How to find focus in a fragmented day.

This week Frankie Tortora and Steve Folland have a chat in response to a question from Ross Wintle. Ross is a software developer, he says:

“How do you cope with days where you have lots of ‘context switches’ and can’t focus. Like my ‘half day’ which is:

• Get wife + pre-schooler out the house
• School run – Off to co-working
• Collect pre-schooler
• School run (with pre-schooler in tow)
• Feed school-kid
• Hand pre-schooler to grandma
• Take school-kid to swim class
• Home for tea

It does my head in, and though I have half a day of work in there, I rarely get anything done. The changes drain me so much. I find it exhausting too.

Do you have days like that? Do you have tips for getting focus when your day is so fragmented? Do you just avoid planning in “deep work” for those days?”

Take note dear listener! We might swear a bit. This one’s for the parents. To be enjoyed at your desk or once the kiddos are in bed.

Here’s what was said in this episode:

Comments on the previous episode:

[00:00:28] – Frankie
Hello. You’re listening to the Doing It For The Kids podcast where we swear a bit too much and talk a bit too fast about freelance life with kids in the mix. My name’s Frankie and this is Steve.

[00:00:39] – Steve
Yes. Hello!

Each week we take a question from the Doing It For The Kids community and try our best to answer it. And when we, you know, eventually give up — you come to our rescue with your own answers and comments and then we read them the following week.

So, a new question coming up very soon indeed. But that means, first of all, we have to deal with the comments from last week. Last week’s question was… oh, it was, “how do you convince people at the school gates that your job is a real job and not a hobby?” Right?

[00:01:09] – Frankie
Yeah. I did a poll again because I like polls now. Addicted to polls. I asked people on Instagram whether they felt that other people thought their job was a hobby or had suggested their job was a hobby. And it was something like 85% of the people that responded felt that way, which is quite sad really. But then a lot of Doing It For The Kids people are creatives, so I don’t know if that’s another element of it.

[00:01:33] – Steve
Ahh, that’s a good point. Yeah. Because like we said like already, people are judging people who-,

[00:01:37] – Frankie
It’s like, “oh, you’re an illustrator? Oh”. You know? There’s a real like thing about certain creative jobs.

[00:01:45] – Steve
We had some amazing comments in. Thank you so much.

Ingrid got in touch. Ingrid says,

“It really got me thinking about how much people’s reaction to my being freelance is based on the way I communicate it. I use ‘just’ and ‘little’ a lot, so I can understand why sometimes people think it’s just some little lark I’m doing around the kids. But I also agree that people are going to judge either way.

If you have a proper job, then who’s looking after your kids? If you’re freelance, when are you going to get a proper job? If your job is raising the kids, when are you going to do work that makes money? Literally can’t win. So, like Steve says — fuck them.”

[00:02:22] – Frankie

[00:02:23] – Steve
Really interesting, Ingrid. I agree, that whole-, the words ‘just’ and ‘little’ — I’ve used them. And also when combined with the language of, “oh, I just make videos and stuff for people’s businesses from home so that I can look after the kids”. At home, kids, just.

[00:02:45] – Frankie
Yeah, sounds like a hobby to me, Steve.

[00:02:47] – Steve

[00:02:48] – Frankie
Lucy Green, says,

“Yes, to this episode! My friend’s husband asked me recently if I was missing working. Well, no, because I am working. Apparently, if you do it from your living room. It doesn’t count”.

And then she had a hand on forehead emoji looking…

[00:03:05] – Steve
Face palm?

[00:03:06] – Frankie
Yeah, that’s the one. Face palm.

[00:03:07] – Steve
“Hand on forehead”.

Remind me never to be on your-,

[00:03:13] – Frankie

[00:03:14] – Steve
I was going to say charades team.

[00:03:17] – Frankie
Oh. On Rob’s like Google thing in the car, if he gets a text message with emojis in it, she describes the emojis.

[00:03:23] – Steve
Oh, does she?

[00:03:24] – Frankie

[00:03:25] – Steve

[00:03:26] – Frankie
So like, if you get a message made entirely of emojis it’s like, “hear no evil, see no evil, monkey, top banana”, or whatever. Just like, what? Funny.

[00:03:36] – Steve
Going back to Lucy’s comment. I can’t believe that person said that. That’s so rude — “my friend’s husband asked me recently if I was missing working.” Screw you, buddy.

