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Focus and Flow: Productivity Tips to Improve your Work-Life Balance

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20 years ago, there was a clear difference between being at home and being at work. You focussed on your personal life at home and your work only at work. Nowadays, technology has allowed us the flexibility to work from wherever, but it also meant the boundaries between work and life have been blurred -  taking work/life balance with it.  And it isn’t just our personal life that is suffering, our work life is suffering too. Deep focus is extremely important in the tech world and it can’t happen when a person is ‘semi-working’ - checking in on work when they are able to focus on it and when they are at work, they get pinged on other things. Some might blame technology - especially Slack for pulling us into work when we are meant to be relaxing. Or perhaps distracting us from the task at home. Yet, in a recent CTO podcast, Cal Henderson suggested that perhaps it is more of a cultural issue, than a technological one. It is up to us to choose how to structure our working lives and our personal lives. In this blog post, we will discuss key takeaways from the CTO podcast featuring Cal, the CTO of Slack. After all, it  is increasingly important to define those boundaries and be able to disconnect outside of working hours. Setting boundaries is also important for productivity as there are periods when you want to do deep work and stay focused and other moments when you are open for collaboration.

“It really huge for productivity that instead of being sort of productive all the time. Periods of intense focus are much easier if you have periods when you're not focusing and when you're able to disconnect and think about something different.” Cal Henderson, CTO of Slack, speaking on the alphalist CTO Podcast Episode 54

Introduce Focus Time and No-Meeting initiatives

Coding relies on flow. Yet it's hard to code when you keep being pulled into meetings, stand-ups, 1-1s, and check-ins.. Ditching meetings isn’t always an option in the collaborative working world of today but what you can do is schedule time for deep work - engineering, document writing, research, and other individual-focused work time. For example, Slack’s engineering and product organization has a 'No-Meeting' week every six weeks where they get rid of all recurring meetings. In these weeks, engineers could just focus on writing code without interruptions. Some companies even have a weekly ‘no-meeting’ day. How does #FocusTimeFridays sound to you?

Cluster meetings for Better Flow

Meetings are not the enemy. It's a collaborative world and some people work best when they spend time hashing out a solution with colleagues. In addition to cutting back on any unnecessary meetings, you should also cluster the meetings so they are less disruptive.

“Making software products is collaborative. You need to spend a lot of time with other people but having contiguous blocks of focus time is the really difficult part. It doesn't matter if 30% of your time is spent in meetings. [But if that] 30% is spread out evenly throughout all of your days… it means you don't get any blocks of focus [time]. And I think having those blocks of focus time is really important. “ - Cal Henderson, CTO of Slack, speaking on the alphalist CTO Podcast Episode 54

Set Clear Boundaries Between Work/Life

You should have a good clean separation between when you are at work and when you're not, and when you're available and when you're not. Be open about it and encourage your team to do the same. It was easier pre-pandemic when people used to change locations when they were working and when they were not. Cal thinks that's been especially difficult for people over the last couple of years with the pandemic which meant you were no longer even changing locations between when you're at work and when you're not. Now that many people are working from home, it's harder to set those boundaries and be like ‘Now its the morning, but I am not yet at work’, ‘it's the morning and I am at work’ and ‘Its the end of the day. I am home now, not working’. But by being intentional about disconnecting - toggling your status between online/offline, turning off notifications, not checking messages after hours - you are doing yourself a favour.

“Everyone is semi-working all of the time. You're always kind of available. You always have a phone with you. You're always online. And I think ultimately that's not super healthy for work-life balance.” - Cal Henderson, CTO of Slack, speaking on the alphalist CTO Podcast Episode 54

Turn off Notifications when you are not available.

Notifications need to be handled wisely. Most things are not urgent enough to require your immediate attention. Slack was built with the idea that you can message anyone at any time, but it's up to them to decide when they want to be notified about that message. This works well when the sender knows whether the recipient will get notified so they know if they need help urgently, they should escalate it on a different channel. Once you update your status - so people know if you are available, being notified, etc.- you can peacefully silence all notifications in Slack for a custom period of time or until a certain date and you can docs on what you're doing right then even it's just focussing on writing a piece of code for a 2-hour stretch.

In conclusion As someone in the tech world, you will always need to balance focus and collaboration, and career time and personal time. It is up to you whether you use technology to aid or harm you in maintaining the work-life balance. But by thinking strategically about boundaries, and implementing a schedule for yourself - you will be able to be a much more productive person. Most importantly, be sure to truly clock out at the day's end if you want to avoid burnout and be productive.

_“Be really intentional about disconnecting from work. If you're able to do that, you can get more done when you work and have a much better work life balance.” _ - Cal Henderson, CTO of Slack, speaking on the alphalist CTO Podcast Episode 54