Focus and Flow - How to Avoid Distractions and Get Things Done

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We live in a world full of distractions. Throughout our day we are constantly bombarded with notifications from email, Slack, and our phones. Our schedules are full of meetings, and our bosses and coworkers feel free to interrupt us without a second thought. How can we expect to get anything done if we can’t focus? 

To be effective in software development, as with any complex and creative task, clarity of thought is required for long periods of time. When we are able to clear our minds and focus on a challenging problem, we enter a state of flow. In this state, we are able to be maximally productive and efficient. I’ve found with my teams that two hours in a flow state produces more and better quality output than a typical eight hour day that is full of distractions. In this article, I’ll show you how to organize your team and create an environment that facilitates flow.

Before we get started, I want to setup an experiment. See if you can read this entire article in one sitting, without getting distracted. If you find yourself bookmarking it for later, or jumping back and forth between this article and your other conversations, then you are exactly the person who needs this the most. I challenge you to put everything aside and get to the end of this article without stopping. Don’t skim, that’s cheating. Read it thoroughly and contemplate your own struggles with focus, and I’d love to get your feedback in the comments.

What is Flow?

Have you ever been so engrossed in a task that the time went by in a blink? Flow is a state of total absorption, where time dilates, the sense of self disappears, and you achieve optimal mental and physical performance. When an Olympic athlete nails an incredibly difficult routine, or an artist pours their inspiration into a work of art, they are in the flow. There are generally four stages in the flow cycle:

  1. Struggle: It takes effort to clear your mind, break away from distractions, and dig into a challenging task. This is a highly conscious state and the motions are not automatic.

  2. Release: Once you’ve pushed through the initial barriers, the subconscious begins to take over and the motions become more automatic.

  3. Flow: The subconscious takes over. You lose your sense of time and self, and are completely engrossed in the activity. You’ve achieved peak performance.

  4. Recovery: Being in the flow state for too long can be exhausting. Like in a sleep cycle, you may naturally arise out of the flow state. This is a good time to take a break.

The concept of flow was first elaborated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and made famous in his TED Talk:

How to Obtain Flow State

In order to achieve a flow state, you must:

  • Be free of distractions — Turn off your email and Slack notifications. Put away your phone. Close your door or put up a Do Not Disturb sign. Put on headphones.

  • Be in a vibrant environment — Every one of your senses can help or hinder your ability to achieve flow. Your environment should be well lit, free of strong smells or loud noises, at a comfortable temperature, and with comfortable seating.

  • Have a clear goal — When you sit down to work, you should have an intention. You should visualize what you want to accomplish, and have a plan of attack. This allows your mind to go into an automatic mode.

  • Have a challenging, but not too difficult task — If the task is too easy, your mind will have the freedom to wander. If it’s too difficult, your mind will become exhausted quickly. The task should be challenging but within your ability.

  • Be free of friction and blockers — If you start on your task, but then have to wait for something or go ask for help, you will be pulled out of the flow state. Make sure you have all the tools and information you need before you get started.

  • Have positive feedback loops — The flow state thrives on achievement. Organize your work in such a way that you can see the results throughout the process.

  • Focus on a single task — Our minds can only hold so much information at one time. By focusing on a single task, we free up maximum resources for the task at hand.

Now I want to address common failure patterns in our workplaces that kill the flow state, and give you a framework to create an environment conducive to flow.

The Myth of Multi-Tasking

Let me make this clear, multi-tasking doesn’t exist. When we say we multi-task, what we really do is vacillate between single tasks in an incredibly inefficient way. Studies show that switching between tasks results in:

  • 40% loss in productivity

  • 20–25 minutes on average to get back on task after switching

  • 50% longer to complete a task

  • Up to 50% more errors

  • Lowers IQ up to 15 points

  • Multi-taskers experience more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort

Imagine you are focusing on a task, and you are forced to context switch because of an interruption or a meeting. It takes, on average, 20 minutes for you to get back to the level of productivity you were at before. How many times a day does this happen to you? Multiply that by the number of people in your team. That’s how much time is lost every day to multi-tasking. 

