) and I came pretty close to working nights again. I also managed to get all my days filled with work without actually having the feeling of getting any work done.

That being said, the following solutions work for me in most cases:

I devide my days Every day I work on support, e-mail and any administration I need to do. But I only do these tasks between 3pm and 5pm. This means I -generally- get two larger chunks of time (9:30am - 12am) and ( 12:30am - 3pm ) that I can actually get work done.

I don’t work on multiple projects in a day I use those two chunks for one project only. I might use some support time for any other running project, but those two chunks are reserved for just one client and one type of work (either developerment or design)

I plan a full week in advance Obviously I also follow a broader planning / calendar, but for each week I’ll figure out the deviding of days on monday.

I make a list For each day I make a full (and numbered) list of smaller tasks. I collect tasks in Trello and copy them to paper every day, because I like putting a line through tasks done.

I go through extremes to protect my focus Usually I mute my phone and notifications during those ‘chunks’. I make sure I have a full bottle of water near my computer in case I get thirsty.

I can also recommend buying noise cancelling headphones if you work in a loud office. I currently use the Bose quietcomfort 35 which offers great comfort and battery life (I highly recommend them!). Great headphones accompanied with good music can go a long way in shutting out the world.

Productivity, especially in the form of focus, is getting increasingly rare. What do you do to keep on schedule? Do you have anything to add? Please let me know in the comments!

All images are taken from the Wikimedia Commons

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