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During the pandemic, at least the premier institutes of my country are operating in work from home mode. Since this lessens the physical activity of going around labs and classrooms daily I tried to setup a fixed timetable and working environment for myself to do learning and research and was successful in doing so.

But over time, I observed the following phenomenon

Utilizing the day (fruitfully) to full extent if and only if there is no distraction. Distractions include very small tasks including meeting colleagues outside home and spending few minutes with them. Phone conversations with supervisor etc.

I am surprised to learn that my whole day becomes under-utilized if distraction happens during early parts of my day. And I am not in a position to know the exact reason behind it. Ideally, I need to break only a few minutes from my timetable and can utilize the remaining time. To my surprise, it is not happening. Either I am spending my time randomly or I am unable to properly concentrate on my work. This phenomenon generally did not happen or happened only to a very minute extent during non-pandemic days.

Is this phenomenon normal or do I need to completely prevent/avoid distractions?

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  • 10
    You never had distractions before working at home? What about emails? I improved my work a lot, the day I realised I could turn off my email client.
    – Stef
    Aug 5 at 13:21
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    What happens if you ignore your phone and email during those early parts of your day?
    – Jeroen
    Aug 5 at 14:04
  • 4
    Maybe off base, but perhaps talk to a psychiatrist? ADHD is more common than many people realize, and today's medicines for it are much better than even those from a decade ago. Aug 6 at 2:25
  • 1
    Not really suitable for this site, in my opinion.
    – Alchimista
    Aug 6 at 7:59
  • 1
    Are you sure that you want to ask this here? Might not our life hacks sister site be more appropriate? Aug 6 at 11:45
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Distractions are a tax on productivity, because you lose much more time than the duration of the distraction. It takes a lot of time and energy to switch between tasks and to regain focus. Apparently, you need on average 25 minutes to regain deep focus after becoming distracted. If you work four hours in the mornings and are distracted four times for five minutes each, half of your working time is lost before lunch break ((5 minutes + 25 minutes) * 4 = 2 hours). This also applies to self-interruptions, therefore multitasking makes you less efficient.

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  • Is this article talking about the Pomodoro method without naming it? I have experienced great benefit from structuring days around implementing this method for focus.
    – Darla
    Aug 5 at 18:55
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    @Darla It's a bit weird that the pomodoro technique recommends a break just when the focus is fully developed. Perhaps that means the break should be a real break (stand up, take a few deep breaths, go outside...) rather than a distraction (twitter, email), so it's easier to go back into focus.
    – henning
    Aug 5 at 18:58
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    @henning You just validated me and my experience with pomodoro! I've been keeping track of my time during the pandemic and trying my best to do 25 min on / 5 min off, but it feels like I get "into my zone" just when the timer ends! But I have heard so many people say pomodoro is the be-all-end-all of productivity, and so I end up following pomodoro like I'm told and feeling bad that maybe I'm the one who's flawed to make pomodoro work. Turns out I should do whatever works for me!
    – Xoque55
    Aug 5 at 22:24
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    I love how the people complaining about the Pomodero Technique are the people who have slavishly followed it to the letter, instead of understanding that it's suggestions that you should adapt to make work for you. Very similar to how the Agile Manifesto is widely, and incorrectly, hated in software development!
    – Ian Kemp
    Aug 6 at 8:42
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    @Ian Kemp, yes I think the 25 minutes are not the point, but rather the idea of periodization. It makes you less scared to get going (helps against procrastination) and ensures that you take enough breaks. When writing up my dissertation, I often committed to 3x25 minutes and ended up doing 3-4 x 60 minutes, with a longer break after the third repetition. There's no point in interrupting yourself when you're being focused (but beware the unrecognized energy drain). On the other hand, I've heard five-minute intervals being suggested for heavy procrastinators with strong task-related anxiety.
    – henning
    Aug 6 at 9:06
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The issue you're experiencing is the problem of context switching. Multitasking can result in a 40% productivity cost, make tasks take 50% longer, and increase errors. After an interruption it can take ~25 minutes to regain focus. (It's hard to find good citations for these numbers, unfortunately.)

The solution to your problem is to guard your time.

