How to Stop Multi-Tasking and Develop Focus

Austin Coding Academy
February 15, 2019
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In an age of constant digital distractions, focus may seem like a foreign concept. Websites like Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube give us an endless supply of content that are often more engaging than the tasks we need to accomplish. But focus is crucial for developers; one misplaced character in thousands of lines of code can throw off an entire project.

Unfortunately, once you lose focus, getting it back is a challenge. In fact, studies show that when people get distracted, it can take up to 25 minutes to refocus on the task they had been working on. If you have five distractions per day, you’re essentially wasting two hours of productivity time. Most of us can’t afford to lose that kind of time when work deadlines are approaching, so here are some actionable tips to help develop focus and get more done at work:

Do one thing at a time

It can feel like there’s an infinite amount of things we “should” be working on, which often causes people to panic and rush into a flurry of multitasking. But multitasking is actually counterproductive, because rapidly switching between tasks means none of them get your full effort. Working like this isn’t just overwhelming; it effectively decreases your IQ by 15 points!

Train yourself to do one task at a time by getting rid of distractions and focusing 100% on the one task you’re are working on. It can be tempting to try to juggle multiple tasks, but by training yourself not to, you’ll produce higher quality work and feel less stressed.

Prioritize important tasks first

Recent scientific studies and books like Willpower suggest humans have a limited amount of willpower they can exert each day. You spend a little bit of your willpower reserve each moment you’re focusing on a task. When you run low on willpower, you become less focused, give less effort and are more likely to give up on tasks. To use your daily willpower efficiently, schedule the most important tasks of the day first. This will give you best chance of actually completing them.

Important tasks may include things like making diagrams, writing code, and analyzing software outputs. Low-priority tasks might include checking email, surfing the internet, and chatting with coworkers. Save low priority tasks for the end of the day, when your willpower is gone and you’re getting ready to leave.

A good way to prioritize tasks for the day is to do an impact vs. effort analysis. The goal here is to accomplish tasks that are high impact but low effort first to gain small wins and build momentum. Then do high impact high effort tasks. Finally, move to the low impact activities near the end of the day.

Schedule blocks of time

Dedicating blocks of time to certain tasks allows you to focus on one task without worrying that you won’t get to any of the hundred other tasks fighting for your attention. Uninterrupted work time helps you maintain focus and get tasks done faster than you would have otherwise.

A simple time-blocking strategy you can use is called the Pomodoro technique. With this technique, you set a timer to 25 minutes and dedicate 100% of that time towards working on one individual task. 25 minutes is intended to be long enough to be effective but short enough to be achievable. When the 25-minute timer is up you take a break (usually for 5 minutes) and then continue to the next 25-minute block.

Get rid of distractions

Every device we own has apps and websites competing for our precious attention, but we don’t have to let them win. Keeping yourself free from distractions allows you to focus on getting more work done.

Cell phones are a huge distraction for most people. Eliminate them by turning off your phone, or choose not to bring it to work (if you can). If this isn’t realistic for you because you have family who may need to contact you during the day, try to encourage family and friends to communicate with you via email during the workday, except for emergencies.

Your computer can be another distractions minefield. Reduce interruptions by turning off email notifications and pings from messaging platforms like Slack or Facebook Messenger. Use chrome extensions like Stayfocusd and News Feed Eradicator for FB to help restrict access to distracting websites. If you find yourself often coming up with creative ideas for other projects while you’re working, quickly jot them down with apps like Laterbox and Google docs so you can get back to work quickly.

Keep your workspace free of clutter

Getting rid of clutter and simplifying your workspace is another crucial tool to help you reduce distractions and focus on your work. Decide which objects absolutely need to be there for you to get your work done, and take everything else home or throw it away.

This doesn’t just apply to your desk, either; your computer may have clutter that distracts you from getting work done. Remove all unnecessary icons, clear up the files on your desktop, and close applications and tabs when not using them.

Start finishing

It’s common to juggle many projects all at once and still feel like you’re not getting anything done. To combat this, you may want to start the day by finishing tasks you’ve already started. Look at your to-do list and decide which tasks can/should be finished first. Then focus all your efforts on getting these critical tasks done, one at a time. Checking off tasks will make you feel more accomplished, and it’ll make your to-do list less daunting.

Many programmers use project management systems like Scrum and Agile to make managing work tasks easier. This can be done with sticky notes, or with software like Trello. However you choose to go about it, display all the tasks you’re working on in one location, and move tasks from “in progress” to “done” as often as possible.

Bonus: Get enough sleep

Many people try to burn the midnight oil to be more productive. But de-prioritizing sleep does more harm than good. Adequate sleep helps to improve attention, working memory, and overall happiness.

Programmers are exposed to blue light from computers and phone screens all day. Blue light activates a photoreactive cell in your eyes which tells your hippocampus to block the release of sleep hormones like melatonin. Without these sleep hormones, it’s much more difficult fall asleep at night.

One way to prevent this problem is by trying to avoid looking at screens at night. You can also use apps and filters to reduce the amount of blue light your devices emit. iPhones have an app called Night Shift, and Androids have settings like eye comfort and blue light filter. Schedule your screen to be “warm” or show you less blue light as you get closer to bedtime.

Time to improve your focus

As a developer, it’s important to be efficient at your work. Not only does that make you faster when working on your own projects, it makes you more marketable to employers. Developing focus will let you work to your full potential instead of getting distracted and wasting time switching tasks.

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