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Focused work

posted Aug 8, 2016, 8:16 AM by Juan Jose Garcia-Ripoll   [ updated Aug 8, 2016, 8:29 AM ]
I must confess I have become a bit obsessed with the amount of distraction that I get at work. I am not talking about social media, but handling of multiple bureaucratic lines of action, competing for funding, taking care of people's projects, interaction with students, etc. This has been more damaging or at least more obvious in the light of specific projects that I wanted to accomplish, such as for instance, completing my lectures notes. As a kind of escape I have ended up reading quite a lot of self-help literature around organization and other ideas. What follows is an excerpt of the things I have found useful from various sources I do not remember or do not dare to cite. Well, maybe "Deep Work" by Cal Newport is an acceptable reference, specially due to its connection to academia, but in many other cases they were less respectable sources that, despite everybody's warning, still contained some bits of wisdom. Here they go in a very disorganized way. At the very least they will give you an idea of why I behave how I do in the last months.

General ideas

  • Acting by reacting: we work on an input-output based activity
    • We react to emails, which cause interruptions and change our workflow. Reacting immediately to email is a way of letting other people sort our priorities. Allocating email-only time and moving those tasks to a to-do list to be considered in the appropriate slots frees our time for our own priorities. This is an example in a broader category of problems that could be sorted out with minimal organization.
    • Allocating bureaucracy-first time causes a disruption of work because we are left in the busy mode of reacting to lists of tasks. The impact of this on creativity cannot be underrated. Decision fatigue is a real issue.
  • Choices:
    • Be more selective on the topics, tasks and projects you embark on. Measure cost of those projects, but do not be too short-sighted: some projects are long-term investments, while some others seem short-term wins but the load outweighs the rewards.
    • Clearly separate projects and tasks which originate outside from your own priorities. There are unavoidable things that have to be carried on for your own curriculum, job position, collaboration network, etc. Find stable slots of time that you allocate for those tasks and concentrate them in that area of your day.
    • Be clear about your priorities when interacting with other people. Casual commitments on your side may be taken as more serious collaborations that may complicate your life, or vice versa. Do not embark on more tasks or projects than you can handle or, as they say, do not bite more than you can safely swallow.
  • Strategies:
    • Find a personal time for your own projects, ideas, crafts, but above all, also for thinking and planning what you want to do. My personal ideal day based on may different guidelines
      • 8:00-8:30 Plan of the day. Minimal note-taking and revision of to-do lists, separating tasks in different time slots.
      • 8:30-10:00 Creative stuff. This is early time where most people and interruptions still did not have time to appear.
      • 10:00-10:30 Coffee and email. Answer if brief, sort out to other time-slots if possible.
      • 10:30-13:00 Bureaucracy and non-creative stuff. This is the time where you may get most interruptions, specially from administration.
      • 13:00-14:00 Lunch break.
      • 14:00-15:00 Work time.
      • 15:00-15:30 Email verification to gather reactions from previous period. Try to sort out task for further days. Do not answer emails today.
      • 16:00-17:30 Easy work time.
      • 17:30- Go home and disconnect.
    • Minimize the number of projects you work on simultaneously and ideally devote each day to a single project. Note that here I refer to projects as opposed to bureaucracy or externally induced tasks, which may be unfortunately more abundant. Define your day with the project you wanted to do, not with the 10:30-13:00 period above.
    • Decide each day what you want to do at the beginning of the day, not along the way. If possible, integrate that decision taking along or at the end of a well defined morning ritual, such as coffee, brief exercising, journalling, etc.
    • Minimize external inputs in the early part of the day, at least until the first email break. News checking, social networks, etc., all these things hijack your time and your willpower to structure the day decreases dramatically.
    • Try to be as predictable as possible, both for yourself and your coworkers. It is better if you constrain interaction and discussions to a certain part of the day, ideally from 10:30 to lunch time or at the end of the day. In the first case because it is already a period where interruptions are already frequent, and in the second case because productivity decreases along the day and discussions are usually less taxing than other tasks.
  • Avoid redundancies and interruptions:
    • Group similar tasks: have a paper or notepad to write down reactions that appear along your work, such as
      • Emails that have to be sent
      • Things to be delivered or picked up
      • Documents to print, read, etc
    • Delay those tasks to the appropriate time slots. For instance, if you are working on your projects and you realize it would be nice to send an email to somebody about the idea you just had, note it down on the to-do and continue working on your project.
    • Grouping is relevant because you may realize that many things are related. For instance, if you are writing a project that coordinates with different partners, you may want to ask them about certain bits of information. If you note down those questions, you may find that along the day similar questions pop up and you only have to send each partner one email, instead of one message for each question. Remember: email is not the same as chatting.
    • Grouping might also be useful in other parts of your leisure time: reading news, TV time, internet browsing, shopping, etc. For instance, it is better to have a time for scanning a few news sources than having Twitter + BBC News open all day on your desktop. Separate different activities clearly with small “rituals” like stretching, taking a coffee, walking, etc. Make the change more dramatic between work-time and leisure-time.
  • Be efficient in your communications: this is very important.
    • Ask precise questions, with suitable alternatives and anticipate reactions. Examples:
      • “Shall we meet in your office tomorrow or on Wednesday at 3pm? If this is not possible, suggest two or three alternative times.”
      • “Dear X, I need your bank account information -- Bank name, address, number account, IBAN and SWIFT -- as well as your personal information -- scan (jpeg or pdf) of ID, address and recent CV --. Please provide all the information in a single email before …”
    • Let people explicitly know that you are not 24/7. Include in your email signature a statement about the usual times where you can react to email, suggesting a phone call only for urgent matters. But do not provide personal phones to the general public: most things are not that urgent.


  • All the ideas above are more easily implementable the less you depend on others’ expectations, to avoid saying “bosses”. If you work in a rigid structure, or you have permanent input on tasks and projects from higher instances, it might help to apply the ideas above to giving structure to that interaction. For instance, you could:
    • Ask your supervisor or boss to make your list of projects better defined or more “sequential”, as opposed to working in many topics in parallel.
    • Try to allocate periodic interaction with your colleagues or supervisor in well defined slots of time. This periodicity and definition will also benefit the persons you interact with.
    • Make those meetings as efficient as possible, bringing well defined ideas or questions to the meeting and defining also the expectations of that meeting: is it a report, a brainstorming session, are you needing help?
    • Be proactive. Do not work on act-by-reaction mode or expect supervision on the external topics. You do not want to suffer back the friction that this causes on others.
  • You will find resistance, bear with it.
    • People will expect 24/7 availability, in particular through email, which paradoxically is the least resilient method of communication. The breaks indicated above are designed to break these expectations, but if this does not work, talk to the offended party and clarify your motivation.
    • You will yourself expect 24/7 availability. Nothing truly horrible happens if you do not answer an email in the weekend. Or probably in a week. And if it happens, either it is because of bad planning, or you should be willing to pay the price for a more organized and independent life.