About Ed O'Keefe

I am a development manager at Algonquin Studios and have been in the technology field since 1997. A proudly proclaimed geek I love solving problems and puzzles. Give me some time to use my brain and I'm the most happy.

Wait…What Was I Doing?

Oh, that’s right, I was trying to work on this blog post. Over the past week or so I’ve been trying to sit down to write this post only to be distracted time and again by that annoying thing called “work.” I had multiple ideas, most of which died before I even started typing. That’s when I finally realized what I should write about–focus.

Focus is something I’ve struggled my whole life with. So what do I mean when I say focus? This isn’t about “Oh, I don’t feel like working so I’m going to play Minecraft for two hours at work today, instead.” though that certainly is a lack of focus. I’m talking about those valid, work-related distractions that actually make you accomplish less; about trying to keep everyone happy and all of your tasks moving forward rather than completing the task you’re working on.

Work the Task at Hand

Of course, that’s problem number one–trying to get everything done at once. What happens when you have 20 tasks you’re trying to complete, a client calls with an issue, and two people stop in your office to ask you to help them with a problem while you’re on the phone? You could start drinking heavily at work. Or you could pull out all of your hair in frustration (where do you think all my hair went?). But neither of those helps with the problem at hand: your brain is being pulled in so many different directions that none of the things you’re trying to accomplish are going to get done in anywhere near a reasonable amount of time. More likely than not, some things what get done at all.

You’re just one person, kids. Don’t try to work those 20 tasks at the same time. Every time you shift gears to pay attention to something new you waste time and effort mentally “putting down” one task and “picking up” the next. And, because you didn’t complete the first task the same happens when you go back to it. Where did you leave off? Were you working on a script to check data when you put it down? Maybe you should re-read through the task notes again. Instead of doing these mental gymnastics, focus on one thing and work it to completion (or a blocking point). Yes, your other tasks will have to be lonely for a while but, in the end, you’ll finish your 20 tasks in far less time, and with better results, if you don’t shift mental gears 10 times a day.

Manage Expectations–Not Everything is a Fire

When your client calls don’t let them distract you from this rule. I know it’s hard; this is the trap I fall into more than any other because my clients are mostly support-related, so I’m on the phone with them regularly. It’s just in my nature to keep them happy and productive so when they call my gut reaction is to drop what I’m doing, regardless of the size of the issue, and help them through whatever they need. But I need to remember not to be afraid to have a quick chat, take some notes, ask them put in a support ticket, and tell them “Hey, I’m in the middle of something right now and, as long as Milton hasn’t set the building on fire, I’m going to finish it up and then move over to your issue. I should have an answer to you by X”. That last part is important–make sure your client knows you’re not blowing them off, set a reasonable timeframe for getting back to them, and then get back to them within that timeframe.

This same rule applies for co-workers. Don’t be afraid to say “Hey, I’m working on something right now, but I’ll come grab you in about 15 minutes.” 15 minutes later you’ll be one task lighter, have a sense of accomplishment, and be in a much better mental spot to help with your co-worker’s problems.

Lists Aren’t Just for Santa Claus

An important tool to help you manage all of this is your task list–make sure you have one. If you have something you need to accomplish, make sure you write it down and keep your list in the order you want/need to complete your tasks. Writing everything down will keep you from dropping the ball. Granted, this advice is coming from someone who can’t remember what he had for dinner on Monday, but it applies to everyone–even the most organized of us will have a problem staying on top of everything they want to accomplish without a list.

Even with a list, there’s nothing more overwhelming than looking at a sheet of paper or computer screen full of “to-dos” and knowing there’s no way you’ll be able to tackle them all. This is where keeping them in order becomes important. When a new task comes in, prioritize it right away and rearrange your list if necessary, placing things in the proper order. Then, as you’re working your task list for the day all you have to do is work your way down your list, completing each task (!) and moving onto the next. This process doesn’t have to be rocket science; you can use a small notebook that you keep with you at all times or one of any of a hundred digital options now available. Just make sure that, if you go with a digital choice, it’s safely stored so you when you drop your phone in a sink you don’t lose your tasks for the week (I’m not talking from experience at all, here). I’m a nerd, so I use Google Tasks so they’re synced on my laptop, phone, and tablet.

Consider breaking your task lists up into smaller chunks if that makes them more mentally manageable; it may help you survive the overwhelming nature of a longer list.

The best part about having a task list of any kind is looking back and saying “Hey, look what I accomplished today!” That’s a great feeling.

