Three tips to keep you focused

If you’ve read my previous posts relating to time management, you might realize by now that I tend to approach it from the opposite direction of a lot of other information sources. My philosophy is that it is easier (for me) to identify things that represent a mismanagement of time and find creative solutions to those problems than it is to collect ‘rules of thumb’ and try to wedge them into your daily routine.

Below I’ve outlined three ways that you can get time wasting activities out of your face and into the background so that your *real* work stays in the forefront of your environment and your brain. I hope you find them useful!

Have your mail check in with you

How many times do you check your mail before lunch? 10? 20? 50 times? It’s probably too often. If you’re not using some mechanism to alert you of mail that really *requires* your attention, you might be wasting more time than necessary.

“But how much time is that really going to save me? It only takes a second to look at my mail!” Well, I guess that might be true, but the context switch of detaching your brain from the current activity, looking at your email, maybe clicking through various folders or checking mail from multiple accounts, and then getting back to your original task can be quite expensive. While the physical act of checking mail might take only a minute, getting your brain back up to speed on where you left off can take a bit longer.

I’ve employed a couple of tools to help make sure I’m not checking mail unless I need to.

  1. Filters. Just about all email clients have some way of shuffling messages into different folders or tagging them based on the subject, sender, some other header, or even the content of the message. In an ideal world, you’d use procmail to handle filters, specifically because it’s not tied to a single client, and so any client you use will have the same view of your email, which is wonderful. What has really helped me is after setting up filters to shuffle things off into the various folders, I created a folder called “Priority”. Anything that warrants dragging me away from work goes in there, and then I use an alerting system that only monitors that one folder. Which brings us to….
  2. Alerts. No matter what OS you’re on, no matter what mail client you use, there’s a way to get alerts working for you. Email alerts have evolved from simply saying ‘hey, there’s new mail’. Nowadays, you should be able to find one that will show you some portion of the incoming message and give you some options on what to do.

Make friends with virtual desktops

This is especially important on a laptop that doesn’t have as much screen real estate as most desktop systems. Popular Linux desktop environments all have virtual desktops, and on the Mac, I highly recommend installing Virtue Desktops to be able to use this functionality on that Mac platform. And I don’t recommend sticking with default settings for your virtual desktops, because it leads to wasting more time. For example, if I put my code editor on one desktop, and keep my email, music player, and IRC client on another desktop, then that means checking mail also throws all of these other time wasters up in my face!

I keep a separate desktop for just for mail and calendar applications. Another one called “chat” holds my group’s Jabber chat room session and an IRC client. I also keep separate desktops called “Coding: Work” and “Coding: Play”, and “Browser: Work” and “Browser: Play”. In the end, I hardly ever actually launch applications, or spend time minimizing or maximizing applications. If I’m in “Coding: Work” and decide to take a break, I might go to “Browser: Play” to check my news feed aggregator, or I might go to “Chat” to see what’s up with my digital buddies.

This might seem like overkill at first. I have 12 virtual desktops! But after a couple of weeks of tweaking things to how you work, you’ll find that it saves you an immense amount of time by making things easier to switch between, which makes context switching a much less expensive operation. Sysadmins are interrupt driven – we can’t control that. But we can control how it affects our work, and this is one way to do that.

Put more at your fingertips

Having separate desktops for certain things can actually cause more frequent context switching. For example, I have a separate desktop for my music player, which plays throughout the day. If I had to go to that desktop every time I decided I wanted to skip a particular song, that would waste a lot of time. Instead, I put controls for the music player in my task bar. Now if I want to skip a song, I just click a button and go back to work. It’s a non-event compared to going to the desktop and being distracted by art work, other songs in the list, etc., etc.

Maybe there are other things that waste your time that you could put at your fingertips. Some people have to know the weather at all times, or they need to have a dictionary handy, or whatever. If it’s something that you can make a non-event without making your environment distractingly cluttered, do it!

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