Den Delimarsky

I am an engineer working on API documentation, security and machine learning.

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On Focus
Oct 5, 2018
11 minutes read

I’ll spare you the tacky quote that one could put at the beginning of an essay that tells you how important focus is and instead jump right to the content. I thought some time about writing this - reading Deep Work by Cal Newport pushed me to formalize my thoughts a bit more, the output being this blog post.

There is two definitions to focus, each with its own direction. One is related to an inherent ability to segment one’s attention in a way that produces the best outputs. The other covers the ability to segment one’s effort within a product or a product area. In this essay, I am focusing on the former, in the hopes that I can get to the latter sometime by the end of the year.

Image of a glass bubble through which a natural scene is seen

Objectively, the world is full of things that ask for your attention - your phone is buzzing with notifications, you get emails where everything is urgent and if you are not answering it within 5 minutes, you get a timely notification from your IM client, with someone asking if you’ve seen their email. In the twenty four hours you have in the day, there are a million and a half of all sorts of things that are able to fragment your attention span into, what seems like, a never-ending stream or “must-do-it-now” tasks.

Try this experiment - for a week, take some notes of the emails and all kinds of notifications that you receive that you react and answer to. Once the week is done, ask yourself these two question:

  • How often did those take your mind away from other things, that probably are more important, and more impactful?
  • How many any of the emails you answered to or notifications you opened, are of high importance, that required your immediate attention?

I am going to go on a limb and say that likely the content that you’ve received through various channels did not require your immediate attention or reaction. However, you paying attention to those made you take away your brainpower from things that might have had a more significant impact on your future or the future of the product that you are working on. I’ve noticed this way too often about myself - it’s easy to get distracted, and it’s exponentially harder to get back into the focused state once you had a context switch.

This is where I decided that I can be better at focusing my effort on important efforts instead. At the end of the day, I’ve not heard of an entrepreneur, manager, engineer or any other professional who managed to achieve a high level of impact, who did not have a tremendous amount of focus on delivering what matters. I should also mention that everything I outline below relates to the professional space - your work, whether it’s a big company job, or a startup effort. In your personal life, the rules are quite different and I would encourage you to segment the two, and be very aware of the context you are in.

Here are some of the proactive steps I took to reclaim my time and attention:

Create inbox rules

Email is probably the biggest time sink for any tech industry professional - new messages come in by the minute, and it’s hard to step back and say “I’ll answer it later” when things sit in your inbox, and constant notifications float up to the corner of your screen.

There is an inbox rule that I created, that, in my opinion, works really well in determining the top-priority conversations:

  • If {email} from {manager || skip-level || GM || VP || CEO || HR || legal || flagged as high importance} - goes to Inbox. Emails in this category clearly require your immediate attention and you likely need to address these as soon as possible. These emails impact the direction of your work as well as current and future priorities.
  • If {email} from {anyone else} - goes to Catch-All. This is a folder that aggregates content from colleagues, partners on other teams, that I will make sure to cover, however do not require immediate attention.

I’d like to emphasize that this is not about ignoring email. I want to build great relationships with our partners, I want to collect feedback from coworkers and customers. That, however, can be done when I have dedicated time for email triage. When that happens is different depending on your area of work, your responsibilities or even your goals. If you are working to support customers over email, it’s highly likely that my strategy will not work for you.

The inbox rule allowed me to set time aside in the day when I focus on answering email, for any questions, concerns, ideas and meeting invites. All other time is focused on building a great product.

Determine social network time sinks

There is tremendous value in social networks - people use them to catch up with family, friends and acquaintances. Others use those to build a professional network. To me, I’ve come to realize that some of them are nothing more than a time sink. I will deliberately avoid saying what I am using vs. what I am not, because, again - people rely on some for different purposes, and there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation here.

What I did, however, is take a deep look at what helps me vs. what drains my time. In individual instances it might not be much, but once you start combining the amount of time you spent pointlessly looking at a feed, scrolling through myriads of ads and memes, at some point you blur the line between entertaining yourself and conditioning your brain to rely on “the feed” as the place to go to whenever you are bored or have the slightest hint of free time.

And before someone says “Well, that’s how I keep up-to-date with recent happenings.” - do you, though? What is extremely important that you will miss, that you won’t find in other sources? For me, that was minimal enough where I can easily not check a specific site for a year, and I guarantee that I would not miss one single important event that I won’t hear or read about from another source.

Going to the topic of optimizations in this area, one capability that I love about Twitter is how I can selectively enable notifications. I’ve completely disabled push notifications for the app on my phone. However, when someone DMs or mentions me, I get a text if it’s coming from a person I follow. So, again - if something important does happen or requires my attention, I can address it as soon as possible. Otherwise, I will just get to it whenever I want, and not when I get a red notification bubble.

