Attention management for writers, part 3: The obligatory Slack and email post, or: guilt management for writers

Until now, we’ve focused on calming the chaos of our internal voice. Now it’s time we talked about that other attention killer: external voices. And, because I like to cheat, their influence on our internal voice.

One thing you can do this week: Understand the difference between objective obligations and emotions.

Nothing new here

Honestly, I’ve nothing to say about communication that you don’t already know. The whole internet has been writing for years – and especially this past year – about the simple solution to the drag on our attention that is communication: turn it off. For hours at a time.

Then why am I writing a post? Because what some other voices on the internet don’t always address is the feeling of guilt that we get when we ignore people. If we work at a company where rapid responses are the norm, it can feel terrible to be the exception. The one who’s off writing for a couple of hours and leaving people hanging.

So let’s talk about guilt.

Turn it off, guilt free

Guilt is distracting and stressful, and a prime motivator for doing what’s right for other people at the expense of what’s right for the ultimate quality of our work.

Guilt nags at us.

But why do we feel guilty? We weren’t hired for our ability to joggle instant messages; we were hired to write technical content. Communication is part of the job, but isn’t the job itself. So what ideal do we feel we’re not living up to here?

There are usually a couple of parts to the answer:

  • Our view of ourselves as kind, helpful people.
  • Some badly defined standard of responsiveness at work.

Kindness

Ignoring people feels asocial, dismissive and even technically undesirable (it blocks people). If we think of ourselves as nice, kind, helpful people, it can be hard to reconcile that with the cold calculation of “I’m working now and no one else matters”.

Here’s a question we can ask ourselves: Do we feel guilty when we don’t respond to purely social messaging, too? If we do, then we know we tend to put pressure on ourselves to respond quickly even where the sender of those messages probably doesn’t, and when the objective situation doesn’t justify it. So with that in mind, are we sure our guilt at work is justified? Could it be just as misplaced?

When we’re feeling guilty about neglecting people, it’s helpful to think of all the other people we’re neglecting when we’re constantly Slacking and emailing:

  • Our users, who deserve timely, excellent content.
  • Our family and friends, who deserve some of those hours we put in as overtime to get through the work we were constantly diverted from.
  • Even the people we’re constantly communicating with, in a half-on, half-off mode of cycling between messages and sending scattered thoughts.

Framing our incommunicado moments as being an act of caring for people, just not the people who happen to be online right this very second, can help us see how narrowly – and wrongly – focused our guilt is. So this is more about redirecting the guilt than reducing it. But hey, it works.

A real way to lessen the guilt is to set a timer while we work, so that we know when we’ll get back to people. Having something that clearly shows “It won’t be forever, it won’t even be for very long – we’ll take care of this in 30 minutes” lessens our guilt because of the visual reminder that we are going to get to it. It’s an odd trick, but much like the guilt redirect, it can work wonders.

Vague – even false – standards

Where did our standards of responsiveness come from? Some of it is our environment, some of it is our internal voice. If an environment says “every X minutes”, our internal voice sometimes hears “every 0.5X minutes”.

There’s never anything particularly realistic about the expectations our internal voices set for us. In their imaginary little world, there is no cost to constant communication and we’re being selfish and lazy if we turn away from others to concentrate on our own work.

But that’s just not real life. In real life, the cost of constantly stopping what we’re doing to respond to a Slack message, an email or a meeting invite is very high, while the cost of ignoring them is quite low: we’re technical writers, not emergency respondents.

And we do have other standards we should be meeting. Objective, clear standards, that just happen not to come with badges and notifications: we have standards for the quality and timing of the work we produce. Our communication standards are more visible, and can cause more short term grumbling from colleagues, but they’re not the most important standards around.

Communication standards are also usually not official company policy. We get a sense from our colleagues that we should be responsive, but there’s no clear definition of what that might mean. This vagueness – coupled with some people’s preference for distracting themselves from painful tasks by Slacking everyone and everything – can create a sense of dread when we don’t respond. It’s important we don’t confuse this subjective emotional response with professional obligation.