  1. Determine what priority you should assign to what you need to do. Consider using the Ivy Lee method.
  2. Turn off buzzers, ringers, alert sounds, and dialog messages. These interrupt periods of focus. Leaving alerts on implicitly places others' prioritization of your time above your own. If you don't manage your devices they will manage you.
  3. Consider using something like the Pomodoro technique or similar strategies to interleave focused time with breaks and outside communication. While scheduling a whole day might be hard, committing to doing something without interruption for 30 minutes is something you must be able to do to get anything done.
  4. Try to understand where your tasks fall in the time management quadrants and value/prioritize them accordingly:

Manage focus avoid limit

Time management quadrant

Time management quadrant

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  • I am always intrigued by the difference between the first and second quadrants, or rather, how to prioritize them. After all, everything that's in the second quadrant becomes urgent and moves to the first if you don't schedule enough regular time for it.
    – henning
    Aug 6 at 8:25
  • Do the quadrants above originate from (or are adapted from) Stephen Covey's work? Just wondering, as that's where I first seem to recall having seen them.
    – J W
    Aug 6 at 9:55
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    @henning: On its face, the difference between quadrants I and II seems simple: the things in quadrant II are important, but they don't have to be dealt with right now. It's enough to deal with them when you don't have any quadrant I issues at hand. Of course, as you note, putting off many quadrant II things for too long will move them to quadrant I and/or have other negative effects on your quality of life, relationships and mental and physical health. […] Aug 6 at 16:57
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    […] The real problem is when you find yourself always having quadrant I things to deal with. That's a sign of chronic stress overload, and often requires (sometimes painfully) re-evaluating your life situation (and possibly your boundary between quadrants I and III) before you end up burning yourself out. Aug 6 at 16:57
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    @IlmariKaronen This being academia.stackexchange, it is worth pointing out that for PI positions, top level research lies in quadrant II. Thinking about something a lot, and having a bunch of insights, cannot be done at the last minute. So it never "becomes urgent and moves to quadrant I". This, not quadrant I, is what you will be evaluated on for tenure/promotion/grants etc., and if you spend all your time answering the urgent emails of students and staff and random people, your research will get left behind and your career will stall.
    – Matt
    Aug 13 at 5:05
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While the pomodoro technique and the urgent/important priorisation has already been mentioned, here's my personal suggestion, which includes both of them in some form or fashion:

  • If you don't already have it, use an acceptable calendar app, shared between your PC and smartphone, one that integrates well with your mail system and whatever your colleagues are using.
  • Meetings will be in the calendar anyways, probably.
  • Now start putting everything in there. Especially if you intend to work alone on a topic, be sure to block that out. Don't forget break times (lunch etc.) - enter them as well.
  • At the beginning of each day, check your calendar for today (this will also be your first calendar entry each day - "Clean up today's calendar"). Look for all conflicts and resolve them by moving them around, maybe cancelling invitations or not so important events. Here, the urgent/important distinction becomes important, of course. Your calendar for today should now be completely filled. Not only with work - there will and should be breaks in there as well, but they should be there explicitly.
  • Configure your system so that mails do not pop up notifications, but your calendar does.
  • Now comes the hard part: when your calendar tells you to switch to another topic, do it religiously. If you have not finished your current work, immediately find a new time slot (tomorrow or maybe today if there is another event which is not so highly prioritized) and plan it in there.
  • When your 8 hours per day are up, or however much it is, stop working. Don't fall into the trap of doing everything that fell on the wayside during the day at the end.

Over time, this trains you to be methodical and realistic. If you notice that your time slots regularly are too short, then you might have to fine tune the size of those slots (for me, that's usually 30-60 minutes; 120 minutes very seldomly), or reduce the content you put in there. You want this to be a game: being done with what you intended to do in a slot should give you a little spike of joy.

You can and probably should, at least at the beginning, have buffer time slots; i.e. plan in an hour a day (or maybe one in the late morning, one in late afternoon) as a pure buffer. As you get used to it, this might not be so necessary anymore. If you run out of stuff to do in a buffer, do whatever - either take a walk, or pick anything else you wanted to do later, and pull it forward.

Reading your mail is an activity like any other - put in a time slot for it, and if possible avoid checking your mail all the time or at least ignore mails coming in during the day as best as you can (you might still look there to get updates on the things you are workin on right now).

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