Interpret this as less of me trying to demonize social networks and more of a “be smart about it” unsolicited advice - I credit the fact that I have my job to the power of Twitter and amplifying my work through it, so inherently social networks are not bad. You should just take back control of your two most precious resources: time and attention.

“Do not disturb” is your friend

If you are using an iPhone, there is a wonderful capability that allows minimizing distractions to a minimum - “Do not disturb”. In this mode, you can still get notifications on your screen, however no buzzing or any other sounds will be made either through the device itself or the smart watch you connected it to.

A screenshot of the "do not disturb" screen on iOS

There is a plethora of other apps on your phone that constantly deliver notifications - your package deliveries, your email client, your next door neighbor’s alert of what is going on around the area you live in. Not necessarily something devoid of usefulness, but it is yet another wedge driven into the ability of staying “in the zone”. Putting your phone in a mode where it does not make you instantly glance at the screen has helped tremendously with being able to concentrate without distractions.

That being said, iOS also offers the capability to pass certain notifications through, such as those from your spouse or manager - obviously you don’t want to miss them given that some might be very urgent. To do that, you can go to Settings > Do not disturb and enable the option to allow calls from favorites. And you can add your spouse and your manager as your favorites in the phone app!

Have chunks of uninterrupted time

This sounds really obvious, but does require a level of commitment to having such time. This practice means time that is not split between meetings, interruptions for lunch or browsing your favorite news website or even calls with the bank. The amount of time can vary (you can see a lot of this in the essay) depending on what you do, however for anyone in the tech industry, fixed amounts of focus time allow you to really think through some of the most important ideas, products, prioritization and/or anything else that you need to do for higher impact. Even email. Yes, email - block off some uninterrupted time on your calendar to empty out your inbox and answer every single inquiry there might be pending your input.

This includes coding as well - you probably are already familiar with how unproductive it is when you are in the middle of solving a problem and someone else comes in and pulls you into a meeting or a phone conversation that you did not need to be a part of. You know that now you need to re-calibrate to get back “in the zone”, and that is just time spend doing things that you could avoid.

With Outlook, or any other calendar service for that matter, you can easily block off chunks of time that nobody can schedule over. If someone tries to schedule over that, feel empowered to politely decline and propose a better time. Often times, that meeting is not something you need to solve this instant.

Group meetings in adjacent time slots

I’ve gotten into the habit of grouping my meetings in uninterrupted time slots. Granted, I am working remotely for my team and therefore most of the calls that I take from the office can be done back-to-back, but this would still apply to in-person meetings. When I know that I get to have meetings lined up in chunks, there is never a time when I have 30 minutes to do something else (writing a spec in 30 minutes is, at best, not a productive choice) and then jump back into a meeting. Instead, I can get through the meetings, collect the feedback and action items, and subsequently focus on execution.

Take notes on paper

This is something that I’ve learned from my good friend Wilson To. Sounds old-school? Maybe. However, when in a meeting or throwing together a plan for the day or the upcoming week, jotting things down on paper really makes it very easy to internalize what you need to get done and what the important parts of the conversation were. This is twice as important in meetings - think of all the times you’ve attended a call where you were checking email, or dealing with something else other than the meeting at hand. When you only have a pen (or pencil) and a notebook, you force yourself to focus on the conversation and nothing else. That is important.

Know when you don’t need to be in a meeting

Not every meeting invite you get needs to be accepted. Sometimes, it’s much easier to write an email and summarize the action items instead of spending 30 minutes talking about those. I’ve generally had success with politely declining the meeting if I know that my day is too busy, or I’ve already worked with the person before. The caveat here is that there is tremendous value in meeting people you’ve never met before over camera/in-person, therefore ensure that you still take on the opportunities to chat with people with whom you are just starting to establish a professional relationship.

When declining the meeting, it’s reasonable to ask the person to discuss the action items over email.

Have a plan

Yes, yes, the old adage about having a plan still applies, and, to the surprise of no one, works quite well.

There are many productivity hacks that you can apply, and even more various tools that you can use to do any sort of planning. To me, I keep it simple - have a notebook where I have one page per day, and on each page break down a plan of things I want to accomplish that day. The top 5 things that I absolutely must do are marked as well, which would mean that I am not leaving the office (under normal circumstances, of course) until those things are done. This makes it really easy to answer the question “What is absolutely important to accomplish today?

The notebook also has a page for each starting week, so that I have a clear picture of things I want to accomplish in terms of “big picture” (as big as it can be in a week). It’s a good way to abstract out the minutiae into a view of impactful things one might want to achieve in 5 work days. The more you write, the better you become at fleshing out your thoughts in a way that construct a path for you to move forward.

Conclusion

For a lot of the above, it will all come down to building both the necessary habits as well as a structured schedule to follow around the outlined practices. There are, of course, more ways to spend your professional time efficiently, and I am curious to hear your thoughts on what is the best way you organize your time.


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