Focus vs Mess

How to practice more intention at work, and translate the frenzy into focus.

Let’s face it, you have a lot on your plate.

If you’re not careful, your day-to-day work has a tendency to boil up to a point where it feels like you’re drowning. Project A has a difficult deadline, Project B’s roadmap relies on a myriad of confusing counterparts, you feel like you’re being pinballed back-and-forth from one thought space to another, and your schedule is so packed with meetings that you had to go off-camera during a Zoom call to scarf a granola bar because you used your lunch break as heads-down time to pump out a deliverable.

You begin feeling exhausted. Everything starts to feel like a mess.

Today I want to discuss three methods that we can use to manage the mess, to increase intentionality, and translate the frenzy into focus.

We’ll look at focus from three angles:

How to focus your timeHow to focus your energyHow to focus your team

1. Focus your time

Set boundaries

In life: There are 24 hours in a day and three general areas where you can choose to spend those hours — work, loved ones, and sleep. Luckily, that’s an easy math problem. But if you decide to spend more than 8 hours in a single area — work, for example — then something’s gotta give. Ask yourself how you choose to split your time and, most importantly, why?

However you choose to split your 24 hours is up to you, just make sure you’re solid on your reasoning to avoid the risk of burnout.

At work: Meetings are an important way for teams to collaborate and coordinate, but it’s crucial to set aside adequate time for yourself to execute on the items discussed during all of those meetings.

If your calendar is starting to feel packed, try taking a realistic look at your list of meetings and ask yourself if there are any that might be optional or which could benefit from delegation. My Design Director shares good insights from her personal experience:

Intentionality is everything.

“As one of my old mentors once told me, ‘go to a meeting if it will help you have the impact you want to have.’ He actually told me to try to go to as few meetings as possible because I was so over-rotated on just obeying my calendar.Intentionality is everything. Know why you’re going, what you want to get out of it, and what you can glean from notes if necessary.”- Ella Harris, Director of Design at Meta Reality Labs

Set goals

Open up any PRD (Product Requirements Doc) and you could probably find a dozen goals around reviews or launch dates or metric success. Those are important, but what I mean here is to set your goals — what is most important to you this half…this year…to your career as a whole?

Make sure you’re crisp on this context so the project-specific launch or metrics goals ladder up to a larger sense of meaning and purpose.

Set priorities

Priorities are a powerful way to work smarter, not harder. Another way I think about this is to ask “how will I protect my time?” We’ll talk more about willpower in the next section, but for now, let’s cover how to wade through the ever-lengthening to-do list. One tactic I’ve found really helpful is called the Eisenhower Box:

img credit:

Start by creating a list of SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) in the form of tasks. Then use this decision matrix for organizing each task so you can channel your precious time and energy on the most important actions first.

James Clear’s guidance is to start by separating your actions based on four possibilities:

Urgent and important (tasks you’ll do immediately, utmost priority).Important, but not urgent (tasks you’ll schedule to do later).Urgent, but not important (tasks you’ll delegate to someone else).Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you’ll eliminate).

He continues:

The great thing about this matrix is that it can be used for broad productivity plans (“How should I spend my time each week?”) and for smaller, daily plans (“What should I do today?”).

Aim for a maximum of five items in the green. Less is better since we all know our lists have a tendency to expand — only you can whittle them down to the essentials. Try to have only one or two in the top left, otherwise the sense of urgency can creep in when it might not need to.

2. Focus your energy

Multitasking vs willpower

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a blank, unfocused stare? Your eyes are looking toward the screen but your brain says “nope”… Believe it or not, this is your brain’s defense mechanism — a way of telling you it needs a minute to let the engine cool off in that brilliant head of yours. A sign that what you’re working through requires more concentration.

It’s tempting to think, “Oops I drifted off! Time to shake myself back into focus!”

Instead, try to listen to this signal and use it as your cue to stand up and stretch or go refill your water. Most times the brain just needs a few minutes to refresh. And bonus: your subconscious will continue sorting through that complex thing you were just mulling over.

This graphic shows an idea that we all believe but that is also comically difficult to stick to. Ambition can entice you to think you can jump from work chat to figma to email, then over to that spreadsheet to respond to a comment without even breaking a sweat. Honestly, the truth is that you can! BUT, just like your computer’s RAM, the human brain has limited capacity to hold information “in mind” at any given time.