Guilt-trips

You may be thinking now that I’m being naive, saying it’s all in our heads. There are plenty of real judges out there: The people getting cranky as they wait on us, the boss who thinks we’re slacking off, the decision process we’re not participating in. These are external pressures to respond, and it’s hard to convince ourselves we shouldn’t feel guilty when other people clearly think we’re doing something wrong, even if they’re very vague about what “right” looks like.

So the first thing is to figure out how real that external pressure is, and what it defines as acceptable communication outages:

  • We can run an experiment: check email and Slack only twice a day and see if anyone notices – and cares. They do? Try three times a day. Still not enough? Maybe four or five. The point being: we use these tools as little as possible and see what the push-back is.
  • We need to clarify expectations with our team and line manager. If they want us to be instantly, constantly responsive, we start a quiet campaign to convince them they’re wrong. We work with them on the experiment from the previous point: we change our communication pattern and see how they – and others – feel about it after a few weeks. We also show them the change in the quality of our work over those weeks, so that they see the value of these ideas in real life. We try to show that by doing a lot of quick, short-term tasks, we shortchange the long-term, bit projects.

Once we understand other people’s expectations, we can start considering whether they matter all that much – to us and to them. They are, essentially, simply another standard. And we’ve already established that they’re not necessarily the most important standard.

The decision making process is the hardest bit, sometimes: we need to convince people to wait for us, rather than rush along to a decision when we haven’t had a chance to contribute. This can test people’s patience, even if the decision isn’t about an emergency. But do we really want a culture where people have to make decisions casually and quickly, just as another part of their Slack obstacle course, while trying to keep their minds on something unrelated? Do we want to encourage guilt-based promptness? Pushing against this may not be easy, but it shouldn’t be guilt-inducing.

What to do

We need to remember that those messages and emails are a call to action, not an FYI. They drive us to do something, and if it’s not the something we should be doing right now, then we’ve just been driven off course.

So what do we do to communicate less, but guilt free?

Establishing some new patterns

First tip: we don’t need to advertise to everyone that we’re going to be ignoring them for hours at a time. This is bad news, and there are no good ways to deliver bad news. Instead, we just quietly get on with it.

What are some patterns we can adopt this week?

  • Set a timer, and ignore all communication methods for that time. It should be 60-90min, but the minimum is about 45min. Less than that and we won’t have much focus time.
  • Once we start a discussion on Slack, we should try to stay with it until it’s resolved. The normal method of using Slack is a little too much like a paper route: we go up and down the channels, throwing out one message at a time. We should instead try to encourage a Slack conversation to be more like a face to face conversation: focused, short, to the point (that is how we all discuss things in person, right?).
  • If we’re working on Project A, and someone comes back to us with an answer about Project B, we don’t need to jump to Project B – we can keep doing what we were doing. It’s important we don’t ruin our plan just because someone got bored at a meeting and started replying to their emails.

Those of us still working from home should take the opportunity to establish this new pattern while people can’t punch holes in it by popping round to our desks.

Office hours

This is a fairly famous concept by now: rather than endless emailing and messaging, we tell people we’re available for short calls at a fixed schedule. If we use Zoom, for example, we can put Office Hours on our calendar with a call link, and let people drop in if they need us.

This method has a few advantages over email and messaging, including:

  • It removes a mental barrier: A lot of people would like a quick chat, but don’t want to schedule a meeting or ask for a call when you might still be in your pajamas. By taking the meeting scheduling out of the equation, we’re helping them communicate in their preferred way.
  • It makes for better communication: People who drop in with a question or two are probably focused on the conversation, rather than distractedly sending messages while waiting for their kettle to boil.
  • It condenses the conversation from a day or two of messaging to five minutes.
  • It promises the sheer joy of not having that many emails and messages throughout the week.

