Fight Focus with Atomic Work

jbranchaud profile image Josh Branchaud ・3 min read

There are moments when I feel like I have incredible focus. Sometimes it is because I had a great night's sleep or I dialed in my caffeine-level just right. The time of day can play a factor. Days with few meetings where I can set aside big blocks of time help. And sometimes none of that matters, and I find myself struggling to keep focus. As much as we try to control it, our capacity to focus can vary drastically.

Rather than fighting it or attempting to get all the variables right, I use this one trick to get work done despite my capacity to focus.

I break up what I need to do into atomic work.

Each of these atomic pieces of work is the smallest thing it would take to have accomplished something. This allows me to get something done sooner. It allows me to get more things done. It creates a sense of momentum and sets me up for success.

Here is a contrived example of what that could look like. I might be tasked with doing laundry.

First, I want to clarify any ambiguities or assumptions in the task to make sure I know what is expected. So I might ask, "Is it just one load of laundry that needs doing?" Or I might ask, "Are there any items that have special washing or drying instructions?" Let's say I find out that it is just one load of laundry and there are no special instructions.

Next, I like to break down the work into incremental pieces. Though do a load of laundry might sound like the smallest piece of work, I'd argue there is a better subset of tasks. The first is to wash the load of laundry, the second is to dry the load of laundry, and the third is to fold the load of laundry. Each of these things is a discrete task that can be completed. We can get the sense of accomplishment as we check off each one from our task list.

Again, this is a bit contrived, but I think it is instructional. Imagine we are able to wash and dry the clothes, but something unexpected comes up that prevents us from folding them. If we stuck with the original single task, we would get to the end of the day without having completed our task of do a load of laundry. This can leave us feeling frustrated, like we have nothing to show for our day.

On the other hand, with the three broken down tasks, we would get to the end of the day being able to say we completed wash the load of laundry and dry the load of laundry. Plus, we are set up with a very achievable task of fold the load of laundry for tomorrow. We have something to show for our day and we are set up for success tomorrow with a momentum building task.

So, how does this apply to knowledge and creative work? Doing these atomic pieces of work requires much smaller spans of focus. The default-sized chunks of work that we tend to get are a potential trap. It is easy to get bogged down in the middle of that slightly larger task as it cuts away at your morale and zaps your energy.

An equivalent amount of work cut down into atomic pieces presents a much different situation. You move from task to task building confidence, sometimes even gaining energy as you go. These smaller tasks don't just align with your capacity to focus, they help create a sense of momentum.

Creating a sense of momentum remains the very best way I know to enable long term sustainable delivery.
-Elisabeth Hendrickson, Momentum > Urgency

And sometimes as you're thinking through how to breakdown a task, you find an opportunity for a tiny win. A tiny win is a standalone change that is low effort and high impact.

Stop fighting your focus, instead create momentum and set yourself up for success by breaking down your tasks into atomic work.


For software developers, having your tasks broken down into atomic work makes it easier to create atomic commits, which has its own benefits.

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Josh Branchaud


I'm a developer and consultant focused primarily on the web, specializing in React, Ruby on Rails, and PostgreSQL. Newsletter: https://tinyletter.com/jbranchaud


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