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This seems to be a struggle I have (on multiple levels). I am working to control my WIP so focus loss is reduced, but it still is inevitable. So my question is, when working on something more difficult and you are "in the zone" or "in flow state" working on a task and you have to stop (either immediately or planned) how can I better log a stop point so my start up time on that task (when I come back to it) is not as lengthy.

Immediate stop due to interuption would probably require a different approach altogether than planned stop.

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

My experience is that it helps to:

A) Have a routine. B) Write it down. C) Finish something every time you start.


With a good routine, a great many decisions you would think about are already made. Unless you work in a factory, your first day in a job or role will be far from routine. Here are some suggested attributes for the routine you invent.

  • Your routine can be blindingly simple, or startlingly complex. It must be logical for you, and permit an efficient flow of work inputs to work outputs.
  • Your routine should aim at fluency and velocity. If it feels wrong it probably is wrong.
  • Your routine should be practiced mindfully because on autopilot you will not find opportunities for variation and improvement.

Every job I have had, needed a different routine, and usually I struggled with no routine or with a partial routine until pain forced a change. Much of the important leverage is on what you choose to do daily. I believe it is very important to follow both a personal and a team process.

Write It Down

When you write things either on paper, whiteboard, or electronically, you effectively extend your memory outside your allotted share of gray matter. If writing things down is not part of your routine, change your routine.

If you record a plan, either sketched or refined, before you begin a project or task, there is a reference that can be marked to show completed items. This works particularly well if you work through your plan in sequence. When the work is interrupted, you already have a map you can use to resume it. Rarely will a circumstance or person wait for you to log your progress and plans. If you are lucky (and smart), you can reserve the last 15 to 20 minutes of the work day to update your map.

Finish What You Start

Clutter and confusion abound where tasks are begun without regard to finishing previous tasks. We are increasingly dependent on collaboration, and techniques like Scrum and Kanban are highly valued in some work environments because they accelerate collaboration from a random whenever to something that is facilitated by the team once per day.

Forget about milestones and percent complete. On a project a mile can take months. We can subjectively allocate percentage complete, but too often, when the percentage is 90%, people often find they are a mile offtrack and that it is another painful 90% to get it done.

Work needs to be defined in inch-pebbles. "Inch pebble" is a term that is used in the literature, and an internet search would find many descriptions. We need to dump percentage complete. We need to judge our task as objectively as possible, making a decision that it is done or it isn't. The cost to comeback to a task can be very high, so defining a subtask in such a way that when it is done, it never needs addition attention is very powerful.

Additionally, if the pebble can be made to fit in a time box, we can go from needing weeks of focus on one thing, to a day or an hour. Define the work that needs to be done in a granular fashion gives us a lot more flexibility in handing off work to a pipeline, to doing like tasks together in a block, and to demonstrating progress early and often.

A neurologist might be more definitive, but I think that a task that has the advantage of being begun and finished in a single sitting, or within the space of a single day, has the advantage of being loaded to short term memory without the costs of being recalled from long term memory. Similarly, I find as I work a task, often I gather more materials, equipment, creative work product, and documents together until there is a critical mass that lets me complete the task. A task that spans small or large interruptions may requires this time consuming gathering to be done more than once. When you define your work, find efficiencies that let you load your brain/desk/work area just once.

Hope this is an effective suggestion. Good luck.

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I would follow this tip from Hemingway:

The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start. - Ernest Hemingway

I have found it to be very useful with programming. I try to end my day in the middle of something, with some code almost ready to commit, so its easy to get going again, just polish and commit the code and by the time that is done I feel back in the grove again.

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A good thing to "Write it down" and save your state is a mind map. I personally like digital/online maps more than hand-drawn, but you can choose yourself. Good mind mapping tools I've found for myself are Mindomo and MindMeister.

Using a mind map helps you keep all the information in one place. You draw a 1-level map for main project goals, then you start working on one problem in your project and create the 2nd level of sub-ideas, etc...

The key is to update your map as soon as you've done or found out something or come to any conclusion. This way, when your most recent achievement is written down (you can highlight it on the map), you can abandone your work and come back starting from this idea. What is specific about mind maps, is that you can switch to another side of the map (do some work in another part of your project) without loosing the fine-grained ideas structure, which you've created - it's all written down and easy to find.

How often should you update your map? Decide yourself. I'd do it when changing to other task/subtaks or when your head becomes overwhelmed by information so that when learning a new piece of info you risk to forget some old one.

Bottom line: mind maps are called mind maps for a purpose.

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Break everything down into smaller parts. For example, if you were baking 20 chocolate cakes, you would break it down to:

  • Research
    • Find a good recipe
    • Reseach ingredients
    • Look for suitable equipment
  • Shopping
    • Ingredients
    • Enough pans to cook all those cakes
  • Go through contact list and list down friends interested in cooking
  • Call friends, wait for them to come over
  • Mix ingredients
  • Bake cakes
  • Frost cakes

Everything can be broken down. This method works for the most complex things, from designing aircraft carriers to operating systems.

Get it small enough to be manageable in whatever time chunk you have. If you have 4 hours, make sure all the tasks on your list take less than 4 hours. If you don't have time to do everything in the list, you can leave it at that, and continue later.

Once you're done breaking it down, try to get it on a to do list. It's usually worth spending 5-15 minutes on something like this which could save you a few hours/days of confusion and indecision.

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Have a piece of paper where you write down each step of what you are going to achieve.

When you are interrupted, you can come back to your list and it will put you right back into where you left.

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