[00:03:46] – Frankie
Yeah, that’s bad indeed.

[00:03:47] – Steve
But that’s that thing, isn’t it? You’re at home. You can’t be working if you’re at home. The world hasn’t caught up. We are the future. We are the future!!

Dave Smyth. Hey Dave. Dave said,

“I’ve toyed with the idea of saying ‘independent’ as a halfway house. Doesn’t get lumbered with the idea of the gig economy so much, but also shows it’s just me.”

[00:04:12] – Frankie
It does the job, doesn’t it? I think people would get that.

[00:04:15] – Steve
You pick the word that you want to represent you.

[00:04:17] – Frankie
Agreed. Own it, Dave.

[00:04:18] – Steve
He’s an independent woman. Okay.

[00:04:22] – Frankie
Cue Beyonce.

Jane Barton, who is a genealogist. Jane says,

“Great question. This is a huge problem in my line of work as there are so many hobbyists. True fact — genealogy is second only to pornography in terms of internet traffic.”

[00:04:35] – Steve
Good fact,.

[00:04:37] – Frankie
Great factoid. Whack that in the pub quiz.

Jane says,

“Loads of people volunteering to do stuff for free. That’s the genealogy I’m talking about there…

Some of them are even very experienced and good at what they do. (Still talking about the genealogy). So, yeah, if I drop it into conversation at the school gates, folks seem to assume I’m messing about with my own family tree. Even my dad refers to my business as a ‘project’, grrrr.”

[00:05:12] – Steve
Maybe you need to say, “I’m a professional genealogist”.

[00:05:16] – Frankie
“An independent professional genealogist”.

Our answer to this week's question:

[00:06:49] – Frankie
So this week’s question comes from Ross Wintle, who is a software developer. Hello, Ross.

Ross says,

“How do you cope with days where you have lots of context switches and can’t focus?

Like my half day, which consists of getting wife and preschooler out of the house, school run, off to coworking, collect preschooler, school run with preschooler in tow, feed school kid, hand preschooler to grandma, take school kid to swim class, home for tea. It does my head in.

And though I have a half day of work in there somewhere, I rarely get anything done. The changes drain me so much. I find it exhausting.

Do you have days like that? Do you have tips for getting focused when your day is so fragmented? Do you just avoid planning in deep work for those kind of days?”

[00:07:32] – Steve
Thank you so much, Ross. God, that sounded so much like my day.

[00:07:36] – Frankie
Did it? It does sound exhausting.

[00:07:39] – Steve
Before our youngest was at school and I had to do the, you know, school and nursery drop off. Yeah, with you there, Ross.

So first of all — do you have days like that? Yes, I reckon most people do. If you’re deciding to be the one who is going to be there to drop the kids off and pick them up. Do you have tips for getting focus when — and this is the key point, isn’t it? — “Do you have tips for getting focus when your day is so fragmented? Do you just avoid planning in deep work for those days?”

Deep work. Because he is a software developer and I imagine that there is a huge benefit in just getting really stuck in.

[00:08:16] – Frankie
Yeah, you need to be in like ‘the zone’. Again, I imagine. I don’t know. And I feel quite similar in that if I’m doing like really creative work where it’s all about ideas and stuff (oh wow, hire me for a job, I really sound like I know what I’m talking about). But you know what I mean. Like when you really have to get stuck in to being creative, you need headspace for that. You can’t do that in little bitty 20 minute slots. It’s just not possible. You only start getting going about an hour into it. So I imagine it’s the same with something like that. You have to be in the right headspace. Correct me if I’m wrong, Ross.

[00:08:56] – Steve
Okay. I’ll tell you one thing that I do do, Ross.

First of all, have a clear idea of what your tasks are for the day. I’m sure you probably do, but let’s start at the beginning. So the day before, I would maybe have a list of what I want to do the next day. And some people say you should do it the day before because your brain works on it overnight.

[00:09:15] – Frankie
Yeah, totally.

[00:09:17] – Steve
After I have done the whole school run nursery drop off type thing, get into your cowork space and just work on… don’t even open your email. In fact, definitely don’t open your email.

[00:09:30] – Frankie

[00:09:30] – Steve
That was what I found really worked for me. Basically sitting down and working on my own terms on what I want to work on. And for maybe even 2 hours I won’t check my email.

[00:09:42] – Frankie
You literally have your email closed? Like it’s not even…?

