Arumoy Shome


September 5, 2021


Notes on attaining focus.

Usually around late July - early August, I experience what I call “Productivity Anxiety”. It starts by me siting down in front of my laptop to work but not being able to identify what to work on. After an hour or so of contemplation, I start feeling guilty of not working. I know that if I can’t get myself to work on something I should get up and do something else. But then I would be missing out on work wouldn’t I? And so this vicious cycle continues over days, weeks, sometimes entire months.

The quickest way to get over this mental block is to work on something of importance, something with stakes where you have something to lose. Work projects are a good place to start. However that’s not enough. The other part is knowing what to work on, or what to focus our time and energy on.

The assumption here is that we have a functional task/information management system in place. This system allows us to collect all tasks in a centralised location which makes finding things to do next easier. Task management is not enough though, we must establish a notion of priority next. I find goals and project deadlines are a good place to start to derive some prioritisation of tasks/projects at a macro level (think year, quarter or month). For long running projects that stretch over several months or years (which is fairly common in research projects) I find setting pseudo-deadlines a great way to establish what to work on next.


See my prior post on productivity and research workflow for how I manage information.

Although it’s easier to see progress over a longer period of time such as months or a year, we must approach work in smaller chunks such as over a few days or weeks. At this micro scale, I find assigning a theme per day helps minimise context switch, gain focus and stop wasting time trying to identify what to work on next. This theme can simply be a specific project or a group of similar tasks. For instance, I dedicate Mondays to writing and Fridays to reading papers. The rest of the days I break based on the current projects I am working on.


See project management for how I manage projects.

Time blocking sounds like a wonderful productivity technique on paper, but in practise it does not work. First, it takes a lot of time to plan out work blocks every week. Second, I simply do not want to live my life based on what a piece of software tells me to do. Life is dynamic and time blocking does not accommodate emergencies or impromptu decisions. I don’t pre-plan work blocks. Instead, when I do find a block of uninterrupted time, I dedicate 100% of my energy to the task(s) at hand. I turn off all distractions and minimise breaks. Usually a 15 min stretch/coffee/bathroom break in the middle of a 3 hour block works well.

The overarching secret to the success of this system is the act of periodic review. The reviews help me adjust the priorities and tasks for the upcoming week/month/year. I also find tracking the time spent on the work blocks valuable. This paints a nice overview of how I spent my time during the last day/week/month and helps identify any “leaks” which need to be addressed.


Notes on my reviewing process can be found here.

Perhaps the most important realisation I have had is that enjoying the free time, the mundane things such as cleaning and also doing absolutely nothing is equally important as working. Being in the moment and mindful when spending time away from the screen has made the single biggest difference in my work-life balance. Even though I have a constant hum of work to do, I am able to remain sane and produce a consistent, high quality of work by simply being present in the moment.

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