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How I Focus

Turning your attention to less, so that you can do more.

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This weekend, I was listening to an episode of Back to Work (one of my favorite podcasts) in which Merlin and Dan were discussing focus and attention. As a designer, I never really had a problem with focusing, since my jobs allowed for long, uninterrupted periods of productivity. I had a few regular meetings (standups, critiques), but generally any other randomizations were initiated by me (asking for help from another designer, blue skying on a new idea for the startup), so I was able to largely control my time and ensure I had ample amounts of it to dedicate to single tasks.

As a manager, all that control has flown right out the window. It's my job now to live steeped in randomness. I have to be flexible, both with my time and priorities, so that everyone I work with can get what they need in a timely manner. So, where a week ahead seems pretty reasonable and devoid of meetings (yay!), by the time the week rolls around, there are not a lot of large empty blocks of time. Typically I'm at my desk no longer than half an hour at a time, and some days not at all.

Like I said, that's the job I've chosen (and love!), so it's all good. But it also means I've needed to double down on ways to manage my time effectively. Shorter meetings are imperative, which means needing to be more focused and present to absorb and exchange information so we can all move on to the next thing (or have a few precious minutes to catch up on Slack or email). For the last few months (even while I was still at Etsy), I've been trying out a couple new habits to help me focus my attention and get the most out of my workday:

Turning on Do Not Disturb all day.

We've all been there: you're sitting listening to someone, but your phone keeps buzzing incessantly for one reason or another. I recall being in a 1:1 awhile back and a group text was just blowing up my notifications. I finally paused the 1:1 and set my phone to Do Not Disturb. After I finished the 1:1, I left it in that mode and the rest of my day was so much more amazing! I could check out what had happened in my own time! My other meetings were distraction-free!

Nowadays, I set my phone to Do Not Disturb the second I walk into the office. At times, it slips my mind, but the first time it starts buzzing, I'm reminded and shut it off. This allows me to keep my phone with me (to check my calendar between meetings, catch up on email or Slack or what my friends are chatting about on Telegram), but basically destroys its ability to take my attention without my express permission. Highly recommend.

Leaving my laptop behind or closed.

Unless I'm actively using my laptop for the meeting I'm in (we're both editing the same doc, or I'm presenting some information, or need to take notes), I either leave my laptop at my desk or keep it completely closed throughout the meeting. I used to keep my laptop open, typing away while coworkers tried to talk through whatever problem the meeting was made to solve. As it turns out, we may think we're great multitaskers, but we really aren't.

No, seriously, here's proof.

Not only aren't we good at multitasking (so while my laptop is out I'm missing possibly important dialogue/information), trying to do so results in meetings taking way longer. Wait, so I missed that... or Which part are we talking about again? means forcing people to repeat information and reestablish context. Meetings where everyone is focused and present tend to end early in my experience, even when scheduled for short amounts of time.

Ending the meeting when the meeting ends.

There's a saying that goes something like Any meeting will expand to take up the time allotted to it. I think whoever said that was referring to keeping meeting lengths as short as possible (which I'm in favor of), but you can also take it as advice to end meetings the moment they end. We all know that moment. Information has been shared, resolution has been reached... and then we all sit around for the next fifteen minutes and repeat ourselves (I still do this all the time, completely by accident).

Maybe it's that time is more precious to me as a manager, but I find myself paying more attention to that natural moment of conclusion. As soon as I am actually able to recognize it, I'll say something like, This was awesome, thank you! Let me know if you need anything else from me? and just get up. And, magically, everyone else tends to get up as well! It sounds a bit ruder writing it out than it seems in practice, I think. We all want out of the meeting and to get back to work, but for some reason it's really hard to just end it without the clock telling us it's okay to. I still feel nervous about ending early for reasons I cannot explain. But it feels good when it happens, so I'm trying to do it more often.

(Important note! I do not initiate ending early in my 1:1s. They still end early sometimes, but it's mostly due to both of us finishing our list of discussion topics. Managers, don't try getting 1:1 time back, because it's not your time.)

It's all about mastering my own time and attention.

I don't want this to come off as anti-technology or anti-meeting. Technology is awesome and empowering! People are awesome and empowering! I also don't feel badly towards folks who look at their phones or bring their laptops to meetings. I just found that by personally trying to do all three things at once, I did none of them well and everything wound up taking longer. I found this nice image on Twitter that sums the whole thing up for me:

I think monotask is best for humans, just because we have feelings

I used to feel like the sad face. Now, more and more, I feel like the happy one. I'm actually starting to use Omnifocus more and more to not only help keep track of what needs to be done, but also to help me turn my attention to one thing at a time. What's most important? Check it off. What's next? Check it off. And so on. These days I feel more productive and present and focused than I ever have before.

How do you stay focused and productive? Shoot me a note on Twitter.

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