Sunday, September 10, 2017

Focus Interrupted

This is not an insight I got to by myself but it may be worth sharing here. Academics get hired for their ability to focus on a problem. In essence do "deep work" and then institutions flood them with interruptions. All of which "just" takes five minutes (15 in reality) of their time. Never mind online distractions that Universities have nothing to do with (well helloo Twitter).

There is ample evidence that interruptions are tricky to recover from if one is doing deep or focussed work. I am finding it a bit ironic that therefore people hide in coffee shops or libraries in order to get the deep focussed work done that is the central theme on why they are getting paid. Leave work to do work.

And it opens a view in the blind spot of many administrations that recovery or abolity to focus are not given. And so the academic who works at night or in the weekend is generated. All part of a toxic mix for work/life balance. So how to keep focus (and recover focus "what was I working on?") in the face of interruptions is something I now spend time thinking about.

The more focused I work,the easier I find it to shut work off too. And thus sleep. And focus again. So. Any help on how to get there "on tge zone" reliably is appreciated.


  1. Most excellent point, Benne. Knee-jerk reaction is: Must we concede that we are un-able to shut-the-door; turn of email,twitter,etc; turn off the phones; etc... during those blocks of time which the powers that be don't force our presence at .... daring to say the word... meetings!!!

  2. Agreed! I found that I focus best in the mornings, so I make sure all my meetings are in the pm -- I simply say that I am not available in the mornings (and of course, there is once in a while a concession to be made, but it's rare really) and then work from home in the morning. When sciencing or writing, I turn off e-mail and other distractions. Following the model of STScI, we are now trying to also keep Fridays completely free of Department/Faculty meetings.

  3. This is a big concern for me too. I think it would be reasonable to designate a couple hours a day as interruption-free times, where you give yourself permission to shut the door, turn off the phone and e-mail, and just *pretend* you're at a coffeeshop or library and can't be reached. Let me know if you find a good solution!

  4. Ah, the most popular complaint of a staff member (although it applies to post-docs and students of course as well). I do not think there is a perfect solution - and certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution. I find meetings to be controllable - and try to be hard-nosed about what times you fill in on Doodles or times you accept for telecons.

    But then there is what at least for me is the biggest disruption, simply people coming by your office. There are many solutions that I know people apply:

    1. Closed door means closed door. If you keep your door normally open, then the sign of a closed door is usually fairly clear. Can work.

    2. Designate morning time for working/reading concentrated. This seems to be the most successful solution among the people I know.

    3. Almost the same, but less family friendly: dedicate evening/night for concentrated work. I like this as I like working in the evening/night but it can be hard to juggle the day-time commitments of meetings/telecons/students etc and not be too tired.

    4. Use the library. I do not think this is particularly bad - in many fields the library is an important place to work and going there for working is imho perfectly fine. Caf├ęs etc I'm less taken by but my better half swears by them.

    5. Become a cantankerous curmudgeon who nobody wants to talk to. Some people have got this down to an art. Not recommended.

    6. Suffer until you can have a sabbatical. Terrible option, but some people seem resigned to it.

    But beyond anything else, if you want to have this, make sure you communicate clearly to people. For them the 5 minutes are only 5 minutes that will get things done - and they are (usually) not aware that those 5 minutes are disruptive to you.