Find Your Working Zen
Chasing the Focus
If you’re anything like me, you might chase the elusive “flow zone” to get work done. Getting in the flow means getting work done, helping your peers solve their problems and being downright awesome. If you’re also like me, you might wonder how the heck do I get there? Sometimes my flow is like that: you think you just had it, and you swear you left it right here. So you go off looking for it. You open an editor, forget why, change the song, check Slack, go back to your editor, try and figure out what you were doing, check the news, and maybe finally you get into the flow, right before a big meeting, or you check out for the day.
Over the years, I’ve tried everything, from working late hours, to working early hours, to just sitting here forcing myself to write code, even if I’ll throw it away in 10 minutes.
Sometimes just forcing yourself to work, staring at the code until you have that epiphany, works. But many times it doesn’t, and you need to find other ways to motivate yourself and stay organized. Most of the time, you’re staring at the code, and you get distracted because you aren’t really sure how you are, or should be, spending your time.
So, getting focused and in that flow is hard. How can you organize your work, so that you know what’s coming up in the next 30 minutes, hour, day, and week to accomplish your goals for that timespan. How can you measure how effective you are being during the day and day-to-day?
There are two awesome tools I’m going to talk about today that help me organize, get focused and get into the flow:
Between these two apps, and being mindful of my efforts, I am able to organize my time, focus for short periods of time, and rest enough that I can continue to focus well and remain effective through the day.
You wake up in the morning, make your coffee and set out to your workstation. How do you start your day? Do you already have something in mind to start on? Do you check your emails and Slack for inspiration? Do you sit immobile wondering what you can start on now?
Getting focused is hard. It’s probably the hardest, and most important part of this whole thing — how can you get and stay focused, if you can’t get focused. How can you get anything done, if you’re just thinking about everything you need to do — and not taking any action? Maybe you’re worried about the time you have for that task, or all the other things you need to do today. You brain goes in 100 different directions, and picking the right one is hard, so hard you can’t do anything!
So what do you do? The most useful thing I’ve found was to take a step back and pause for a few minutes. Step outside of your environment, mentally or physically, and just breathe. Make sure you feel calm, and relaxed. Your mind will wander to other things, and that’s OK but focus on that breathing. When you’re feeling ready, start making a list. List the things that you need to do, list the the things you want to do, and list your worries or risks. Check with your product team on what the priorities for the day are week, and check your issue tooling to see what issues are at the top of the backlog that you can start on. Once you have know your goals for the day, just start. Pick your top priority from you list, and just start trying to work on it. You might get distracted, but just like the breathing, try and bring your focus back.
Just like modern meditating, there are tools that help you bring your focus back. A Pomodoro Timer can help you focus for short busts and make sure your attention is where it needs to be. I’ve experimented with a few Pomodoro timers, and the most useful I’ve found were Tomato Timer and Be Focused. If you aren’t familiar with a Pomodoro timer, it’s a technique to manage your time and focus. Using the Pomodoro timer, you set intervals for work and focused (I’ve found 20 minutes to 25 minutes to most effective), and times to break (usually 5 and 10 minute breaks). This allows you to organize your time, and break into focused concerted efforts on tasks. It also help you be mindful of breaking the tasks down.
Measuring Your Effectiveness
So, you got some focus time in, and you managed to get some work done. Great! Keep it up! The next question you might have is, how effective was I in my work? Every engineer knows some days you spend all day in your editor of choice, and some days you barely open it. How do you track the sum of all those 25 minutes? Timing 2 tracks the activity on your computer throughout the day, and you can assign scores and labels to activity to measure your overall effectiveness of a hour, a day, a week or a month.
Using Timing 2, you can watch your effectiveness throughout the day, and start to notice patterns on good, and off-days to help improve your focus and get more done.
When you start on this journey, you might see something like this:
Not bad, but there’s room for improvement. It looks a like a lot of getting into something and getting pulled away by Slack. Some work in there, but unfocused and undirected. How can we organize ourselves better, to become more effective in our work?
To start, we need to do a bit of organization in Timing 2, firstly we need to categorize tasks that we’ve done to be. To do this, drag your task or activity to the category on the left hand side (tip: if you hold CMD on your keyboard as you drag items around, Things 2 will remember this organization, and do the same for all tasks in the future that are similar.
You can also adjust the “productivity” level of each project or category, and tasks sorted into this category from here will reflect that productivity metrics in your “effectiveness” quotient. To do this, right click on whichever project you would like to modify:
Once you have started organizing your work, you can use the metrics in Timing 2 to measure how long you worked, where you work and stop periods are, and how “effective” you were in those tasks (e.g. how much of the work you did was organized into a “Productive” category.
It’s best to build up a few days, or even a few weeks worth of data, before you try to glean any reasonable insights into the data — some days are just more productive than others and you can’t control it. That’s fine, take all the data as it is, and view each day, or time span in the context of that day.
Burning out is common in many professions. Software Engineering is no exception. As you chase that green efficiency quotient in Things 2, you might feel yourself tired, and start to burn out. You’re focusing on only tasks that will drive that number up, by doing only highly-productive tasks all day. This isn’t abnormal, some days you’ll feel like you’re on fire, and some days you’ll feel like there is a lead weight dragging your efficiency down.
The tools we talked about in this post can help with that. It’s important to recognize, that even if you are 100% efficient for a 9 hour day, you may not be doing yourself any good, if you can’t work again for the week because you’re so tired. It’s important to remember a balance — sometimes writing a blog post on efficiency, instead of writing code, is a great way to work through any mental blocks!
So, don’t fret if you see the numbers lower than you want, or think people expect from you — everyone works differently, and making the efficiency a continuous thing is much more important than a few good days here and there.
Staying on Task
Great — so we can measure how effective we are, but how do we now organize our work so we know the tasks we need to get done in a day. Standups help (here at Manifold, we use Zapier to post in our #standup channel so that engineers can post their tasks for the day), but often it’s actually figuring out “what do I do now?” instead of “what will I do today?”.
As mentioned earlier in the post, a Pomodoro timer with a task list can help you organize your work, and stay on task across context changes. Be Focused is just a tool to help. You can configure your tasks for the day:
Then, when you start to work on an activity, click the “Play” button to start the timer. The intervals for timing can be adjusted, but I suggest you start with the defaults and adjust as necessary, instead of trying to adjust upfront. You might feel an urge to jump from one task to the next, especially if you are stuck — but perseverance is important to get into the focus flow you need. Sticking on task, even if it is impossibly hard at the time, will help drive that forward. If you feel stuck on a particular task, maybe it’s a good time to step away from it, and identify the smaller tasks you can break down.
Now that you have these tools and resources at your disposal, it’s time to actually get some work done! Efficiency and staying on task are important. A lot of people struggle with this, so take solace in the fact you are not alone. With these tools, you can instrument, measure and create your own feedback-loop to improve to work flow, while hopefully avoiding feeling burnt out.