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  • Writer's pictureSavita Ferguson

Focus Time

Updated: Jun 20, 2021

No-one questions how important focus time is. All engineers, in fact all employees, need some uninterrupted time to focus on the task at hand. But when you work as a team, and you need to support each other, finding focus time can be challenging. We've all seen, and perhaps made, memes poking fun at the multitude of meeting distractions we have at work. Note that when I refer to distracting meetings, I'm thinking about those things that take you away from your task at hand and introduce a context switch penalty. Pair programming is an example of where a meeting can actually be considered focus time.

Setting up focus time

  • When I'm working with a team for the first time, I always check how well they know each other's preferences. Is your colleague an early riser? Do they like afternoon naps? Team formation meetings are a wonderful place to learn how each other works and understand when your colleagues perform their best on individual tasks. Then, make an explicit agreement to respect them during this time.

  • Of course other team members may need something from you, so make sure you have an agreement that works for all of you, something like - if my chat applications are on busy, feel free to leave a message. I won't reply immediately, but I'll get back to you within the hour.

  • Clockwise is one tool that some of my colleagues use in order to give themselves bigger blocks of focus time. I prefer to have more control over my calendar but I use the same philosophy - group your meeting times together where possible and leave larger blocks of unallocated time. In a team setting this might be an explicit - we'll try to have all our team meetings between 10 am and noon.

Getting others to respect your focus time

  • Visible calendars can help with fostering this culture of respect. Add a block which says "focus time" so that others are reminded when you'd prefer to not be disturbed. You can also do the opposite - open office time, as an explicit encouragement to team members to use this time to interrupt you.

  • If you're physically in the office with your teammates, it might help to have something on your desk, a little token they know represents your focus period; these kinds of visual indicators are gentle reminders to respect each other's working preferences.

  • Talk to them. The most important tool for becoming a team that functions well as a unit, is communication. Don't assume others know when you're in the zone. Let them know your preference and ask them to respect it. Let them know when they've messed up your flow so they are reminded of the clues to look for. Also let them know when it is ok to interrupt your flow so that they aren't stuck being worried about disturbing you. And be sure to respect their preferences too.

I find it hard to focus

  • The only real way to get better at focusing, is to practice focusing and allow deep work to map the appropriate neural pathways and ultimately become a habit for you. Set a clear, and realistic, goal about what you're trying to achieve and keep going until you get there. Then the next day, do it again. As you get better at focusing you can get a bit more ambitious with your goals.

  • Make a plan - Map out a series of specific steps you expect to take to achieve your goal. This can serve as a guidepost reminder of where you want to go and so help you stay on track. It also feels pretty good to actually achieve something, even if it's a small step forward.

  • Limit distractions - what is considered distracting is actually quite an individual preference things. Some people like background music while others prefer absolute silence. Try different settings and understand your preferences. But also, don't try to multi-task.

  • Take notes - it's normal for your brain to drift from time to time. Leave yourself little notes from time to time as markers to help you come back to the task at hand. Writing can also help you think about the problem more deeply, especially if you write by hand.

  • Give yourself a break - Make sure to take brain breaks where you do something completely different. The pomodoro technique is one pattern of how this can be done. Certain types of tasks, like a run or a bath can actually inspire you so making it much easier to continue where you left off. Similarly other kinds of activities, like eating a sugar filled snack can leave you feeling lethargic and less able to concentrate.

  • Try different things, and take notes on how they make you feel so that you learn what works for you and what doesn't. Then stick to what works so that they become second nature habits.


  • Deep work, by Cal Newport

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