Finding Focus, and Pride, and Satisfaction

For a knowledge worker, being able to focus is the most efficient productivity tool he can ever achieve.

Here’s the trouble. We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into “flow”, also known as being “in the zone”, where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration. (Joel Spolsky)

Interruptions are productivity serial killers.

Programmers cannot work effectively in an interrupt-driven environment. Make sure your working environment protects your programmers’ flow state, otherwise they’ll waste most of their time bouncing back and forth between distractions. (Jeff Attwood, The Programmers Bill of Rights)

Being productive at work requires focus. By definition, you can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.

This mental juggling act is one of the most difficult aspects of programming and is the reason programming requires more concentration than other activities. It’s the reason programmers get upset about ‘ quick interruptions’ – such interruptions are tantamount to asking a juggler to keep three balls in the air and hold your groceries at the same time. (Steve McConnel, Code Complete)

But focusing is not privative for programmers or IT workers and it’s not a recent invention. Tolstoi’s novel Anna Karenina, tells us about Constantine Levin, who decides helping his peasants laboring his fields. His lack of practice doesn’t let him work well, nor enjoy the task.

The grass was short close to the road, and Levin, who had not done any mowing for a long while, and was disconcerted by the eyes fastened upon him, cut badly for the first moments, though he swung his scythe vigorously. […]He felt as he swung his scythe that he was at the very end of his strength, and was making up his mind to ask Tit to stop.

After the firsts clumsy efforts, Levi doesn’t give up, and keeps mowing and thinking how to make his technique get better.

His pleasure was only disturbed by his row not being well cut. “I will swing less with my arm and more with my whole body,” he thought.

Finally, he suddenly starts working well, he is fully focused. He doesn’t care about no other thing than his scythe, the field in front of him and himself.

He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible. He heard nothing but the swish of scythes, and saw before him Tit’s upright figure mowing away, the crescent-shaped curve of the cut grass, the grass and flower heads slowly and rhythmically falling before the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the row, where would come the rest.

He has reached “the flow”. He is working “in the zone”. This is important because his work is better. But also for a more important reason.

Another row, and yet another row, followed–long rows and short rows, with good grass and with poor grass. Levin lost all sense of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction.
Anna Karenina (vol I, 3rd part, chapter 4)

Reach the flow. Get into the zone. Work better. Enjoy your work.

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