Focus

One of the challenges I often hear from developers is about focus – there are good reasons to avoid multitasking (a big one being that people can’t multitask – it’s actually time-slicing and incredibly inefficient) but at the other extreme working on a single problem for a whole day is also ineffective, so what’s the ideal amount of time? [Drum roll] It depends! 😉

My personal preference is based on the Pomodoro technique – I like 25 minute timeboxes of focused work interspersed with 5 minute breaks. It fits well with breaking work into small chunks, which means I need to understand the problem I’m tackling and think about a path towards the goal. The other benefit I find is that it’s a good reminder to switch between sitting and standing at my adjustable desk.

There’s a perception that longer timeboxes equate to more focus, but people’s concentration tends to wane after about 45 minutes hence the “ideal” could be using an approach like Pomodoro and allocating multiple timeboxes to the same problem: 25 minutes working on a problem, a 5 minute break, and then another 25 minute timebox will (for most people) be more effective than 45 minutes without a break. The focus-and-break cycle should be sustainable throughout the day, so every so often the technique recommends a longer break; it’s also good to give your eyes (as well as your brain) a break, and even do some stretches.

But, of course, it’s not that simple! If one person is “in the zone” and focused solely on their work for an entire day then they haven’t been collaborating with their teammates or getting feedback from their customer. That may feel good for the developer but agile is a team sport – “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. The sprint commitment is made by the whole team. Having only one team member understand a problem or the design of a solution is fragile – if that person is unavailable (e.g. on vacation for two weeks) then the rest of the team is blocked from making progress.

The other reason to break that focus into smaller chunks is to demonstrate the work in progress and seek feedback. If you only get feedback every other day, then the potential exists for a lot of rework and wasted effort – the longer the interval, the bigger the risk.

One additional thing to consider: it is important to look ahead, not just focus on the work at hand, so there is a need to fit refinement or replenishment into the schedule, as well as the daily stand up or other team coordination meetings. Without looking ahead all that focused effort could be for nothing if it doesn’t fit into the larger vision.

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