War Against Distractions

Recently I was checking my LinkedIn feed and I came across a post by TED, it had a small video about how our brain works, how we are more creative when we are bored and how multitasking is impossible for humans (entire TED talk here). What cached my attention over this talk was this sentence:

A decade ago we switched our our attention at work every 3 minutes, now we do it every 45 seconds.

Few days latter I came across this tweet from one of the programmers that I admire, Casey Muratori:


You probably already know what cached my attention in this one. When I saw this tweet I decided to write this post, because I used to be that kind of worker 🙂

“slack” – what employees open when they don’t want to do actual work

I used to be that kind of worker

Around half a year ago I had a period when I felt under productive, I couldn’t focus. For a while, I thought it was because I didn’t like the tasks I was working on, but (spoiler alert) it turned out that wasn’t the issue.

While programming, each time I found something I didn’t have clear how to approach, I was running away from it! Instead of tackling the hard problem I was distracting myself by doing other activities like checking email or answering questions from people on groups. By the end of the day, I felt “good” because what I did was work related, but still, the progress on my main (programming) task was very small.

The way I had setup my PC wasn’t helping me, I always had the web browser opened with Gmail, messaging app and other potentially distracting webpages. It was very easy for me to achieve my subconscious goal of not tackling the programming problem I was facing, I just had to Ctrl+Tab in order to get rid of it for several minutes until all distractions where over.

It was very easy for me to achieve my subconscious goal of not tackling the real programming problem.

After wiping out all distractions I had lost all the context of the initial programming obstacle and loading all the data on my brain to continue working on it felt so hard that it just made me feel like going back to easy email reading and talking to people again.

When I broke this loop I didn’t only start feeling productive again, I also felt much better because I was aware of how I was using my time to accomplish more.

Starting the “War against distractions”

I decided to have only the essential programs to accomplish my job as a programmer, Visual Studio and PowerShell. Nothing more, no email, no web browser, no instant messaging app… Nothing was left between me and the code.

With this setup surrendering to distractions takes more time, I have to open the web browser, that time is key to stop myself and remembering that I should focus on coding. I only allow myself to open web browser or message apps when I have reached a small milestone inside my task, this way I make sure I always do some progress during the day instead of just getting distracted once and again.

I also adopted few practices from the book Make Time, here are the ones I find most useful:

  • Check email once a day.
  • Skip the morning check-in: don’t check email on the morning, it might consume half an hour or more and then switching to programming might be harder because tons of other topics not related with my programming task already went through my mind.
  • Clear your homescreen: Don’t have pinned tabs in the browser and make sure each time I open it doesn’t have any “unexpected” distraction (i.e. If I want to search something related to programming I don’t want email to be the first thing I see when I open the browser).

Surprise, surprise, all related to email… I realized that for me is one of the main energy consuming activities. Each email is usually about a different topic, reading, digesting and answering takes some time and brain power. I see each of them as an information bomb, dealing with one is easy, two might also be okay, but most of the times there are much more and they sometimes drain my energy.

Now you might have some of these thoughts wandering your mind:

But… answering emails is part of your work…

Yes, that’s true. In general, I check email first thing in the morning and that’s it for the day – I don’t allow myself to get distracted with it again. (I’m considering moving it to the last activity of the day).

But… what if the email is important?

99.99% of the time, emails can wait for one day in your inbox. If something is important you will get some instant message – or if is very very important your lead/producer will spawn next to you to discuss it in person, because is important.

But… you said you also have instant message app closed… and people might be talking to you asking for help…

Yes, that’s true. I have few notifications enabled, to know when someone is asking for help. But my rule of thumb is to first I finish what I’m doing and then get distracted with the new topic.

There are exceptions to these rules, sometimes I check email twice a day; I answer to instant messages instantly because I know I’m not “trying to distract myself”; etc.

I’m no longer that kind of worker

For a long time now I feel I’m more focused on what I have to do at work. When I get stuck on my task I just allow myself to be bored until I find a solution to my problem. Now I find it harder to get distracted from what I’m doing, even while working on this post, I have my phone next to me and Firefox open but I didn’t even try distracting myself by checking social media or searching cute cat videos on youtube.

I’m not sure if I’ve learned to focus better or I just stopped exercising my “distraction” muscle and now is so weak it doesn’t have enough strength to un-focus me.

P.S.: Yes, I have to admit it, I clicked on one of those cat videos when I went to copy the link, but no shame, no blame, that’s the exception that proves the rule 🙂

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