Mute and conquer

Most of our communication channels should be muted; there’s no reason to be aware of the flood of activity on them. Whatever tool we use, we should find a way to mute most of the traffic.

I use Slack. I’ve muted most of the channels and divided them into folders by how often I should check them: A couple of times a day, once every few days, or practically never. This is because most of those channels don’t require me to respond to anything that happens on them, and the information they contain is never urgent.

Communicate less, but better

One of the reasons email threads refuse to die is that they’re unclear and often unactionable. They leave the readers with a lot of questions, to which they try to get an answer using another bad email.

So if we want to create a molehill out of the email mountain, we need to take the work off the readers – put some real thought into our emails and make them clear and actionable. An email should include, at the very least:

  1. The context (we can’t assume people remember we had a meeting two weeks ago, or what was said in it).
  2. The open questions or pending actions.
  3. The next steps, clearly laid out and with an assignee. Who needs to provide answers? Who needs to schedule a meeting?

Communicating better allows us to communicate less without feeling guilty – there’s nothing to feel guilty about if no one’s waiting on us because our last email was just that good.

Coming up…

What to do with all your research notes.

Recommended reading

Attention management for writers, part 2: Plan your week, then your day

We tend to focus on planing one day at a time. And sure, we need to look at our plan in the morning (or the previous evening) and tidy it up. But we should also plan each week , either on Monday morning or, if you like spoiling your weekend, on Sunday evening. Some people use bullet journals for this. I, it may not surprise you to learn, just use my to do list app.

This is where attention management and time management meet: in actively setting aside time for us to pay attention to hard things. Our goal here isn’t just to vaguely know what time we’ll be working; it’s to make sure we put the right tasks in the right place, so that we’re doing our hardest work when we’re at our best.

One thing you can do this week: plan the week, then derive your daily plans so that you have time to focus. And… yeah, calling a post “one thing” when it’s over 2,000 words is a bit of a cheat. But breaking this down to different weeks will only make it harder to implement.

The week

Remembering on Monday that we have five days, not one, is very relaxing; rather than trying to get through all of our tasks by Monday lunch, we know we can push some of them to later in the week, reducing our headless chicken stress.

When are we at our best?

We need to schedule the big, complicated, focused tasks for our best hours, and for when we have substantial amounts of meeting-free time.

I’m a morning person. Obnoxiously so. I think being able to start work at 0530 is one of the great things about working from home. Which means that I’m not going to plan any difficult work for 1400, because by then my brain is done with the day. I schedule my hard, focused work for early in the morning. If you’re not a morning person, do yourself a favour and don’t force a morning thing. If you’re not going to be awake until 1000, there’s no point getting up at 0500 and bumbling around like a Shawn of the Dead extra.

We have to block our quality hours on our calendars as much as we can, or people will drag us into meetings. Go look at your calendar, and start finding the empty bits that correspond to your good hours. Now block them. Work well into the future – block the next four to six weeks. If we do this every week, we’ll not be fully submerged in meetings just when we could and should be doing our best work.

Bonus point: blocking out the time we need to do quality work helps us see, with one glance at our calendar, that we really don’t have time to keep saying “yes” to every request.

When are we at our worst?

This is when we do our splinter tasks. This can be our weak hours (afternoon for me) or those annoyingly small gaps between meetings. We’re not going to get quality work done here, so we don’t even try. It’s best to get on with some unavoidable admin work.

I try not to prioritise these tasks because then it’s tempting to push out the lower priority ones but really, that’s just delaying the pain. So I just blitz through them, in whatever order the to do list app shows them.

Scheduling time for these tasks can reduce the temptation to do them when the alternative is harder. Many of these tasks are classic procrastination fodder: small, easy, and brimming with a false sense of progress. We need to know they’re not on the menu for when our hard tasks are just a bit too hard.

It’s time to list all tasks for the week

We’ve covered the general idea of good times/bad times. Now it’s time to populate them with tasks.

