4 min read

A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind
The idea of not being able to trust your perceptions unnerves me. All credit to Universal Pictures

It feels like I have two clearly different modes of operation.

The first is where I'm sorting through alerts and notifications, running parallel conversations, skimming through Confluence pages, and just generally juggling a billion different things.

The second is where I am laser focused on achieving a single task. Maybe I'm writing something, doing some deep thinking, or attempting to absorb the knowledge in book.

Both modes are effective at accomplishing certain types of work.

The problem is in switching between the two.

Imagine A Sudden Realisation

The first mode, the juggling mode, is where I start my day.

I read through Slack messages, emails, and other notifications in order to build context for the day. They fill me in on anything that happened while I wasn't paying attention which is generally a substantial amount of new information that I need to absorb.

While I'm reading, I'm probably reaching out to people to start conversations, or continuing conversations that were happening asynchronously. I'm also starting to work on small tasks that need my attention, things that can be accomplished within a few minutes.

Sounds productive, right?

The problem is that being in the juggling mode is self-perpetuating.

The more you juggle, the more you feel like you should be juggling, the more you look for things to juggle and therefore the more you juggle. It's an irritatingly effective loop.

Up until a point that is.

Some work can only be achieved with focus. It's not the sort of thing that you can just do for a few minutes here and there and still achieve a good outcome.

The juggling mode leads to unintentional procrastination on this sort of work. I've seen this called active procrastination and productive procrastination, but I don't know if it actually has a proper name.

It's still clearly procrastination though.

Being able to break through the momentum of juggling mode and enter into focus mode is a critically important skill to have.

Otherwise, you'll never progress on the big stuff.

That The Things You Hold The Most Dear

I've found three things that can help with switching into focus mode.

I imagine that each of these things probably has roots in psychology, but alas, I have not yet learned enough about that particular craft to be able to state that authoritatively.

Instead, you get gut feel and personal experience.

The first thing is to have a backlog. I've written about this topic before, but the TL;DR is that a good backlog allows you to clearly see what is next in your list of things to do. If the next thing requires focus, just acknowledging that can be enough to break the juggling mindset and get started.

The second thing is to actually, consciously, break the pattern. Once you know that you need to transition into a focus period, do something completely different in order to shatter the momentum of juggling mode. The easiest thing I've found is to pause notifications in Slack, shut the app down entirely, close anything that gives easy access to email and notifications, get up and just walk away.

It doesn't matter what you go and do, just get up and away from your work area. While you're away, think about the task that you know you need to do, and when you get back, start on it straight away.

The third thing is to psychologically trick yourself. Find some sort of stimulus that is different enough from your normal activities that is easy to trigger. For me, it's a specific playlist of music. When you know it's time to focus, start the playlist. Over time, it will become easier to focus whenever the stimulus is present.

This is, as far as I can tell, an example of classical conditioning (or Pavlovian conditioning). You know, like training a dog to salivate when it hears a bell because every time you fed it you rang a bell beforehand.

But all of those things require one common ingredient to begin with.

The Memories, The People, The Experiences

That ingredient is discipline.

At first, like with anything, it will be hard. It doesn't matter which of those tricks you decide to implement, it will require a conscious expenditure of willpower to get started every single time.

And willpower is often in short supply.

But it gets easier over time. The more often you apply any or all of the things above, the more effective you will become and the more reinforcement there will be for having spent the willpower.

It's a neat positive feedback loop.

I don't have any tips for the discipline side of things though. That has to come from within. You don't have to be perfect, but you do have to make sure that you have enough motivation to get started and enough willpower to keep going until your brain shapes itself into the shape that you're aiming for.

Switching modes will be slow to begin with, and you will probably fail more often than you succeed.

That's normal.

Me? I'm still in the failing frequently phase. Not with the backlog, I've got that on lock, but with the pattern breaking and conditioning.

But I've seen these things work on me before when it comes to physical fitness, so I know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Had Never Been

This blog post was inspired by a conversation that I had with a fellow Engineering Manager at Atlassian. He was wondering how I managed to do all the things and still present a semblance of sanity.

Jokes on him, I'm nuttier than a fruit cake.

But it was still a good question, and the resulting conversation spawned this series of words that you have just now finished reading.

It does feel a bit weird to have use psychological tricks to be more effective though. Like there are multiple parts of my brain that are intent on outsmarting each other.

Surely I would be far more powerful if they would just work together.