One Task, One Focus

Published Date
01 - Jun - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - Jun - 2007
One Task, One Focus

It's the little thing that eat away at your time, and there are little things you can do to remedy that

Haven't we all had days in which we can't get any work done? We just begin going beyond checking our mail, something else catches our eye, and we come back to that inbox, swearing to make the next 10 minutes more productive…

A report by reveals that the average office worker is interrupted every three minutes by a phone call, e-mail, IM, or other computer related event, and says that it takes eight uninterrupted minutes for the brain to get into creative mode! In short, What is a man to do?

There are productivity methodologies; there are little things you can do to optimise your computing experience; little things like learning to prioritise, interesting software approaches to maximise productivity. Here, we explore what you, as one-who-works-in-front-of-a-computer, can do to squeeze nine or more hours out of eight.

The Usual Suspects
In what follows, we'll talk about a lot of things, but we'll start off with the obvious stuff-stuff you already know. Yes, we'll talk about stuff you could tell us if you wanted to. Why we're doing this is in the hope that you'll finally start thinking about it seriously!

As you start working every day, there are these "things" that keep bouncing in your head, little ideas or assignments that need to be completed sooner or later (paying the electricity bill or re-arranging the bedroom furniture). These things are normally put off for a later date "because there's no time." As days go by, they accumulate, and you end up spending more time thinking about the irrelevant tasks than doing the relevant ones….

So prioritise your day. Run a quick check of what needs to be completed first, then get down to doing it. Run this check-sweep three times a day to make sure you're on track. Do not procrastinate.

In order to help you prioritise your tasks, learn to slot them into compartments based on importance. Keep the toughest things for the beginning. Avoid doing any unnecessary (and possibly distracting) work-any task not important or related to the goal at hand. An example: you keep going to the water-cooler so as to put off that tough little bit of work, don't you? Don't! Kill the thought by keeping a water bottle with you-an extra-large one, the "2 litres plus 250 ml free" variety-it will save you precious minutes and a lot of distraction.

Many suppose multi-tasking improves productivity, but there's a limit. Joshua Rubinstein, David Meyer and Jeffrey Evans, in  Human Perception and Performance, in the prestigious Journal of Experimental Psychology, showed that as tasks get more complex, our productivity while multitasking comes down. See for more.

Our drift all through this has been: focus, focus, focus. Just that.

The Devil Of Small Things
Most time-wasters at the workplace are generated by The Computer: you spend most of your time there. Optimise it so you'll get distracted as little as possible.

First turn off all unnecessary pop-up and balloon notifications. (So what if gh_ij just signed in? You're doing your work, right?) If your computer has loads of pop-ups springing up from time to time, run an anti-spyware and anti-adware program to cleanse your computer.

Another way to free yourself off the distractions is to get offline! Yes, this is one of the best ways to stay focused on the job at hand. Close down all unnecessary inboxes, IM clients, and close your network connection. If your office environment requires you to be on a messenger client the whole day, learn to leave polite away messages to indicate that you are busy and can't be disturbed unless absolutely necessary. (Yes, go ahead and actually make a customised Away message-you've been putting that off, right?)

Educate people around you to keep theirmobile phones on vibrator mode!"
Trupthi Indulkar, Infosys Employee

Next, it's time to blame the way you use your software. We just don't use some of the nifty features that come with them, so here are some pointers.
  • Keep shortcuts to your most frequently-used programs in the Windows Quick Launch bar.
  • Don't mail things that you can just shout out to the guy sitting next to you.
  • If you have those extra "Internet" or "e-mail" buttons on your keyboard, use them!
  • Use the Help menu in software when you get stuck somewhere. These sections are normally well-documented by software authors. Trying to solve the problem yourself will only get you more distracted.
  • If you are still using Internet Explorer 6 or below, use an alternative browser; Opera has by far the fastest page rendering engine out there.
  • If a particular software keeps trying to open certain filetypes, and that's causing you distractions because you keep doing File > Open With, correct the situation by using the File Associations option. Right-clicking on a file, select "Open with", and select the correct program. Check the "Always use this…" box.
  • Use the tabbed browsing feature in your Web browser; updated versions of all browsers support this feature these days. This way you don't have to wait for a site to load; switch over to the next-most important tab in the meanwhile.
  • If the sites you regularly visit support RSS, use RSS readers instead of going to each site individually. 
  • Use the "sessions" feature in browsers like Firefox and Opera. Configure the browser to open up all the sites you visit daily every time you start your browser.
  • Put your frequently accessed folders in the "Favorites" menu. That's what its there for, isn't it?
  • Stop using Windows' inbuilt search; using Google Desktop Search (or a similar piece of software) is much faster. Similarly, install the Google toolbar rather than going to every time.
  • Whenever you find yourself straining to read what you are seeing on the screen, increase the font size. Keeping the [Ctrl] key pressed and scrolling the mouse wheel up or down will help you increase or decrease the font size in most software.
Software Solutions
There are software that allow you to focus on productivity, a new breed that does away with all the bells and whistles and focuses only on utility and ease of use-by providing you with the bare minimum of tools needed to do the job. If you spend long hours getting your fingertips numb at the keyboard, try out DarkRoom. This is a software that gives you a full-screen text editor. So what's special? Well, it blanks out the entire screen when it is in full-screen mode, and suppresses pop-ups and other notifications, thus ensuring it gets your undivided attention. The Mac variation of this tool is called WriteRoom, and there's a Java-based editor called JdarkRoom if you're working in Linux.