[00:09:45] – Steve

[00:09:45] – Frankie

[00:09:46] – Steve
If you really want to check your email, you could check your email first thing while you’re having breakfast or whatever. But in that time when you’re sitting down and focused — yeah, close your apps!

[00:09:56.100] – Frankie
And do you have it on your phone as well?

[00:09:57] – Steve
I’ve taken notifications off my phone for my email so it won’t ping at me. It will only come up if I pick it up and look at it. And actually there’s another thing — when I really need to get shit done, I put my phone in my bag.

[00:10:11] – Frankie
Literally what I was about to say. If I really have to knuckle down, it’s not even in the room. So I work from home and I’ve got a separate office space and I literally leave my phone in the kitchen so I can’t even see it. That’s the only way.

Otherwise, even if I turn notifications off — that actually sometimes makes me check it more because I’m like, “oh, maybe I’ve got a notification that I don’t know about!” Do you know what I mean? Maybe I’ve missed that email that hasn’t pinged. So I just find that physically moving it is the best thing to do. But then if you’ve got like kids at nursery and stuff there is that always niggling thing that you need to be contactable.

[00:10:45] – Steve
No, totally, I wouldn’t put it in airplane mode.

[00:10:47] – Frankie
No, it’s not that extreme.

[00:10:49] – Steve
For the most part, people don’t phone me.

[00:10:51] – Frankie

[00:10:51] – Steve
So actually, if anybody phones me, it will be for school. So yeah, I think that is worth trying.

If you’re talking about deep work… and really the whole concept of deep work is to have hours on end just devoted to one particular task, isn’t it? That sounds like what you’re after. I would just put everything to one side and just work on that one thing first. But so much of this is about finding out what works for you.

[00:11:19] – Frankie
Totally. I’d really think about what your minimum time is to do that deep work for you as an individual. So like — can you get anything done in an hour or is that too short? Do you need a minimum of two, three hours? And if you do, is it realistic to find that time in those kind of days or should you dedicate that time on a different day?

I think it’s almost better to plan your week around it so that you do the bitty smaller tasks on those days and do the ‘deep work’ on the other days if that is how you’re going to be most productive. There’s no point forcing yourself to do that concentrated work in short bits of time if it’s only going to stress you out and the work is going to be of poor quality or whatever.

Really think about you as an individual and how you work and how your week pans out and plan your work to its best possible outcome if you see what I mean. Yeah, but then there’s deadlines in the mix as well so…

[00:12:12] – Steve
Actually, if I have something that I really need to focus on and get done, I find Sundays are a great day. So that means that you’ve had Saturday as a day off hanging with the family — again this all works for different preferences and families and so on and so forth — but… I like to work on Sundays. I would get up with the kids, take care of them and then go and work in a cafe — or in this case maybe a cowork space — and just WORK. It’s amazing on a Sunday because you can send an email to someone and they won’t reply!

[00:12:44] – Frankie

[00:12:45] – Steve
There is no distraction on a Sunday. What you can get done in those 5 hours is huge and I’ve even done it sometimes where I will work for a few hours and then the family will come and pick me up and we’ll go out for a pub lunch and then they’ll drop me back and then they’ll go off again.

[00:13:03] – Frankie

[00:13:03] – Steve
And also, I used to think… And who knows about your situation… but I used to think that I had to be around at the weekend for family time but actually, my wife doesn’t get to spend much time with the kids during the week so she likes having a bit of time with them on her own. It’s worth discussing that with your partner if you have one. You might feel that there’s a pressure that you need to be around at the weekend, but maybe a Sunday could be a good day? Not all the time, but occasionally. To go and do some work and let them just hang out together.

[00:13:35] – Frankie
Yeah. So in our house, the boys go swimming on a Saturday morning, and I use that couple of hours, max 3 hours if they go to the park, for work. And yeah, it’s the same. I get so much done in that slot in comparison to time I have during the week. I think you’re in a different kind of mood at the weekend, and as you say, less people pinging emails back. Although I’m doing some work for Saskia, who’s in the group, and I emailed her on Sunday at, like, 5 o clock and she immediately emailed me back which made me laugh. All in the same boat!

[00:14:08] – Steve
“I find it exhausting”, is what he said.

