All These Things

Sunday 19 March 2017 · 5 min read

Focus

I live about 20 miles outside the center of Boston. My commute into the office is just over 10 miles. This means that leaving home at the same hour as everyone else, the drive into work can be 45 minutes to an hour. For 10 miles. Luckily, I have a flexible start time so I can leave later than the rush hour commute and knock my time down to 30 minutes.

The aggravating thing about my morning commute isn’t so much the traffic. Living in and around Boston for the past 7 years has made this old hat if you know what I mean. I’m so used to it, I either plan around it or make sure I’ve got a good podcast to listen to on the drive (check out Developing Up, hosted by 2 Boston boys).

No, rather, it’s the drivers themselves. I’ve seen drivers talking on their cell phones, men trimming beards, and women putting on eyeliner—I don’t understand the logic behind placing a fairly sharp object in close proximity to one’s eyes when driving; a simple fender-bender could result in eye loss. I have lost count how many times I’ve seen drivers honk their horn at the first car because they missed the green light. The driver looks up in alarm, the glow of their mobile phone illuminating their shocked, startled expression. This, the missed green light, is the biggest sin in city driving; in Boston traffic, every second counts.

These drivers lack focus for the task at hand: driving. Instead of doing one thing well, they are doing 2 or 3 things mediocrely. Lack of focus can be seen in the employee playing a game on their phone in the middle of a meeting, using Twitter while writing up a functional brief, watching YouTube with the sound muted while on a call with a client, or the television on in the background when coding.

Being a software programmer, I’ve found focus to be a commodity. Many years ago, I thought it was smart business sense to Always Be Multitasking (Is that why my agency went under?). I don’t have the mind for multitasking and, come to find out, 98% of the world’s population doesn’t either. I first experienced the need for absolute focus when the team at Aereo started to get bigger and the cacophony of the open floor plan office began to distract me. And, at my current job, we’re often dealing with multiple projects throughout the day, as well as that open office concept again.

The cost of losing focus, or context switching, is high. Gloria Mark, of the University of California, Irvine, has stated that returning to a task after being interrupted takes, on average, 25 minutes. Oh, and the time between interruptions? Only 11 minutes (granted, that interruption can be external, such as a colleague or phone call, or internal, such as _Imma gonna check Facebook real quick_). Some of this cost is born by us, by the employees not staying on task but I have found the open office concept to be extremely detrimental to focus.

At my very first job in Boston, I was given an office, up on the 6th floor overlooking South Station, bland beige colored walls and a fake plant in the corner. It wasn’t pretty but I was able to focus on my task. The thing with software programming, at least for me, is that once I get into a task, I find it hard to come up for air. I prefer to stay down as long as possible so I can keep the trail fresh. Each time I’ve got to come back to my problem space after a night’s rest or an interruption, I’ve got to reload the problem back into my head.

That’s been the only job I’ve had that gave me an office. Every other software job has had open offices. I’ve learned a few tricks in order to deal with the focus problem in these places:

  • Headphones are a must; colleagues are less likely to interrupt if you’ve got them on (half the time I’m wearing them, I’m not even listening to anything)
  • Closing my email program
  • Closing the instant messaging application or setting my status to “Focused”
  • Work from home, especially in crunch time
  • Resting Bitch Face (colleagues are less likely to bother you if you look angry all the time!)

I’m only somewhat joking about that last trick. Other tricks I’ve heard about is having a totem on your desk so that coworkers know you are either heads-down or approachable, set hours for working and set hours for meeting/collaboration, and specific focus rooms where no talking is allowed. Personally, I think we should just go back to offices with a common area. The door is a tried and true indicator of welcomeness or not.

By focusing on one task at hand, dropping into it fully, we can actually accomplish more than trying to do too much at once. The woman putting on mascara and missing the green light would have been less stressed had she just waited to get to work. Lack of focus on driving and instead checking your cell phone during the commute, adds stress and has real world consequences. Lack of focus in the workplace may not have such real-world consequences but stress just might kill you.

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