For those of you who like to use personal information management tools, there's TiddlyWiki (which we wrote about in September 2006), which acts as a personal notebook to sort these little tasks into various parts of your day. It is actually a single HTML file that has CSS and JavaScript code incorporated into it. When you download it and start using the file, it overwrites itself based on your preferences when you save any information to it. Every new entry is known as a "Tiddler"-a log of the things waiting to be done on your to-do list. This is saved in the local copy of the TiddlyWiki HTML file for future reference. Existing Tiddlers can be modified or deleted, thus allowing you to sort, tag, and categorise your tasks based on your needs.

Tools like Backpack ( and Thinking Rock are meant to be used online, while those like TurboNote (www.turbonote. com) can be used offline to efficiently manage your daily tasks. Tweeto ( is primarily online.

"Backpack perhaps the most convincing Web answeryet to the power,
flexibility and simplicity of a
spiral-bound notebook"

Of Backpack, it has been said by a user: "It's perhaps the most convincing Web answer yet to the power, flexibility and simplicity of a spiral-bound notebook." TurboNote lets you put post-it notes on your Desktop, and more-set reminders, send messages and notes to others on your network, and so on. Tweeto is a task manager / to-do list that works inside your browser-it works even when you're offline-and allows you to quickly and easily plan your tasks.

Thinking Rock is something like mind-mapping software,only goal-oriented

Thinking Rock is a little more complex, a piece of freeware which we'll let speak for itself: it is for "collecting and processing your thoughts following the GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology. A lot of our mental energy is directed towards trying to remember and manage all the things that we want or need to do. Thinking Rock will allow you to clear your mind so that you can become more proactive and concentrate on what is important to you." All these apps are pretty cool, if you ask us!

With the (10 2)*5 formula, you'll eventually
want to do more work 

TurboNote lets you create post-it notes for your Desktop, but it goes way beyond just that much

Then, we've all had our moments when we've entered the same birthdays and anniversary dates in multiple calendars, or had to manually enter every number on the two phones you use regularly so their address books match. Here comes to our rescue the Synchronise function-a great way to save time. Use it liberally: sync your address books, e-mail clients, and sync your online calendars with Outlook (for example). If you use Firefox across multiple computers, use the Google Browser Sync extension to synchronise your browser settings like bookmarks, history, cookies, and saved passwords across your computers. Get it from firefox/browsersync.

Speaking of GTD, propelling you towards getting more out of your time and not getting distracted is the Getting Things Done ideology, which was devised by David Allen, a productivity trainer and consultant. Allen devises a system of working for 10 minutes straight without any interruptions, and then rewarding yourself with a two-minute break at the end of it. Doing that five times straight will make for a very productive hour. Get yourself a timer software to clock yourself; we recommend MultiTrack Stopwatch 2.3 (, a free, no-frills, Windows-based stop-watch. The idea here is not to complete every task in 10 minutes, but to make sure that you have made some progress in the 10 minutes. The drive that the reward causes can propel you to become more and more productive. Eventually, you'll actually want to work more and rest less...

At which time, you follow the 30-10 formula, wherein you work for 30 minutes straight after which you take a 10 minute break to do something you would normally do in your free time-like checking your RSS feeds or e-mail. Again, the idea here is to make progress on the goal at hand and not to try to necessarily complete the task in 30 minutes.

First-Hand Advice
Here are a few suggestions for office workers from Dr Rajendra Barve, President of the Bombay Psychiatric Society and a visiting faculty at IIT Bombay.

  • Use artificial tears (saline water) for dry eyes. You could substitute saline water with cold water too.
  • Take Vitamin A supplements, but consult your family doctor first.
  • Another method recommended for tired eyes is "palming," which involves rubbing the palms together to make them slightly warm, then, holding them as cups, place them over your eyelids for a while till you feel a sense of calm.

Dr Barve recommends creating the right ambience to work in. Listening to light music creates a barrier between you and your distractions. Another technique is to use the "accommodation reflex" technique, which requires you to focus on objects randomly that are far way for a minute. This enables the eye muscles to relax. (The glare on the screen could also be reduced by decreasing the brightness level of the monitor.) He goes on to say that when we have work to do, it is important to let people know that we must not be disturbed. Learning the art of saying "no" or "not now, later" is very important: it lets you focus on the job at hand. You could also give people "time-slots", within which they're allowed to disturb you-no other time.

We asked a couple of techies about their biggest distractions and how they worked around them.

Trupthi Indulkar, who works for Infosys, says, "Annoying ring tones are the bane of every workplace. Most people might not share your opinion of the ring tone being 'cool.' Educate people around you to keep their mobile phones on vibrator mode, and don't forget to follow the rule yourself! Also, if you are targeted by the telemarketers trying to sell you time-shares and bank loans, accept calls only from known numbers."

Vikrant Agarwal, who works for Oracle, has this to say: "The biggest distraction is when I am in the middle of an important analysis and trying hard to concentrate, and then all of a sudden this group of caffeine addicts come along saying, 'Let's go for coffee.' They surround you and won't leave without you! Solution: take your coffee breaks when there is work to be done. This will ensure that you return to your desk sooner."

In Parting
This writer has more important stuff on his hands than writing an unnecessarily long sign-off note, so here goes: your mileage with what we've advised will vary. Go ahead and devise your own methods of staying focused. But remember, always think of all the options you have in terms of what you can do next. It should then be obvious what your priorities are based on your circumstances, how much time you have, how much energy you have!  

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