Let’s take an example of a typical day:

With no intentional focus time, context switching, and meetings scattered throughout the day, 40% of productivity is lost. Now, let’s organize our schedule to minimize context switching:

By simply organizing your schedule, focusing on single tasks, and keeping meetings constrained to set blocks of time, we are able to get hours of our day back. We haven’t even begun to achieve peak performance, this is just scheduling.

In my teams, we agree on a common schedule that supports this model. We allow for two hours of meetings a day during a set block of time. We also secure blocks of “Peak Time” where we all attempt to reach a flow state and avoid distracting each other at all costs. I’ll go over this in more detail later.

Meetings — The Productivity Killer

Let’s envision a typical meeting. Fifteen minutes before the meeting, a notification pops up, interrupting your focus. You pack your things and physically move to the meeting room. When you arrive, you have a few minutes of idle chit chat. You’ve already lost 20–25 minutes of productivity before the meeting even got rolling.

After the meeting starts, unless you’re the one presenting, you may open your laptop and continue working on your previous task. You’re not engaged in the meeting, but you’re not completely focused on your work either. You, along with several of your colleagues, are in this disengaged state for an entire hour, just in case there is a topic that needs your input. Does this sound familiar? How many of these types of meetings do you have each day?

When I work with my clients, one of the first areas I tackle is their meeting culture. There is an enormous amount of time wasted in meetings, and it’s one of the easier areas to fix. Here are some guidelines to running effective meetings:

  1. Decide if a meeting is really necessary — Meetings should be reserved for critical decisions. Avoid using meetings for status updates or consensus gathering. Before scheduling or accepting a meeting, ask yourself, could this meeting be handled in an email or brief hallway chat?

  2. Set an agenda with decisions to be made, not topics to be discussed — When the agenda is framed around topics of discussion, people are likely to discuss, and discuss, and discuss. If you frame the agenda around decisions to be made, you are more likely to get to the point, and only include people relevant in making those decisions. Once the decisions have been made, the meeting is over.

  3. Only individuals responsible for making a decision should be present — Whoever represents their team or functional area at the meeting has the authority to make decisions on behalf of their team. If the purpose of the meeting is to make a decision in the meeting, anyone present must have the authority to make that decision. Don’t expect to leave the meeting with action items to gather information to make a decision, that should have already been done ahead of time.

  4. Everyone else should receive meeting notes — If an individual is an interested stakeholder, but not critical in making the decision, they should receive some form of meeting notes to fill them in on the decision. An hour of discussion can be summarized in a few minutes of reading.

  5. No laptops or devices during meetings — If you can’t be fully engaged, leave. Everyone should have the expectation that the meeting is important. If your task is more important than the meeting, you should be able to state that you’re working on a critical task, and you need to leave. The organizer can either choose to let you go, or reschedule the meeting. The only open laptop should be the person taking notes or presenting.

  6. If you need information from someone not present, IM or call them — If there is a small segment that may require someone’s input, let them know ahead of time that you may be reaching out. IM or call them for the brief segment, then let them go. If it’s very important, call them into the room. This way, the default mode is to give people their time, and only pull them in if it’s really relevant.

  7. Schedule 30-minute meetings by default — This creates pressure to show up on time, be prepared, and stay on task. If you run out of time, schedule a 30-minute follow-up meeting.

  8. Give homework ahead of time — Everyone should be prepared, and have an intention for the meeting. Don’t waste time by getting everyone up to speed. If there is any research or action to be done before the meeting, state it explicitly.

  9. Give people the freedom to leave if they’re not adding value or if there is a higher priority — There shouldn’t be any stigma against leaving a meeting if it’s a waste of your time. If you find yourself disengaged, in the moment, ask yourself if there’s something more important you should be doing. If so, politely excuse yourself.