One way to go about this is to enter the due date of Monday for every task that came in or that we didn’t finish. Monday morning, they’ll all be waiting for us as a giant list. We figure out what their actual deadlines and priorities are, and order them top-to-bottom. We need to be conscious of sub-tasks here; the parent task may not be due until Friday, but do we need to start the first sub-task today? This is why I give sub-tasks their own due dates.

This is also a good time to review the week’s meetings (tip: you should have reviewed Monday’s meetings on Friday) to see whether we need to prep anything for them. It’s really easy to accept a meeting invite and not notice the required reading or that we’re supposed to present in it.

We need to indicate, for each task, whether it’s a focused task or just a little splinter task, as that will impact where in the daily plan it falls.

Once we have the ordered list, we can start dividing it into five daily plans.

How many days in a week?

An alternative to planning five days is planning four days, and leaving Friday free for anything that spilled over, or got added during the week but can’t wait until next week.

The day

So we know when we’re able to do focused work, and when to pile up some little admin things. And we have the weekly task list all nice and tidy, with the tasks (or sub-tasks) that have to happen first at the top of the list, and the ones that can wait at the bottom. There are just a few things worth remembering when we plan our days.

Never waste your big blocks on little tasks

Well, “never” is a strong word and there will be exceptions, but the general idea is that if we have a big chunk of meeting-free time, we find a big task and work on it – and only on it.

We’ll look in a future post at how to get rid of most distractions, but what we need to remember right now is that the time we’re working on a big task is never the time we’re jumping between Slack messages and email, or between our little admin tasks, or even two big tasks.

This is where the last 2.5 blog posts have been leading us. It’s where the magic happens. A block of time, free of distraction and context switching, in which our mind can sink into a single task and work entirely in that context. Where we don’t spend 15 minutes getting immersed in a topic and then toss it all away because an email came in. This is what we needed to produce our highest quality work.

Use timers, not stopwatches

When we start a day with a plan, we know the following:

  • When our meetings are.
  • When our focused work time is.
  • Our break (or coffee) intervals.

We use this knowledge to set timers. For example, if we have two or three hours of focused work time available, we’ll set a timer for 60 or 75 minutes. At the end of this block, we can check Slack and email to see if anything urgent has happened, then take a break. Ideally, breaks should end at least 45 minutes before the next interruption (like a meeting). A break should be about 10 minutes, but we should listen to our internal voice, whether it’s saying we need a longer break or just raring to get back to work.

Note: If you don’t have a standing desk, you may find that you can’t work for 60-75 minutes without a break (I adjust my desk from standing to sitting and back once or twice in each block). Do what’s right for your body, not what looks good on paper.

Remember that the timer tells us how long we now get to focus, not how long we have to complete something (time blocking, not time boxing); it doesn’t add a deadline – and pressure – to the current task. This is really key: the timer isn’t a stopwatch making us work quickly, just an opportunity to work well.

One advantage of the timer is that it tells us not only when we’re going to focus on work and ignore Slack and emails, but also when we’ll get back to Slack and emails. Knowing we have a set time at which we’ll respond to people helps reduce stress and guilt when ignoring them. More on this in a later post.

I also find that just knowing “I have x minute to focus” really helps me focus. I’m not going to try and explain it.

Track our focus: The 10 minute planner

I don’t really recommend a 10 minute planner for planning work. I think it’s better for students, whose tasks are often not open-ended in any meaningful way, who don’t have last minute meetings, and who shouldn’t really get too many surprises during the week. A product’s release date is far more likely to shift than an exam or paper’s submission date. However, tracking our work for a few day to see the patterns of focused and unfocused time can be quite useful. A black and white view of how little of our workday we actually spend on solidly working, distraction free, is often sobering.

Three tips:

  • Don’t write down sub-tasks, just the parent task (sub-task management is what to do list apps are for).
  • Don’t write down individual splinter tasks, just the category (again – the actual list and its management is in the to do app).
  • Clearly note the difference between a proper break and clicking around emails and Slack, to further quantify what the day went on.

