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Tips For The Often Distracted Developer


When distractions are everywhere focus becomes scarce

Office environments can easily turn into an attention battlefield. Emails, slack notifications, calendar alerts, meetings and casual hallway chats are just a few of the interruptions knowledge workers experience on a daily basis. Followed by frequent context switching and multitasking, these interruptions have negative implications on our brain’s performance. As described in the highly recommended read — Deep Work by Cal Newport, deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s an important skill that you can start to sharpen once you identify and eliminate the origins of your distractions.

If you read my previous post on communicating tech debt you could tell I’m keen about improving productivity. I’m constantly looking for ways to make my team’s work as smooth as possible. So as such, I’ve gathered a few tips throughout my career as a software developer and later on as a team lead. Tips that might help you get more deep & meaningful work done.

I’ve organized those tips based on their origin under 3 groups:

  • Schedule & time management
  • Communication tools & rules
  • Work culture & environment

Schedule & time management

Time management is an art that involves planing & discipline. When done right it can also become a statement: “I don’t require micro-management, I’m fully capable of managing my own time according to the given priorities”. The next few tips aim to help you achieve this state.

  • Deep work intervals — split the day to intervals of deep and shallow work and set a timer which reminds you to swap between them. I found that a 75 minutes to 15 minutes ratio, respectively, works great for me.
  • Schedule your deep work periods as calendar events. make sure you reserve at least 4 hours of deep work a day. Write a polite event description such as: “I’m in a deep work state. Please do not interrupt me unless it’s urgent.”
  • Meeting-free morning — late morning (10am until noon) is usually when our brain and energy levels are at their peak. Clear your morning from meetings and dedicate those peaks to get meaningful work done.
  • Plan your day ahead to eliminate friction and allocate focus periods. Consider adopting a “workday shutdown” ritual when you take the last 15 minutes of your workday to plan the following day.

Communications tools and rules

From PUSH to PULL — Change how you consume communication!

Your email, slack, calendar and phone constantly push notifications and alerts that beg for your immediate attention. You’re often tempted to leave all you’re doing and check them out thinking you might be missing something important or urgent. If you can identify with this behaviour then the next few tips can help you regain control of your time taken by the tools.

  • Disable all desktop notifications — the goal is to keep all the communication tools contained in the browser.
  • Prefer web clients/websites over native clients/apps versions of your communication tools. This way you can organize all those tabs inside one browser window and easily ignore or minimize it while in focus.
  • Use Slack “do not disturb” mode before diving deep into a complex task.
  • Silence your phone and disable any notification lights or screen flashes.
  • Need a mental break from your task? Now would be a good time to quickly overview your minimized browser window. However, do not respond to interactions unless it’s important enough, or you’ll risk losing the context of the task you’re working on.

Work culture & environment

Colleagues and managers can behave in a focus insensitive manner with either loud shared space conversations or badly timed questions. Your work setting can also be saturated with distractions that can easily be avoided. The next few tips can help you communicate the importance of focus to your surrounding and optimize your environment.

  • Headphones — wearing noticeable headphones is the universal sign of being in the zone. Active noise canceling headphones will give you the freedom to just mute the world.
  • The Gateway Keeper — if you’re a team manager, make sure employees outside your team contact you and not your teammates directly. This way you can delegate the communication at the right time and according to the right priority.
  • Static background — sitting facing towards a view with lots of moving people or objects can irritate your brain while in focus. Avoid sitting in front of hallways, meeting rooms or kitchens.
  • Get comfortable — check that your seat is adjusted for long sitting periods, your table is at the right height, get pads for your mouse and keyboard, even consider leaving a pair of comfortable shoes or flip flops in your office.
  • About to dive deep into a task? Make sure that you’re well fed and won’t need the toilet soon. keep a full cup or bottle at reach.

Focus is crucial for solving complex issues, inventing creative solutions and delivering valuable work. However, it gets harder to maintain focus as technology, together with culture, keep filling our environment with distractions and stimulations.

Deep work is beneficial for your personal development, as well as work satisfaction and so it’s something any developer, or other knowledge worker should pursue.