One of the challenges I hear about from a lot of engineers is how to stay focused when there are so many distractions vying for their bandwidth. I can relate, the same problem exists for me! I think that any engineering professional today is going to have to come up with ways to protect their “space” so that they can generate quality focus time on the tasks before them. This is really important for doing work that requires the minds full engagement. I remember doing design work early in my engineering career and how frustrated I would become when I was interrupted by a phone call or someone stopping by to chat. It became even worse when later in my career when I sat in a cubicle farm. Trying to concentrate on writing a report or putting a presentation together with ringing phones, conversations all around and unfettered access to anyone walking by nearly drove me insane. So how do you create the space necessary to be focused?
Before I get into the five things you can do to increase focus in your engineering career I have to ask: do you want to increase your focus? I ask this because some of these suggestions will require you to not be immediately responsive to another person’s desire to communicate with you. You may also have to learn how to tell people “no” when they want to stop by to chat. And you will also need to train yourself to be focused on single tasks. If you’re willing and able, then here are the five things you can do to increase focus in your engineering career:
- Shut off all notifications on our computer and mobile. I began implementing this across all of my platforms the last day of our 2015 Engineer Career Summit after listening to Mike Hannan talk about how much this simple act can boost your focus. This doesn’t mean that you’re simply going to ignore people or tasks. What it means is that you’re going to choose when you will engage with people via email, your phone, instant messaging, etcetera. Remember, you have control of your schedule and just because someone calls you or sends you an email doesn’t mean you have to respond immediately.
- Batch schedule similar tasks. This tactic for focus keeps you from having to shift your mind from one task to another by keeping your mind engaged on tasks of similar type. When you shift from task-to-task during the same period of time it’s called multi-tasking. The belief that we can multi-task and somehow still remain focused on any one of the tasks is a complete myth. It doesn’t matter if you’re man or a woman; from Generation X, Y or a Millennial. No person is able to accomplish more through multitasking. In fact, you’ll find yourself accomplishing less when you multi-task and you’ll essentially focus on nothing. Studies conducted by Stanford University and in Europe have shown that the negative effects of multi-tasking include:
- Impaired cognitive ability taking an adult to the level of an average 8-year old
- Reduced reaction time due to overload of short-term memory
- Increased levels of cortisol – the stress hormone
The take-away: multi-tasking provides the allure of getting more done, but that’s it.
When you focus on a single type of task your brain remains primed for accomplishing that type of task. Your brain isn’t a computer, it can’t run multiple operating programs simultaneously!
Here are two examples that I use weekly for batch scheduling similar tasks. When I have several phone calls I need to make I schedule a block of time on my calendar to “Conduct Phone Calls”. Similarly, I schedule my writing for articles – like this one – in batch sessions on my calendar to keep my mind in flow on writing or article R&D. To become effective at this tactic requires you to plan ahead and identify similar tasks across the projects you have in motion.
- Batch schedule project work. A variation of batch scheduling similar tasks is to batch schedule project work. This requires project task planning so you can schedule the work for a specific project, as well as coordination with other project team members. You’ll need to do this so that you’re not fielding phone calls and email messages throughout the entire week when you might have been able to collaborate on specific project work during a specific scheduled period each day.Scheduling the project work in this matter enable you to focus on tasks associated just with that project during that period of time. If you have a team with multiple projects, if you all focus on a specific project at a specific time, all of you will be synchronized in what you do.
- Pomodoro Technique to focus on a specific task. This is a tactic that I’ve been using with great success lately. The Pomodoro Technique gets its name from Francesco Cirmino, who back in the late 1980’s was working on his doctorate and not getting anywhere on his dissertation. So he started using a timer that looked like a pomodoro tomato to break his work periods into 25 minute intervals – called pomodori – followed by short three to five minute breaks:
- Decide on the task to be done.
- Set a time interval for work. The prescribed length of time is 25 minutes, but I’ve used 50 minute intervals before without loss of focus.
- Work until the timer rings. On a piece of paper record an “x”. This will help you keep track of how long you’ve been at your work.
- Take a 3-5 minute break.
- Reset the timer and get back to work.
- After four pomodori, take a longer 15-30 minute break.
I’ve found that the Pomodoro Technique has helped me in two major ways:
I remain focused on a task because I know that I can be fully committed for 25 minutes at a time.
It’s helped me destroy procrastination because I know that I can do just about anything for 25 minutes. Especially on larger projects, disassembling it into small increments makes it manageable.
- Take a walk. Use this tactic to reset the mind and reset your focus. We engineers are knowledge workers (i.e. we use our brains) and in knowledge work you need to have your mind entirely engaged in the task at hand. Taking a walk provides you a physical break from the task you’re working on in order to reset your mind to focus on a new task. Studies conducted in the U.K. found that workplace productivity increased between 4% and 15% for those individuals who participated in walking at some point in their work day. Furthermore, studies out of Stanford have shown that routine workplace walkers can experience an 81% increase in creativity. I don’t know if my creativity boost is at this level exactly, but I do know that I stand at my desk and I walk around when I’m on the phone. If anything, being in motion, I find, drives a more active mind. Try it.
Make a commitment to try one of these techniques/tactics in the way you approach your work flow for two weeks, then let Anthony, I, and our other readers know if you experience any increases in your ability to focus. Leave your comments here at this post, or consider leaving them at Engineering Management Institute Community page on Facebook.
Seriously! The topic of “focus” is really important to both Anthony and I, as well as a lot of the engineering professionals we know, work with, and coach. If you have tactics that you’ve found to work for you, we want to share that information with as many engineers as possible!
“Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Christian J. Knutson, P.E., PMP
Engineering Management Institute