If we do want to use this type of planner to plan, rather than track, that does bring its own benefits. For example, it can help us establish the pattern of timers from the previous section, because our meetings, breaks and tasks will be laid out together (mind you, a lot of to do list apps can put your tasks in your calendar, achieving the same result). It shows us how little time we have free, so we’re less likely to say “yes” out of guilt; there’s no reason to feel guilty when we can see we’re genuinely swamped (though again, our calendar can do this). It can help us see we’ve schedule too many things for today and should move a couple of tasks to tomorrow. And it can help us commit to getting something done in a certain time-frame, which is one way to fight procrastination. But I think it carries a really high risk of adding stress by suddenly adding time pressure to something that really didn’t need it. If you planned to be done with a task by 1000, how much of 0900-0959 will you spend stressing about that?

Unplanned work

  • “If a task takes two minutes, do it when it comes in” is actually a pretty good rule, provided “when it comes in” isn’t “the second it popped in our inbox”. If we are outside of a focused work time, for example because we’re about to go on a break, and we go over our inbox and get out some super quick email responses, that’s great. If we’re trying to focus, but let incoming emails tempt us with “just a quick reply” or “I’ll just look into this for a moment”, we’ve lost focus. We’ve ruined what should have been a solid block of quality work for the sake of a two minute tidbit. That’s wasteful.
  • It’s the nature of our job that our plans won’t always last a week, a day or even an hour. Something will come in with a big sign saying “on fire” and we’ll have to drop everything and take care of it. One great thing about to do list apps: it’s easy to start today again. As soon as the fire’s out, we circle back to what we were doing and see if we need to make any adjustments. Maybe we toss the bottom of the priority list to tomorrow. Such is life.

Coming up…

Next week, we’ll tackle the emotional toil – as opposed to any real objective cost – of ignoring people.

Recommended reading

Attention management for writers, part 1.2: Make your to do list work for you

By now, we’ve got a to do list app that we like. We’ve figured out the features that allow us to divide and conquer tasks – projects, tags, status flags, priorities, due dates. And that’s great for keeping things tidy, but we’re after more than that: we’re after peace of mind.

One thing you can do this week: Know you’re working on the right thing at the right time.

Priorities and peace of mind

When we start the workday, we should ask ourselves one question: What has to happen today? By “has” I mean “There will be an actual cost to putting it off”. Knowing that means we know we’re working on the most important thing. That’s peace of mind right there. Anything that can happen tomorrow with no additional cost is a lower priority item today, and if we don’t get to it? Well, we’ve already established it can wait.

This is especially powerful when we realise there’s really only one thing that has to happen today. How’s that for taking the pressure off? Once we get that one task done, any additional task we manage to complete is a lovely bonus.

Prioritising is a very obvious way to manage a to do list, but we often don’t fully implement it. Instead, we decide to get rid of some smaller tasks first (letting that really important task nag at us from the bench). Or maybe we go help someone with a less important task because postponing a non-human task like writing a draft is emotionally easier than telling a human they’ll have to wait (and we’ll talk about the emotional burden of ignoring people in a later post – one that will probably have the words “email” and “Slack” in the title). And of course, we may be forgetting that urgent isn’t the same as important.

The most important task is the one that gets our most productive, distraction-free portion of the day. We’ll talk more about scheduling uninterrupted work time in a later post, but for now we’ll just remember the principle that our most important task deserves our minds at their sharpest.

Domains

Switching contexts is really hard for the human brain. We often convince ourselves we’re fantastic at multitasking, in the way parents convince themselves they’re fantastic at funny voices – we simply don’t see a way out, so we pretend we’re good at it. But most of us have, while procrastinating, read something about multitasking being a total myth, and how we can’t switch tasks every three minutes.

Now I want us to take this a step further: as much as possible, in a single day, we should stay in a single domain. If we work on multiple projects, as many writers do, we should try to dedicate each day to just one of them.

