For the past week, I've been taking an hour or so at the coffee shop near my office to knock out most of my email and communications. Then when I get back to the office, I stay out of email as much as possible. The experiment has made me realise that shaking up my work environment helps me stay more focused and productive.
Top image remixed from Yuri Arcurs (Shutterstock)
It's sort of like the concept of Timeboxing but with more of a physical twist. "Location boxing" seems appropriate.
Getting Your Head In The Right Place Is Hard
There are four main types of thinking I need to do in a typical work week.
- Design-thinking: Visual design and thinking about the user experience
- Coding-thinking: Building new features, solving technical problems
- Business-thinking: Internal communications, interviews, and helping out on some sales calls
- Support-thinking: Bug fixes, and responding to questions from RescueTime users
It's next to impossible to do any of those simultaneously and be effective. I have to get into the correct mindset for each one. Design and coding require substantial periods of "maker time," while support, sales and communications generally involve a lot of rapid-fire bouncing around from task to task.
Timeboxing is a great idea, but I've found it really hard to stick to. Maybe I'm a little too scatterbrained, but my meticulously planned out schedule can easily be derailed by things like email, which can swoop in unexpectedly and steal hours from my day. Plus it's just hard for me to flip the mental switch between, say, customer support mode and design mode.
The answer? Restrict activities to a location. Altering my physical environment seems to help me switch activities, for a couple reasons…
I Can Find The Right Place For The Task At Hand
I find coffee shops a little distracting when I need to really focus hard on a single task, but they're great for a series of short, repetitive tasks. I get to enjoy a latte while I churn through emails that I'd otherwise pick at throughout the day. I don't code or design very well without a second monitor, so that focuses me even further. My 13-inch laptop screen is pretty well suited for communications, and not a whole lot else.
The Physical Shift Becomes A "Switching Ritual"
There's something about the change in surroundings that seems to make it easier to quiet down whatever gears are still spinning from the last activity and re-focus on a new task.
Now, it's not practical to go to a different physical location for each task. You'll probably get the most benefit if you can identify a single activity that has a high potential for derailing the rest of your day and banish that to another location from your other work. Sometimes, though, you just can't get away. Here are some other ideas for altering your environment:
- Have different desk configurations. Try moving your monitor from one side of the desk to another as you shift tasks. Maybe a totally clear, uncluttered desk works better for certain activities, while a desk full of pictures and knick-knacks works better for others. The act of switching configurations might be just enough to jog your brain into a different mode. It's sort of the "hyper-functionible workplace" version of this. For example, I have an adjustable-height desk, and I usually do my "coding-thinking' while standing, but designing while sitting.
- If you work from a laptop, you can almost certainly find an unused space in your office that you can switch to without being too disruptive.
- If you can't change your environment, just get out of it for a while. Go for a walk, or do anything else to signal to your brain that it's time to start acting differently.
Robby Macdonell works on product development at RescueTime, a personal analytics service that helps people understand how they spend their days in front of a computer. He writes about productivity and staying happy in the modern workplace on the RescueTime blog. For more, follow @rescuetime on Twitter. To learn about your own time and attention patterns, sign up for RescueTime today!