  10. Create a pre-defined time block each day when meetings can occur — It’s incredibly inefficient to have meetings scattered throughout the day, and it adds overhead to try to manage everyone’s schedule. The whole team should agree on a block of time when meetings can be scheduled each day. This way, meetings will just roll from one into the next, ideally in the same room. This saves time, and also allows for other blocks of focused time. It also limits the number of meetings that can be scheduled in a given day. I like to limit the block to two hours a day.

Peak Time

Now that we’ve cleared away our distractions and inefficient meetings, we should have freed up several hours each day we can fill with productive, focused time. The goal for any engineer should be to have two blocks of two hours each day, where they work with intention and purpose, free of roadblocks and distractions. How productive can anyone be if they can’t spend at least half their day actually working with intention?

Here is the playbook to carve out your Peak Time, prepare yourself, and execute with maximum effectiveness:

  • Block off two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon every day. Typically right after the morning stand-up, and after the pre-defined block of meetings. this creates a smooth and efficient flow to the day.

  • Schedule the same peak time for the entire team. This creates an environment where everyone is in the same mode at the same time.

  • Protect that time, and respect that time for your teammates. When everyone is committed to achieving a flow state, they will be less likely to interrupt one another. Don’t let meetings or distractions creep into that time.

  • 30 minutes before peak time, finish your meetings. As we discussed earlier, context switching takes time. It also takes time to prepare your environment to achieve a flow state.

  • Have a plan, and ensure you have all the necessary information to complete your tasks with no blockers. You should approach your Peak Time every day with intention. You must make sure you have everything you need to work for two hours without interruptions.

  • Don’t start something you can’t finish. Set a goal that you can accomplish within the window. If you don’t think you can finish the task, break it down. You should finish your Peak Time with a clear, measurable achievement.

  • 15 minutes before Peak Time, have a preparation ritual. Plan to work for two hours straight. Drink water, make a cup of coffee or tea, have a snack, take a bathroom break, go outside and get some fresh air. Take care of your bodily needs, and put yourself in the frame of mind to focus.

  • Close your door or hang up a Do Not Disturb tag. Make it clear when you’re in the zone, that people should try not to bother you. Maybe they will anyway, but they should consider the consequences to the team if they do.

  • Turn off notifications, silence your phone, close your email, and set DND status.

  • Set a Pomodoro timer. Some people find intense focus to be exhausting. The Pomodoro Technique was designed to create short bursts of activity with breaks in between. If you find it difficult to maintain focus for two hours straight, try 30 minute bursts with a 5 minute break in between.

  • Put on headphones. You may or may not be more productive with music. I find music to be distracting, so I prefer a soundscape like Noisli. Either way, try to block out any outside stimulus.

  • Clear your head. Take a moment to be mindful. Put away any distracting thoughts. Evaluate your environment and make sure it’s conducive to flow. Ensure you have a plan for the next two hours and you have everything you need to get it done.

  • Go.

Group Flow

The way I’ve described flow may seem like a quiet, solitary endeavor. You can absolutely achieve flow in small groups. As long as everyone is in the same mode, with the same level of context and clarity, and focusing on the same task, they can achieve a group flow state. This is the philosophy behind Mob Programming.

Practice Makes Perfect

Focus takes effort and practice to achieve. It’s like a muscle. With our culture of distraction, our focus muscle is flabby and weak. Engage in focusing activities throughout the day to strengthen your ability to focus. Think about how you spend your time every day, and whether they strengthen or weaken your focus muscle.

Focus Strengthening Activities:

  • Sports

  • Art

  • Music

  • Chess

  • Yoga

  • Meditation

Focus Weakening Activities:

  • TV

  • Social media

  • Driving

  • MEETINGS

Avoid activities that let your mind wander. Practice presence and conscious awareness, even and especially when you’re bored. Put your phone away. Be here now. While it’s not bad to allow some time for your mind to wander, you should spend a good amount of time every day training your mind with focused activity.

Conclusion

Creating a culture and an environment that support flow will increase productivity, reduce waste, increase employee engagement, and increase morale. By identifying and eliminating distractions and wasteful activity, creating a structured framework around the daily schedule, and working in focused blocks with intention and purpose, you will see your team’s productivity soar.