Project-hopping is sometimes a necessity of company-set schedules, but often it’s more about not wanting to keep someone else waiting (this, too, will come up in that future “ignoring people” post). But switching context to a different project is a mental chore, and we should avoid it when we can. At the very least, we should try to bunch tasks from each domain to the same part of the day – even if that muddies the priority ordering a bit.

I told you we don’t fully implement prioritising. Sometimes for good reason.

Types of tasks: splinter and focused

I got this idea from Cal Newport, who calls these deep work and shallow work.

Splinter tasks are two minute bits that need to get done but require approximately zero brain power. Office jobs, tech writing included, are full of these. Many of them are simple communication tasks: send a short email, review meeting invites, complete some bit of paperwork. Because they require zero brain power, they don’t require us to be at our sharpest. And because they’re tiny, they are an interchange of context switching. I like to group them to some largely useless part of the day: a 30 minute block between meetings, the first 15 minutes after a heavy lunch, a boring Zoom call. They deserve no better.

Focused tasks are the high skill work that suffers greatly from interruptions and context switching. These tasks – researching, writing, editing – require a lot of brain power and staying in the right context non-stop for as long as we can. These are the tasks we do when we have time blocked off on our calendar and have turned off all notifications (more about both in a later post, and probably in one of Cal Newport’s books).

I mark my tasks with a task-type label on my to do list app. When I’m in one of those useless bits of the day, I look at the splinter task label. When I have time to focus, I look at the focus label. In the morning, when figuring out priorities, I look at both, because a splinter task can be very important: some days, the most useful thing you can do is spend two minutes unblocking someone else. But when I’m trying to focus, I never look at the splinter task label; I don’t want to be distracted by the dark cloud on the horizon.

Sub-tasks need dates, too

Sub-tasks are one of the reasons I like to do lists and don’t like Jira – when we’re working with a big team, the way we sub-divide each task isn’t likely to go well with the official Jira workflow (or any other team or company-wide task accountancy tool).

I look at sub-tasks in two waves:

  • When I create a big task, I try to populate the sub-tasks. I give them their own due dates, so that if my big task is due in two months, the sub-tasks are spread out at sensible intervals.
  • When I’ve picked my big tasks for the day, I check the sub-tasks and see if I can make them even smaller (mostly because then I get to cross lots of things off my list, which I find immensely gratifying). Then I start working through the sub-tasks, one at a time, while ignoring the overall size of the list so I don’t stress out. They should be in a logical order, by the way; “Send for proofreading” isn’t going to come before “Write draft”.

Sub-tasks are also why I don’t like hand written to do lists: somehow I always end up not leaving myself enough space on the page for all the sub-tasks and their details and status. Especially if I keep adjusting them, which I do because I keep remembering little things that need to happen (those “oh, must do this too” moments are why I only use to do list apps that have a global keyboard shortcut for a simple input field).

Tag, hide and follow up on blocked tasks

Blocked tasks can dirty up the to do list: we can’t do them, so we shouldn’t have to look at them all day long. Much better to filter them away. I tag them as blocked, and create two filters for my to do list: today’s unblocked tasks and today’s blocked tasks. I look at the blocked tasks just once or twice a day, to see if any have been unblocked, or if I can do anything to speed up unblocking them, like chase someone whose answer I’m waiting for. The rest of the time: out of sight, out of mind.

Coming up…

Next week, we’ll talk about planning the week, then the day, so that we can focus on those big, important tasks we’ve identified.

Attention management for writers, part 1.1: Forget about remembering

Intuitively, we know there are two things that destroy our attention: the voice in our head, and the voices of our colleagues (I am not qualified to tell you how – or whether – to ignore your kids).

This blog series starts with the voice in our head. The one desperately trying to keep on top of everything, remember everything, organise everything. But my observation – and I am not a neuroscientist – is that our brains aren’t powerful enough to deal with all that remembering and organising and still focus on anything else. They’re either swirling in a vortex, trying to hold on to every task that flies by, or they’re sitting calmly to write. Never both.

