Recently I talked with different people about keeping myself organized and focused. I am working as a software engineer in a cross-functional role with many contact points in the organization and responsibilities for different topics — one of the best environments for being very busy and getting nothing done all at the same time. I learned to succeed in this environment by setting focus and priorities to remove the noise that holds me back from impactful work.
One of the most useful steps to regain focus was disabling Outlook and other messaging app notifications. The macOS Badge app icon constantly triggered me to check my emails and messages when the red dot appeared. Same for notifications, I use focus mode, which disables the notifications for the time I need to focus. I went even one step further for some apps and banned the desktop apps of Mattermost and Slack from my machine and solely relied on the browser version. Because some people thought they could call me based on the activity status of the app. MS Teams is the only client I have still installed, but luckily it is synced with my calendar, and usually, people do not call me when I am busy.
Know your tools and make them your own, instead of letting them own you and your attention.
Schedule deep work
I started to plan deep work sessions in my calendar. Usually, the slots last for two to three hours up to four or five times a week. This helps me to dive deep into topics without interruptions. I used to block every week for whole days; somehow, I was not strict enough to protect the slots. Nowadays, I schedule deep work sessions every week based on the topics I need to work on. This approach is much more effective as the slot already has an objective, making it easier to defend.
Focus alone does not help if you simultaneously have too many topics and communication channels. As you have only a limited amount of hours to work every day, you need to set priorities. Priorities depend very much on your role and topics. In my position, I try to have a 40/60 split between the amount of time I spend on deep work and investing in community work like answering questions in various channels or for ad-hoc debugging sessions.
A feature I underestimated for a long time was the ability of Outlook to set up email filters. I use them more and more for decluttering my inbox. In Mattermost I use a different approach, where I mark the priority channels, so I find them without easily getting distracted by the others.
Build up routines
Another helpful habit is to build up routines for checking all the communication channels. Routines help me limit the number of times I check the communication channels. Some channels might need more attention and some less. Also, some tasks resulting from a channel might need more time than others. For example, I prioritize direct messages over emails and code review requests over issues. But this is highly individual.
Depending on the routine, I block a dedicated time slot or use some gaps between meetings. The latter is my preferred working model, as mostly the gaps are too short so do some deep work. But they are perfect for following up on some channels and doing community work.
Another helpful routine is assigning my topics to macOS desktops and using tab groups in Safari, which is a small habit that helps me focus.
All in all, there is not one thing. It is more about constantly making small improvements that, as a whole, have a big impact on the long run.
Remote work changed the way of communication and brought much more focus on asynchronous communication channels. In the beginning, I moved my behavioral patterns of in-person communication to remote communication tools, which led to many context switches due to constant interruptions and the pressure to respond. I learned that it is fine to let people wait; messaging and email are asynchronous ways to communicate. Especially when I used the desktop apps with notifications turned on, I felt pressured to answer instantly. If something is really urgent, people will call you via MS Teams or phone. Let the people around you know your preferred way of communication.
The ability to keep focus is your most valuable asset, as it directly correlates with the quality and amount of work you do. Manage the time you spend on shallow work as it can quickly eat up time for deep work.