In other words, the more often we switch between tasks, the more we add to our brain’s “cognitive overhead” and therefore deplete our willpower. In fact, a joint report by Qatalog and Cornell shows that it takes workers an average of nine and a half minutes to get back into a productive workflow after switching contexts. So try to focus, be intentional with how you harness your energy.

😱 “But, but…my team is relying on me! If I don’t respond quickly they could be blocked!”

Good point! If there’s something that needs your immediate and unfettered attention, it should be one of the (maximum of two) items in the top left quadrant of your Eisenhower Box. If not, then set expectations with your team. Help them understand that you’ll be in “focus mode” until the top of the hour. Setting expectations can be immensely powerful.

Schedule your “flow state”

“Flow state” was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of positive psychology, which is the scientific study of what makes life worth living. It’s that feeling when you’re totally absorbed in a task that you find equally enjoyable and challenging. You become immersed in deep concentration, everything else seems to fade away and time passes more quickly. Read more about “flow state” here if you’re interested.

Most say it takes anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes to enter flow state. And one of the most crucial factors to reaching flow state is eliminating distractions, so try scheduling flow sessions on your calendar. Try blocking 60–90 mins where you can feel safe to turn on Do Not Disturb mode, start your favorite album and sink into that juicy design problem.

Don’t have 60–90 minutes? Or do you find yourself distracted/unmotivated in the middle of your flow session? Try the Pomodoro technique:

img credit:

Focus can come in different shapes and sizes for everyone. Research and test out different methods until you find the one that allows you to dive into that blissful state of concentration where time dances and dissolves away, where intention meets intensity, where focus becomes fun.

3. Focus your team

Communication is key

Whether it’s in sports or work or friendships or family, successful teamwork revolves around communication. The communication tools used in each workplace can vary quite a lot, so pay attention to the tools your team utilizes most meaningfully and do your best to meet them where they are.

Filter the noise

There’s a lot that goes on once you dive into the trenches of a project. Your team will thank you when you omit unnecessary details and just cut to the chase. Add information that will help your team make an informed decision, or that spurs productive conversation. Then add a link to a deeper dive for people who want more information.

For docs and posts, it can be really helpful to add a highlights section at the top. Studies have shown that 4 is the magic number for short-term working memory, so try to keep your “main takeaways” around 3 or 4 bullet points. This will give your highly sought-after coworkers the ability to scan and quickly identify any sections they should focus on before jumping to their next priority.

Methods of delivery

What are the best ways to convey information to your team? I’m so glad you asked! A couple of ways you can help your team focus are by:

Guiding their attention in the momentMaking the information easy to recall later

The first can be achieved with presentation skills such as sharing your screen on Zoom, or writing on a whiteboard in a conference room. Start with brevity and be clear on the feedback you’re looking for.

The second is one of those opportunities to meet them where they are. It could be a document, an email, a post on Workplace, or maybe even a pinned message in a chat thread. Your goal here is to make the information you’ve shared easy to find again, and easy to share with others when necessary.

Ensure alignment

Your teammates are also busy managing their own mess and fine-tuning their own focus. So it’s up to you to follow up on any important decision points that might have been discussed while you were presenting, or that were left in the comment section of your doc or post. This will help your team remain aligned as the project moves forward. Leaning toward over-communication is almost always better than relying on assumptions.

Again, a one- or two-sentence summary can help everyone remember the discussion you’re following up on, and the reason you’re bringing it up again now. Brevity is your friend here, link to more details if needed. Your goal is to ensure everyone raises a thumbs up to the decision(s) that were made and what next steps look like.

After that, it’s back to finding your flow and finessing your focus.

Final Thoughts

“Increased intensity” doesn’t mean we need to work harder or for more hours. Instead, I believe it means we possess the power to work smarter, to be more intentional with our time and energy. As we practice setting healthy expectations and thoughtfully communicating with one another, finding focus will become easier over time.

I’d love your feedback — are there any other methods for focus that you find helpful? Please feel free to drop a comment so we can all level up together 🙂

Focus vs Mess was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Why so many Garamonds?

Why so many Garamonds?

They are all the same, right?

Testing pixel perfection in Figma and code

Testing pixel perfection in Figma and code

Table of Contents Hide The Manual WayA (somewhat) better wayGetting StartedSetup

You May Also Like