How I Stayed Focused & Motivated While Working Solo

Atomic makers work in teams, and our developers pair program quite a bit. I’ve come to understand the value of pair programming as a teaching and learning activity since joining Atomic. But recently, I’ve realized a new benefit of pairing: staying focused and motivated.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been working solo to wrap up the last bit of a project. Working by myself — combined with the challenges of working from home and in a world upended by a pandemic — has left me needing to be more diligent about staying focused. It required some active strategies to keep me engaged and productive.

Create Focus Blocks

Looking at an eight-hour day on a calendar that’s totally empty is very daunting. In the first few days of working solo, I found myself wandering through the huge blocks of time, getting pulled in many directions at once. While trying to implement a feature, I was worrying about getting back to an email, then getting pulled into a Slack conversation about feature priorities for the future, all while remembering that code refactor I also wanted to get to.

Fortunately, a coworker advised me to create specific time blocks on my calendar to focus on specific tasks. Every morning, I broke my day into one- or two-hour blocks. Then I would add those as named events onto my calendar, with a specific goal for each.

This worked well for me:

  • I no longer felt pulled in many directions at once. I was able to give myself permission to focus on one thing at a time.
  • I had built-in breaks at the end of each focus block.
  • I could see my progress, which really helped me stay motivated in a sea of work.

Meet with Someone at Least Once a Day

Meeting with someone else once a day for a status update was really helpful. It held me accountable for getting work done and gave me a chance to bounce ideas off of someone. Whom I chose was less important than just having someone there to be accountable to.

However, I did find it particularly helpful to have another developer available for short periods of time so that we could collaborate on large architectural decisions or unique and challenging development problems. This was a great opportunity to continue to learn new patterns and get suggestions from a peer.

Finally, this check-in gave me a much-needed break to get some headspace. Taking a step back — out of the code — and discussing my progress toward a larger goal helped keep an eye on the destination while seeing new things that needed to be done.

Luckily, my time working alone was short-lived. While it was less than ideal, I was able to make the best of it by leaning on others for collaboration and by consciously managing my time in a more definitive way. I feel proud of the work I did solo, and overall the new challenge prompted me to grow in a new way.