An inevitable topic of conversation for most engineers and their managers is how interruptions and distractions can have a big impact on their ability to get things done. Once you’re disturbed, you’ve lost your focus and your flow, and it takes time to get back into what you were doing.
This topic resonates with me particularly, and something I usually find myself thinking about when I’m listening to engineers talk about how they’re affected by this is the phrase Stop starting, start finishing’. It’s a well known agile phrase that basically encourages you to work on one thing at a time, and avoid starting anything new until you’ve finished what you’re doing. Easy, right? 🙄
Distractions are everywhere at work; no matter where you’re working. Instant messages, emails, meetings, outside noise, social media, your phone ringing, the delivery person knocking at the door to take next door’s parcel in; they’re everywhere, and they can really impact your ability to stay focused on what you’re trying to achieve. Critically, they stop you from finishing what you’re doing, and usually mean you’ll pick that ‘other’ thing up before finishing the original.
I’ve been thinking a lot about (and trying to practice) deep focus this year. I’ve written before about how I organise my time when I’m at work, but as we approached Christmas I found I was slipping back into some habits that I’d started using that system to avoid (such as letting my priorities slip over to the next week, or not using my non-meeting time as it was intended). I spent some time reflecting on why that was happening, and I reached the conclusion that I was allowing myself to be distracted. I was making it easy for those distractions to take my attention away from the things I’d prioritised, and I wasn’t being disciplined enough in creating an environment for myself to work where distractions were limited.
I did some research and experimented with a few different methods/techniques, and found that there are lots of ways to reduce distractions and stay focused on finishing the thing I’m working on - some of which I’ve encouraged engineers I’m working with to try out too.
Here are a few things I now consider doing when I work on something I need to concentrate on and finish. I’ve actually found recently that I get a great sense of achievement from completing something by working in this way, and it’s been motivating me to go and do the next thing on my list in the same way. It’s been great for productivity!
Honestly, the biggest hurdle here was conquering the feeling of guilt that I wouldn’t reply to someone as quickly as they wanted or needed me to whilst working in this way.
Slack is my number one source of distraction, and the ‘pause notifications’ feature has really helped me out with this. Click the little 🔔 icon at the top near your name, and you can pause notifications for as long as you’d like. I prefer this to completely closing Slack as it means that if people do need to contact me, they have the option to send me a notification anyway. This really helps with the guilty feeling I mentioned above, as I know people can get in touch if they need me urgently.
I also find it useful to keep my Slack status up to date with what I’m doing, and that I’m going to be slow to respond. I’ve found that since I’ve been using this, some people have held off sending me the message until later with a ‘Hey, I noticed you were focusing on something earlier…here’s the thing I was going to chat to you about’. If you see others with this kind of status, please help them stay focused by holding off on sending that message until later to limit the chance of a possible distraction 🤗
Ever have those moments when you’ve just picked up and unlocked your phone and you have no idea why? Yep, me too. It really helps me if I keep my phone out of reach (and ideally on silent) whilst I’m focusing. By removing the temptation (or the ability to act on a habit!), I’m able to stay focused and finish the thing I’m working on.
I’m one of those people that zones in to noises and conversations around me, and it can be really distracting. I don’t like working in complete silence, so I reach for my headphones whenever I’m focusing. On my quest for the perfect backing track to my focus time, I’ve found that some of the deep concentration playlists on Spotify actually really help me; I’d never usually listen to the kind of music that’s on them, and maybe that helps me get in to that zone 🤷♂️
I work better when I know I have to do something by a deadline, so I always set myself a limit for how long I’m going to spend doing it. As a result, I’m doing things like writing performance reviews for engineers I manage quicker than I ever have done, so something is working! It’s also nice to know that you’re going to stop at a set time 😴. Some of my colleagues have also recommended the Pomodoro technique(which sounds similar to this) that I’m planning to give a go in the near future.
I make sure I’m not hungry and I have easy access to tea/coffee/water when I’m settling in to do something. I’ve found it so easy to get distracted in the past by saying to myself ‘I’ll just quickly go and grab a coffee’ mid-task, and then never getting back into the thing I was doing.
I’m lucky enough that I can do (non-sensitive) work almost anywhere. I’ve found that getting out of the house or office (depending on where I am each day) to do the thing I need to focus on works incredibly well for me. I’ve recently found a favourite quiet spot in a local cafe where I’ve found I can go and focus on what I need to incredibly well!
Ironically I tried writing this blog in one focused sitting and had an absolute nightmare with it. I’m not quite sure what stopped me from being able to make the progress I wanted, but it wasn’t because I was being distracted; maybe I’ll write about it when I’ve worked that out 😉
I also appreciate that this won’t work for everyone, so I’d encourage anyone struggling with a similar problem to mine before Christmas to invest the time in experimenting with a few different methods, and accepting that they might not work. I remain a big believer in narrowing your focus down to one thing at a time to help with productivity, but that’s probably because that’s how I find I work most effectively.
I found a really interesting contrast to this single-focus approach in Tim Harford’s recent TED talk A powerful way to unleash your natural creativity. In that talk, Tim talks about something called “slow-motion multitasking” and provides an interesting perspective on how some of the world’s most innovative and creative people often worked on multiple things at once with huge success. If you like the sound of that, give the podcast a listen and experiment with what works best for you.
I expect that as technology evolves in the future, it’s going to get even more difficult to dedicate time to working without distractions – but I do see it as something that all of us working in technology will need to conquer to help with solving complex problems, and finishing things that we’ve started!