Provoking thought

Focus Mode

Focus Mode
ChatGPT-4o's rendering of a person keeping focus while struggling with distractions (in this case, a cat, apparently)

“So what do you think, Zef?”

Ok, so this is embarrassing.

Even though being present in a meeting and paying undivided attention is one of my virtues, I failed this time. I let myself get distracted by (admittedly hilarious) Slack messages from a colleague. While I shouldn’t have, I engaged, and stopped paying attention to the conversation at hand. And I was caught.

This is exactly what frustrates me when it happens to other people. I have even given people on my team feedback about this exact thing. If you are in a meeting: be present. Ignore Slack. Don’t do other things. When you’re there, be there. It’s only decent.

Yet here we are.

When it happened, I stared at the shared screen, trying to figure if I could reverse engineer the context. I tried to wing it a little bit. This was not one of my finest moments.

Fingers crossed that it won’t happen again, I guess?


I have a clear mental model for human behavior and where it comes from and how it’s shaped. Big reveal: I’m a human myself, so this model applies to me as well. If I want to change my behavior, I have to follow my own rule book.

One of my strategies is to shock the system. One way to do that would publicly admitting a mistake and humiliating myself. Shame, shame! I can combine this with some public accountability on bettering myself. That’s something I’ll remember for sure, so may have the desired effect. Let’s try.

However, I will not let any opportunity slide to play some mind games while at it.

So here’s what we’re going to do: I’m going to write a fake letter to myself, basically attempting to shame myself into becoming a better person.

However, as you read this letter you will likely realize that some of the things I address (or perhaps all of it) apply to you too. Unless you think you’re better than me (this statement is part of the mind game). So, in effect you can read it as feedback toward you, except you’ll be less offended because technically it’s me talking to myself. Are you still following?

And when you come to me mildly frustrated, I’ll be like “hey, I was talking to myself, what are you upset about?”

That’s a like a whole new level of passive aggression right there.

It’s going to be great.

Dear Zef,

As you will remember, the topic of being present in meetings in the presence of screens has been a struggle for you for as long as we have known each other.

It started in the days when meetings still happened in physical meeting rooms. You were always annoyed with people that brought in laptops or smart phones and were clearly answering emails or scrolling Facebook rather than paying attention to what was happening in the room.

In fact, you found it rather offensive. When people do this they seemed to saying: Yeah, I was invited here but really this event is not worthy of my full attention. You even experienced having this happen to you in 1-on-1 settings, while pretending to talk to you, they’d also be reading Slack messages simultaneously. Yowza.

When you brought it up with people, they’d say “well, you know, I can multi task! Also, I have developed a keyword-based alerting system that makes sure that I pay attention when relevant things are discussed.” Those same people would then go on to ask a question during the meeting that was explicitly addressed three minutes earlier.

This confirmed your own experience attempting this. You’d like to think you can multi task, you really can’t. Accept it.

When attempting to raise this issue, you’d hear: everybody is doing it. Which would be true. From engineers, to managers to the CEO. In fact, the higher up, the more likely you’d see this behavior. And leaders set the example, right? So this is ok?

You, always the maverick, decided it’s not. Therefore, a good number of years ago — as you will remember — you decided to start a grass roots campaign.

People would never catch you using a phone in your hand during a meeting. If you had a laptop with you, it would be closed, unless you needed to present something. You’d even bring a physical notebook and a pen for note taking.

Often you’d be the only one in the room without a laptop in front of them. You’d be proud of it. “That’s right, y’all!” you’d implicitly be saying, “I’m just here to listen and participate. Twitter can wait!”

“Oh no!” people would joke, “Zef’s walking around with his blue notebook, you know something’s going down!”

Indeed. People were at risk at being paid attention to. During a meeting, you might even take notes.

Realistically, though, these were write-only notes, because, as you know, you have terrible handwriting.

But it virtue signaled: I hear what you’re saying. I find it worthy of note. Therefore, let us break eye contact, and I’ll use my fancy pen right here to make a note in my blue notebook. Whether I can read that note later is irrelevant.

All was good. Some people even joined you in your quiet revolution.

And then the pandemic hit.

This was a reset. Now everybody was on their computer all the time, dialed into their Zoom or Meet calls. Notifications streaming full stop.

You regressed.

After a few months you made an attempt to fix the focus issue by switching to an iPad full time. iPads have more limited multi-tasking capabilities. Specifically, any moment you’d switch away from a video call, your camera would switch off, so it would be super clear you were doing other stuff. This helped a lot with accountability and remaining focused.

However, iPads have other restrictions and in later jobs, switching back to a “real” laptop with an external screen was unavoidable.

Ultimately, you ended up with the following setup when joining meetings:

  • Slack on your laptop screen on the side
  • Google Meet on the left half of your external monitor
  • Browser or SilverBullet on the right half of your external monitor for looking things up and taking (legible) notes

And the following rules:

  1. When on a call, ignore the laptop screen. That is: no Slack, except when looking up something relevant to the meeting.
  2. The only chat allowed is the in-call chat.
  3. SilverBullet is always open to take notes and tasks. It’s just awesome, useful and the best thing since sliced bread.
  4. The browser window is only used for meeting-supporting purposes, e.g. to look at Miro boards, JIRA boards, Google docs you’re talking about etc.

This setup has served you well.

Sadly this time you failed at sticking to it. I’m very, very disappointed in you Zef. I had high hopes for you.

Even though you may have gotten away with your indiscretion, the next time you will get caught. Because, you know some tricks.

As a reminder, here are some tricks you sometimes use yourself to detect if other people are paying attention in meetings. Note that these could be used against you as well, if they were to leak.

  1. Call on people by name for their input, and see if they’re visibly confused about what you’re talking about. This happened to you. Flag.
  2. Flashing lights on people’s faces. Likely they are actively multi-tasking on their laptop. Flag.
  3. Artificial nodding of heads, but quite out of sync with what is actually being said. Flag.
  4. You say something objectively hilarious, and they’re not laughing. Red flag.

Dear Zef — as you know, I love you. However, you also have flaws. Supposedly. Until we uncover any of them, I’ll just remind you about the importance on focusing during meetings and your rules surrounding them.

It’s the decent thing to do.

Kiss from your biggest fan,