Getting sleep is really important. Like, I find if I go to bed at a decent time — and I know this doesn’t work for people who have really young kids, so I’m sorry…

[00:14:23] – Frankie
Hiya *waves*

[00:14:23] – Steve
If you get a decent night’s sleep, then you will probably be more focused and energetic in the work that you do the next day. So rather than trying to burn the candle at both ends, I really would recommend trying to get that good night’s sleep. And then in those few hours that you have, you will have more focus and more energy because of it.

[00:14:47] – Frankie
I mean, I don’t know what to say about the switching between work and life like that. It’s just bloody hard, isn’t it? But maybe there is something in there about… So he’s got the school run, he’s got collecting the preschooler, taking them to swimming etc. Maybe there is something in using those transitionary — is that the word? — moments.

[00:15:08] – Steve
I’m on board with it even if it’s not.

[00:15:10] – Frankie
Yeah. Maybe using those moments to clock off from one and zone into the other or vice versa, whether that’s wrapping up the list that you’ve been working on that morning and thinking, “okay, what do I need to prioritise next?” And thinking about that on the way to pick up your kid. So when you get there, it’s like, “cool, I know what’s happening next, I can now switch off”, kind of thing.

[00:15:30] – Steve
It’s a weird old thing, right? If you have to pick up the kids from school at 3.15, you start thinking about it at 1 o’clock in the afternoon.

[00:15:38] – Frankie

[00:15:40] – Steve
It’s just-, it sits there in your head.

[00:15:42] – Frankie
Yeah, I’m the same. My son’s at a private preschool nursery thing, so I pick him up quite late, like half five, but often my afternoon pretty much dies at 3 o’clock because I’m like, “oh, I need to put the wash on”. I start getting into all that life admin stuff. “I need to put the wash on. I need to think about what he’s going to have for dinner”, and then I have to probably put some clothes on and get ready to go and get him because Rob takes him in the morning. So sometimes I’m in my pajamas! Just sometimes.

Yeah, so a lot of what could be quite productive time just… isn’t.

[00:16:23] – Steve
One way to try and get around that is to set an alarm for when you need to pick kids up, if you don’t already, rather than letting your brain think… because your brain will think about it.

[00:16:32] – Frankie
Constantly checking the clock or whatever.

[00:16:34] – Steve
Or whether it’s just subconsciously aware that it has something important to do? So if you set an alarm, that gives you enough time to pack up and then go and get the kids, that’s one thing.

Also, sometimes I would drive to school, sit outside the school with my laptop for a bit. For a start, I think I worked in quite a focused way when I was in the car because there’s nothing else to do apart from work. Well, unless like you’ve got like a really good bag of Fruit Pastilles to work your way through. But yeah, in general, I would actually do quite focused work in that hour, maybe. Or 45 minutes.

[00:17:11] – Frankie
If you can ignore Google reading emoji message to you…

[00:17:17] – Steve
You also get a really good parking spot outside the school because nobody else is there that early.

[00:17:20.970] – Frankie
Win win.

[00:17:21] – Steve
It is less stressful than trying to get there to pick them up last minute. And your brain isn’t doing that thing of, “got to pick them up, got to pick them up, got to pick them up” because-,

[00:17:29] – Frankie
You’re already at your destination! Like it, yes.

We talked about getting rid of notifications on your phone, but you could even do the Pomodoro thing.

[00:17:40] – Steve

[00:17:40] – Frankie
Where you literally set yourself a timer and you work intensively up until a specific time and your clock or your phone or whatever it is, is telling you, “20 minutes left! 20 minutes left!” And you really push yourself to use that time as efficiently as possible. And you can set that deadline. So if you have to get your kids at 3pm, you can say, I’m going to push it to 2.30pm, or whatever it is you feel comfortable with.

It can be a motivation, can’t it, to just really like… I was going to say ‘chow down’ but that’s not what I mean.

[00:18:13] – Steve
So yeah. There you go Ross, I hope there was something helpful in there.

The thing is to bear in mind that we are all different and it’s cool to experiment with different ways of doing things. And cut yourself some slack. You’re doing great, I’m sure.

[00:18:29] – Frankie

[00:18:29.840] – Steve
Okay. I bet there’s going to be some good suggestions on how people have found focus in a fragmented day. #DIFTKpodcast on Twitter and Instagram. And of course, Frankie will have posted this in the community.

What would your advice be?

Let us know your thoughts using #DIFTKpodcast on Twitter and Instagram, and join in the conversation via the DIFTK Community on Facebook.