Focus – Pocus

Last week, as the first North East blizzard of 2016 approached, my inner hermit rejoiced at the prospect of being stuck at home, and having the opportunity of tackling those chores that are frequently put on the back burner when outside shinny things are dangled in from of me.

Jonas was the perfect opportunity to finish watching remaining lecture videos of the current week’s assignment and quiz for the Data Science Certification – Cleaning and Getting Data  course that I am enrolled, and even finish the following weeks’ assignments.

The pile of books that I keep in that vicious circle of the barely moving bookmark and collecting dust would be picked up and read – or at least the bookmarks would be moved a little faster.

Did I mentioned planning my next blogs, and working on my treasury duties for The Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps, catching up on technical blogs?

Saturday morning, 9:00 am coffee at hand, I sat in from of the computer and started this ambitious task tackling day by checking emails and answering some “important” ones, but then everything came to a screeching halt when I opened that black hole of time called Facebook.

By 12:00 pm I had seen videos alright, of squirrels (my cat made me do it), a baby elephant, a weasel, panda bear, a couple of videos of someone else’s cats and a baby seal among others. I even posted this sad fact on Facebook – to the delight of a large number my procrastinating friends.

I am still not sure why I open Facebook, like I am going to find out something fascinating or enlightening – although I do have to say the panda bear and the seal videos were loaded with cuteness. But once more, my enthusiastic desire to make my day a productive one fell short to my total dismay.

After Jonas finished dumping 24 inches of snow in New Jersey, I came out and shoveled snow for 2 hours straight! That was an enormous amount of useless work and waste of energy – moving piles of snow from one place to another  BUT this was accomplished in a totally focused way, while the bookmarks never moved.

Why?  I wondered. Well, first of all I was able to see my progress – the satisfaction of seeing that little square of black tar under your feet and watching it getting wider! – , second, no electronic devices with internet capabilities were around.

Focus is my problem, focus when distractions are as close as the click of a mouse, I find myself snared in the mindless circle of status checking – email, Facebook, Linked-in, Twitter, the news… How do you bring your focus back and improve your productivity? many would say make a list, meditate, concentrate, close the door, turn your phone off…but it has all failed me.

As a software developer, I am constantly looking for things in the internet when I run into a problem, can’t permanently close my browser.

I have been reading about productivity and time management, and I found that combining a couple of techniques that I was already using a different time that can help you get your focus back and increase your productivity.

Make a list or even better a Kanban Board

I can see the eyes rolling, I know people that have list of lists collecting dust,  you need to make your list simple. Taking a page from Agile Software Development Kanban Boards work the best for me.

The Kanban boards are work and workflow visualization tools – usually assembled using sticky notes on a wall or whiteboard, they give you a visual map of where you are at. Walls and whiteboards may not be too practical, you can use software to create your board:

Make sure that every item is the simplest thing you need to do to make sure a task is completed for example, the Kanban board for my course work:

  • Watch lecture videos
  • Review notes
  • Answer Quiz

Kanban boards usually have 3 columns, you can move your tasks accordingly:

  • To do
  • In progress
  • Completed

Now that you have your list of things to do, you need to be able to follow up. For me, a Kanban board allows me to visualize my progress and have a sense of accomplishment.

Allocate small chunks of time – track your time

I recently learned about a technique called “The Pomodoro Technique” developed by Francesco Cirillo, a simple concept that allows you to improve your productivity.

The idea behind the pomodoro technique is to allocate 25 minutes at the time and concentrate on one of the tasks on your list for that period, you then can take a 5 minute break.

I found it challenging in the beginning, I was so surprised to see that I go back into my “status checking” mode minutes after I start working on one of time allocations, but I give myself a mental slap on the hand and immediately go back to the task at hand.

After you finish, you take a 5 minute break. The recommendation is to do something physical, to increase your calorie burn.., a word of warning, my first 5 minute walk took me to the kitchen, ended up being an hour break and an increase of my calorie intake, the lesson is : make sure you also have a timer for your break.

You can use some tools to keep you in check with your time allocation focus:

  •  Kitchen timer
  • Your phone timer
  • 30/30 app for iPhones
  • Task Timer+ for Android
  • Task Timer for Chrome

 This week I have been able to focus and increase my productivity in a way that I have not been able to do so since the introduction of that tempting icon on my desktop that allows me to stare a animal videos for hours at the time.


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