Tips for Finding Focus

Focusing on a single task is quickly becoming a lost art. The temptation to always be multi-tasking, keeping up with notifications and e-mail, can make you feel “busy” even though you might not be getting a lot done.

Programming is one of those tasks that does not lend itself well to multi-tasking — at least for me, anyway. It’s hard to effectively solve a problem in 4–5 minute chunks between meetings and conversations.

What follows is nothing new, simply a couple of techniques I’ve come across over the last couple of years that have really helped me find the focus that’s so important when working as a developer. I hope these tips will help you find focus in your life, too!

Schedule your Focus Time

At Unbounce, we’ve designated every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon to focus time. Since this is a department-wide calendar event, the idea is that meetings should be booked outside of this time when possible. It doesn’t always work exactly as planned, but it’s a great strategy to protect time on a company-wide level.

Some of us have gone one step further and created a “Do not book” event on our public calendars. This serves as another reminder for those who are scheduling meetings with me that I’d prefer to keep that time free for myself.

Do Pomodoro 🍅

If you haven’t heard of the Pomodoro Technique, I’m here to tell you that it’s the snake oil that will change your life! … or not. It may not work for everybody, but I’ve found it to be the perfect framework for finding focus throughout the day.

A typical Pomodoro sequence goes like this:

  • Focus on a predetermined task for 25 minutes, with no distractions;
  • Take a short (3–5 minute) break;
  • Repeat. Take a longer break (15–30 minute) after four Pomodoros.

You don’t have to follow this religiously. I tend to stick to the 25-minute focus time, but I’m not as regimented with the duration of my breaks. I also don’t try to do Pomodoro on days when I have a lot of meetings, since it quickly becomes an exercise in frustration. It’s best for a morning or an afternoon that’s yours to schedule as you choose.

The key to the Pomodoro technique comes in the separation of focus from interrupts. For that 25 minutes of focus, you do not check e-mail. You do not check Slack. Put your headphones on and turn on some music. Politely tell people who walk up to you with a question that you’ll be with them shortly.

Before each Pomodoro session, have a plan in mind of what you want to accomplish in the next 25 minutes. You don’t necessarily need to write it down or anything — just know what you want to accomplish so that you can completely dedicate your time and energy to that task.

Of course, there are apps to help you time these sessions! I like Tomighty. It’s nice and simple.

Do Not Disturb. 24/7.

It’s probably obvious that when you want to find focus, you should enable Do Not Disturb mode on your computer. I started doing this when I began practicing Pomodoro. However, I quickly realized that I didn’t need to keep toggling my notifications — I could just leave them off all the time.

When you practice Pomodoro, you create specific times where you’ll be available for Slack chats, responding to e-mails, etc. Since you’ve made a habit of this, why bother turning on your notifications? Once you’re in the habit of checking the feeds you need to check, you no longer need pop-ups informing you the moment something happens — except maybe if your app goes down!

(Hot tip for macOS users: you can Option-click the notification menu bar icon to automatically toggle DND mode.)

Don’t always be available

The introduction of Slack, or another chat app, into the workplace also usually comes with the implicit expectation that you will reply to people’s messages immediately, or at least faster than an e-mail. This can be a problem if you’re trying to partition your time.

I’ve started using my Slack status to set the expectation that I won’t always respond immediately. This is a small thing, but I think it’s a respectful way to set up some boundaries around your availability throughout the day. Plus, 25 minutes is a pretty reasonable amount of time for a reply in my opinion, unless of course it’s an emergency.

Be Disciplined

None of this will work if you start making exceptions to your focus rules. It can be tempting at first to take a quick peek at Slack while your tests are running, for example, but once you start establishing a rhythm I think you’ll notice a difference in your productivity. Right now it feels so satisfying when I click “start” on my Pomodoro timer and throw on my headphones — here comes focus!