So we’re going to give our brains a hand by outsourcing all of that messy movement onto external memories: todo lists, note taking, calendars. That’s the first principle of attention management: don’t invest your attention in anything that a tool can do for you (and do better than you, while it’s at it). Help that inner voice quiet down.

One thing you can do this week: get a to do list app

Why a to do list?

I have a terrible memory. So do you. We know this, so we get stressed just by trying to figure out whether we forgot anything. “Is this all I have for today? Oh, and that thing – need to remember to do that thing. And maybe talk to that person. What else? I know I’m forgetting something”. We can’t hold all that in our heads.

And that stress isn’t helping us focus, because it’s stress about all the things that aren’t what we’re currently doing. Or the little details of the thing we’re currently doing (“need to remember to go back to that diagram and update it when I finish this paragraph”).

Honestly, why do people even try? This is exactly why we invented to do lists, and they’re great.

Why an app?

For one thing, my handwriting sucks. There is little distinction between writing a note on paper and just not bothering to write it, except from the point of view of the paper. But that’s me.

However, traditional to do lists on notes or in notebooks have a few shortcomings. The main one is that they’re hard work. Apps let you maintain that list very flexibly. Move items to tomorrow, set them to happen every day, put them in projects with labels and tags, toss them to some other specific date. It’s so easy to stay organised. Trying to manage all this in a written form is messy, and a lot of work. We’re likely to let things drop. If it’s March 13th, where do we put the note to do something on the 26th? Where do we put the task that has to happen every Monday? Do we have a good way of managing sub-tasks, or they do go into the crawl space under the line on which the parent task is written? And is it searchable, or do we have to spend 20 minutes at a time finding that one task we jotted down three weeks ago in the middle of a sea or unrelated tasks?

Some people try to run their to do lists from combinations of their inbox, handwritten notes, Jira and tea leaf reading. The problem with running a multi-source to do list is that it’s even more chaotic than a notebook. Keeping the different sources synced in our mind so that we’re working on the most important things from all those sources is bloody hard work, and is very error prone. It’s so easy to forget that one email, or that one note three pages back, while focusing on Jira. It’s hard to break things done and monitor the status of every element when we’re working off an email, or when there are specific guidelines to how we can splinter a Jira ticket. We need a solution that unifies all those pipelines and at the same time is very flexible – it needs to let us keep track of our tasks in a way that makes sense to us, not to some tool that was not designed for this.

So we get a to do list app and let it do all that hard lifting for us.

Also, an app – one that can work on all of our devices – means we’re never far from our to do list. That’s great for when we remember something while out on a walk, or at three in the morning.One other thing I really love about to do list apps is when they have a universal keyboard shortcut that opens a simple text input box. It means we can toss something on our to do list without moving away from whatever we’re working on. Without even really moving our eyes. Putting any random idea that pops into our head on the list means we don’t have to stress about remembering it, and doing it from our working context means we’re not forcing our brains to switch context (where it suddenly sees all those other pending tasks) and then dragging it back to what we were working on.

Coming up…

Next week, we’ll look at some tips for making to do lists more useful. Later, we’ll look at other tools that help us dampen our internal chaos. But for now, just try a few apps and find the one you like best.

Attention management for writers: foreword

It’s been a year of working from home. For some writers – parents, mostly – it’s been a year of zero focus. But for others, it’s been a revelatory year. One that showed them what work looks like when they control their interruptions. When no one can walk up to their desk to ask a quick question, or drag them into a discussion that doesn’t actually require their input, or just have a loud conversation in their vicinity.

It’s been a year of really good, built-in noise cancelling headphones.

Because we all know that we should ignore Slack and our emails for long stretches of the day. We all know we should block portions of our calendars so no one can splinter our whole days with meetings. But in an office, that only gets you so far. It only helps you focus so long as everyone else is focused. Once they start moving, talking, asking questions, turning off your notifications doesn’t provide you with writing time. Just loud, off-Slack interactions.

