Home Office & Focus: Interview With Dr. César Urbina-Blanco
Jul 14, 2023 by Vreny Blanco · 8 min read · Interviews
Finding focus and maximizing productivity can be a constant challenge. Whether you’re a student, a writer, or a professional who works primarily on a computer, staying on top of your game can often feel like an uphill battle, especially for those who work from home. Which is why we asked Dr. César Alejandro Urbina-Blanco, a renowned Venezuelan Ph.D. in Chemistry, for his perspective on the subject.
Dr. Urbina-Blanco was named one of the 28 chemists to follow on Twitter (@Cesapo) and a Future Leader of Chemistry by the American Chemical Society. At age 36, he has achieved remarkable success and has received prestigious awards and recognition throughout his career.
In this interview, he shares his personal tips, strategies, and insights for maintaining focus and increasing productivity while working from home. You will gain practical guidance and inspiration for your own personal and professional journey.
Let’s get started!
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m originally from Venezuela and have a Ph.D. in Catalysis and Organometallic Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
I’m currently working as a Business Developer at Sunthetics, a company dedicated to optimizing chemical reactions, processes and formulations using advanced machine learning algorithms. It is amazing to be able to say that what I do – the company I work for – is actually changing the chemical industry. We work with the world’s top pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies, and they are using our technology to streamline their optimization process and be able to make medicines and cosmetics faster, smarter and more sustainable.
I also run a personal blog about chemistry and cooking and host a podcast about carbon capture, utilization & storage.
I love to travel and I have lived in many countries: including Venezuela, Scotland, Spain, Italy, Germany, USA and currently Belgium.
I work exclusively from home.
How do you stay focused and productive while working from home?
I found that since I started working from home and my routine has changed, I had to be more careful and more mindful of my time. If I do not plan ahead what I am going to do, I can end up feeling like I have wasted my whole day and accomplished nothing.
How do I stay focused and productive? I plan my day in advance and set aside specific blocks of time for focused work. I find that if I really want to get something done, I have to block out time in my calendar and say things like, “I need to work on this task from this time to this time,” and I don’t take any calls or meetings during that time.
How do you deal with distractions?
I put my phone away.
My main problem is with emails, there are always emails coming in and it is very hard not to check them all the time. So when I know I need maximum concentration, I turn off all notifications on my email and phone and then I can get to work.
The thing is, because my job requires me to communicate with a lot of people in different time zones, I have to leave notifications on most of the time. One thing I have found that helps me a lot is to set up an important email filter so that I only get notifications for important emails.
If I have family at home, I tell them that during working hours I should not be interrupted. I have an office at home where I can work, so they know I am busy when I am there.
Since we cannot really multitask, trying to do multiple things at once just slows you down. If I want to be efficient and avoid distractions, I avoid everything. I don’t listen to music, I just focus on the work.
Do you use any time management techniques?
I do the most tedious task first thing in the morning. I learned a technique in a course that categorizes tasks as “rabbits” (easy or fun) and “elephants” (slow and boring).
So after I wake up, I check my calendar, see what I have to do during the day, what meetings or appointments do I have, do I have to be/go somewhere? Once I know what my day is going to be about, I divide my tasks into rabbits and elephants.
By focusing on the most challenging tasks first thing in the morning, I am able to spend the rest of the day working on the other projects I really enjoy.
How do you manage to work when you are unmotivated?
If I want to motivate myself when I am doing something that I do not like but I really have to do, I put on a Taylor Swift song and sing along. (“I can see you” and “Electric touch” are my current favorites). It might take me longer, but it is the only way I can get through it.
Writer’s Note: Interestingly, Dr. Urbina-Blanco shared that his musical training poses a unique challenge when it comes to staying focused. He explained: Even if there are no lyrics, I can still understand the notes.
Before coming to Europe, Dr. Urbina-Blanco played the viola in an orchestra in Venezuela for about 10 years. Today, he continues to pursue his passion for music by playing the ukulele, cuatro and piano. He is also an active member of a choir in Belgium.
Dr. Urbina-Blanco emphasized that while music serves as a powerful motivator in his work, its impact on his focus depends on the nature of the task at hand.
When precision and intense concentration are required, he finds it best to avoid all distractions, including music. However, for tasks that are less demanding and more repetitive, he finds music to be the perfect medicine to help him stay engaged and motivated.
What do you do for fun?
I enjoy cooking, listening to music (especially Taylor Swift), going to the gym, and walking with a friend and his adorable dog.
I value face-to-face interactions. Since most of my interactions with colleagues are online, I look for opportunities to spend time with friends and find a balance between my work and personal life.
What do you think is the key to success?
Time is our most valuable resource. It’s the only thing you can’t get back. One of the things that makes my company so valuable is that we can save time in the optimization process. You can do something up to 15 times faster using machine learning. You should apply this principle of doing things faster to yourself too.
If you want to be good at work, if you want to be productive, the thing that allows you to do tasks not only faster, but better is focus. Focus is the key to success. Focus is incredibly important because the time you spend on your work, if you are focused, is time spent properly.
Time should be used wisely. Ask yourself, what do you want to do with your life? What makes you happy? Do you want to waste time or not? And use your time accordingly.
Tips to Remember
Our interview with Dr. Urbina-Blanco taught us valuable strategies for maintaining focus and maximizing productivity while working from home:
- Establish a daily morning routine and plan your day ahead.
- Prioritize and manage your time.
- Identify your most important tasks and set aside specific blocks of time for focused work.
- Do your most important/tedious task first.
- Eliminate distractions during focused work.
- Use a website/app blocker like 1Focus to block social media and other distracting, time-consuming content (YouTube, Netflix, Twitter, text messages, email, etc).
- Focus on one thing.
- Talk to family members/roommates and let them know when you cannot be disturbed, and set boundaries.
- Find out what motivates you when you do not feel like doing the work.
- Find a balance between work and relaxation.
We can effectively balance our personal and professional lives by carefully planning, prioritizing, and creating a structured routine.
We would like to thank Dr. César Alejandro Urbina-Blancofor his valuable insights and advice on productivity.
Dr. Urbina-Blanco, Awards:
- 2019: Senior FWO PostDoctoral Researcher. Flemish Research Foundation.
- 2018: CAS SciFinder® Future Leader, 2018. CAS Division, American Chemical Society.
- 2018: Seal of Excellence for the 2017-2018 Marie Sklodowska-Curie actions. European Union.
- 2017: Chemist to Follow. Chemical & Engineering News, American Chemical Society.
- 2012: GRADSkill Innovation Grant and Russell Trust Award.University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Scotland.
- 2003: Bronze Medal & Special Award for the Best Practical Test. XXXV International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO), Athens, Greece.
- 2002: Bronze medal. 7th Iberoamerican Chemistry Olympiad, Mar del Plata, Argentina.