Disappear…Like a Ninja

Don’t be afraid to drop off the grid for a little while. One of the most effective focus methods is shutting down your email for an hour or two while you work. Some people have set timeframe during which they respond to email: a block in the morning and one in the afternoon where the only thing they work on is email. I haven’t taken this approach yet, but I can definitely see its value. Close your door, if you have one, or put on headphones and disconnect from the world if you’re working on a difficult task. In extreme cases, ask to be moved to a separate office space if you think it will help. Trust me, if there’s a real emergency, someone will find you but, if not, you’ll be able to focus on the task at hand with greater ease.

A Break From it All

Finally, remember to take some mental breaks during the day and get away from your desk for a few minutes. I’m fond of taking walks during lunchtime; it’s great exercise and healthy, from a mental standpoint, to see that ball of fire in the sky. Even if you just walk across the hall to make a new cup of coffee, your brain will disconnect between tasks and you’ll feel ready to attack the next thing in your list when you get back to your desk.

For now though, I’ve got to go. My phone is ringing and I haven’t touched my email yet this morning.

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Words, Words, Words

So as I sit here, I had a completely different idea for what to write for this, my first Algonquin Studios blog post. Then I took a look around and did a quick inventory; within arms reach I have the following:

  • My trusty tablet (on which I am happily typing this post)
  • My Kindle e-reader
  • My Android phone
  • My wife’s Kindle Fire
  • My daughter’s tablet (yeah, I know)
  • And, of course, the television remote control

And that’s just within arms reach. If you wandered my house, you’d find two additional Kindles, a random mp3 player, laptops, PCs, and more. All of which, aside from the mp3 player (probably only due to lack motivation on my part) can either connect to the internet or can use one of the other devices to do so.

At the risk of sounding like a crotchety old man, when did we become so utterly dependent on technology? But, more importantly, is that dependence really such a bad thing?

Sure, it’s become nearly impossible to disconnect from the digital/mobile world without physically locking your electronic devices in the basement. Even as I write this I’m getting texts, calls, and emails from friends and heaven forbid I don’t respond to those people within minutes, they’ll string me up for being “off the grid.”

And it’s important to fight the good fight–to actually get out of the house and off the devices (especially when you have kids). As someone who takes at least week off every year to go out to the middle of the woods and pretend that technology doesn’t exist, I’d like to give myself credit for making an effort. Kinda.

I say “kinda” because I do make a teeny tiny exception when it comes to my annual trip to Allegany State Park. That exception comes in the form of the one device that causes lots of conversation between the plugged-in and luddite camps–my Kindle. The e-reader debate has its own set of pros and cons, but the one that comes up the most seems to be “Books vs. Words.”

On one side, we have the “book” people. I know you well because I was one of you for a long time. We all love books. They feel great in your hand and there’s nothing like picking up a book and feeling the paper between your fingers. I bet you can even smell a book right now–paper-y goodness. Plus, book stores are a dying breed and that’s certainly not a good thing. I realize a large part of the problem is due to the big box stores forcing them out with lower prices and greater convenience, but I also believe the electronic movement contributes to the steady slide of locally-owned (and chain) book stores.

So what pushed me from the side of the book lovers into the world of the e-reader enthusiasts?

Words. Reading. Stories.

I originally picked up my Kindle as a toy. I purchased it as a gift for myself, quite a few years ago, with some tax return money and it was more of a curiosity than anything else. Then I realized something; this “toy” made it incredibly easy to get my hands on books. And not just books, any book. Any book I could possibly imagine was available to me, anywhere I decided I wanted it. Whether I was in my house, backyard, local park, or office lunch room, if I wanted a new book I could get one.

This realization helped me to rediscover something I hadn’t thought about in a while: I absolutely love to read. I’ve read (insert ridiculously high number for sake of argument) times more books since I bought that first Kindle than I’d read in all the years leading to that point. When you consider that most e-books are much cheaper than their paper versions and that you can borrow from many local library systems for free, it’s even better.

Books no longer need to be the stuff of the elite or well-educated. If technology can put a good book in front of a person who wouldn’t normally read one, this is a good thing. My Kindle did just that and it took my reading to another level. We shouldn’t look down on something just because it may not be what we’re used to and it shouldn’t matter if a book is written on paper, stone, or the sidewalk. The idea is to get books into the hands of people who want to read them. Whatever the most efficient way to do that is, let’s do it!

I guess that’s my point. We’re surrounded by technology every day. We can’t get away from it and when we notice this, our knee-jerk reaction might be to be put off by it. But we need to make sure that when we feel technology is creeping in, we’re not automatically dismissing it as useless, silly, or disruptive. I still believe it’s good to disconnect every so often but that doesn’t mean I’m going to leave my Kindle at home this summer when I go camping. What would I read if I did?