And those are fun, actually. I miss them. I want to sit down and have a coffee with someone. But on the flip side, I really enjoy being able to work.

So I’m going to start a series of posts about attention management. About how I structure my days and my laptop to make the most of this silence. These will be short, single-action posts: one thing you can do each week to improve your focus and – with it – your writing.

You’re not suffering from writer’s block; you’re suffering from indecision

That dreadful moment (hour? day?) when the words won’t come. We think of writer’s block as something that is stopping a well formed image from settling into the right words. But in reality, a writer’s block happens when our mental image is a little hazy and abstract. We can’t put it into words because words are precise, and the image isn’t.

To get back to writing, we need to sharpen that image. We need to make clear decisions: what are we talking about, what do we want to say about it, what details are we trying to bring into focus? A list helps. Not a pretty, well worded paragraph; a simple list of sentence fragments and single words that are all exact, decisive descriptions. When the decisions are made, writing can resume.

Separate the user’s needs from the solution

In a conversation about your user’s needs, it’s natural to start throwing out solutions almost immediately. Someone brings up an aspect of the user’s needs, and someone knows how to answer that aspect. But suddenly, that one aspect is all you’re talking about. You’ve just blinkered your view of the user to whatever can be handled by a single, almost random solution. Did you speak up first? Let’s talk about what kind of docs the user needs. Did the client engineer beat you to it? Let’s look at some UI bugs.

If you resist the urge to throw out solutions, the conversation stays focused on the user. You get a chance to fully articulate the user’s needs, free of the assumptions a proposed solution bakes in. It’s probably best, at this point, to take a break. Let people think for a while about everything they’ve learned about the user. A full understanding of the problem and some thinking time will lead to a creative and comprehensive solution.

Writing from the ground up

Writing begins with awareness of the single word, then moves up.

What can a word mean, and what does it actually mean in its current context? Does the sentence make its point as clearly as possible? Does the paragraph come together as a single point? Is it in the right place Does the whole document tell a story from beginning to end? Where does it fit within the rest of the document set?

Always know, without a doubt: What is the document’s bottom line? What is the reader supposed to learn from it? And if you can’t draw a straight arrow from every word, sentence and paragraph to that bottom line – rewrite.

Redefine your audience through the gaps

When users find a gap in your documentation – some jump from A to C that gets negative feedback – don’t just fix it. Ask yourself how it got there. Gaps happen because:

  • Someone didn’t think users needed the topic. This demonstrates a misunderstanding of the audience.
  • someone didn’t think about the topic at all. This demonstrates a misunderstanding of the product.

A misunderstanding of the product isn’t normally a big deal. It’s just a human mistake, often localised to the specific topic that was missed. But a misunderstanding of the audience is very often global: You simply don’t know your audience as well as you thought.

Gather user feedback about gaps, line it all up, and look for a pattern. What body of knowledge did you think your users have, that they clearly don’t? When you read the docs from the point of view of this newly reanalysed audience, what new gaps do you see?

That’s your backlog for the next quarter.

This isn’t the job you were hired to do

When you start a new job, you can’t really work without a mental image of the job: “This is my role. This is what I should be doing and how I should be doing it.”

But that image is about 90% wrong (yes, I made that number up), and you need to let go of it as soon as you can. It’s made up 50% of your dreams and aspirations and 50% of your old job (yes, I made these numbers up, too). In other words, whatever job you’re doing isn’t the job you were hired to do.

You need to update your mental image as soon and as often as you can. Not passively, by slowly noticing things, but actively by constantly questioning things. So for each behaviour, keep asking yourself: “Am I just doing this because it’s habit?” and “Am I just doing this because I’ve always wanted to?”

Unless, of course, you were hired explicitly to rock the boat. Then, by all means, pour out your bucket list and call it a job.