Battling Disinterest and Distraction

Have you ever found yourself in a place where you’re having difficulty focussing on work and genuinely being interested in the work that you have in front of you? I’ve definitely been in this place, even recently. It can be incredibly frustrating because of the nature of my work deals with having to meet deadlines, which is really hard to do if you just don’t want to do the work. In the morning I have a ritual where I put on a portion of a podcast and brew my coffee. Luckily for me, this morning’s podcast happened to an episode of Developer Tea that addresses this very subject. Jonathan’s talking points resonated with me so I wanted to reiterate them here.

Work in bursts

As it turns out we as humans now have the shortest attention span that we’ve ever had. To directly combat this you can shorten your work sessions to short but focussed bursts. I’ve been trying this out lately and it really does work. Some might say that the Pomodoro technique, a technique where you work in 25 minute intervals with a 5 minute break between, is one of the best ways to get into this habit. I’ve given it a shot in the past and I find that 25 minutes is not enough for me to get into the right mindset. Recently I listened to the Design Details featuring Adam Morse (a.k.a mrmrs) and he mentions a practice called Time Boxing. From what I understand Time Boxing has been around a lot longer, but essentially it’s the same idea — you get an idea in your mind on what you’re needing to do and then you set a timer. While that timer is running you do nothing else (within reason I suppose). I’ve been using this technique for maybe a week now and I can honestly say that it works for me. It also applies to more than just work! I’ve been applying it towards reading and guitar practice as well.

For me the timer on my Apple Watch works great for this, but I’ve also been using an app called Tadam that’s perfectly suited for time boxing.

Exercise regularly

When I was younger I was fairly athletic and was involved with Football, Wrestling, and Baseball throughout grade and high school. Even throughout college I stayed in the gym and maintained a pretty regular workout schedule. When I started traveling full time as a musician I was always in a bus or a van and wasn’t able to stay on top of my exercise routines. To compound that, I was really diving into programming so I spent what free time I did have in front of a computer drinking a coffee. Fast forward a few years later and I’ve now been programming full time for a couple years. I’ve noticeably put on a few pounds and I feel like I’m also fresh out of energy.

I’ve always heard that exercise has a direct impact on energy levels, but a few weeks ago I decided to do something about my physical condition. Now I’m not a complete couch potato as I don’t have a car and ride a bike everywhere I need to go as well as surf a couple times a week, but that amount of exercise doesn’t cut it. I’m not totally sure how I found out about Freeletics, but I decided to give it a shot. If you’re unfamiliar. Freeletics is a collection of high intensity body weight workouts. The first week was terrible — I was tired, sore, and incredibly hungry but I stuck with it anyway. I’m on my 4th week now and I can honestly say that consistent exercise works. I wake up in the morning wide awake, I’m drinking less coffee, eating healthier, and more importantly I’m able to focus on tasks for a longer period of time.

Treat distractions with hostility

Distractions are actually the enemy of productivity and deadlines and as such we should treat them with hostility. This is something I’m really bad at. I actually feel bad if I see a text/slack notification pop up and ignore it, and I find myself compulsively checking In his podcast, Jonathan mentions an app called Focus that will block websites like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit for a specified amount of time. Like Jonathan, most of the time I don’t actually want to read Hacker News, I just have a habit of typing that URL into chrome and hitting enter. I’m going to give focus a shot and report back on the result.

Practice focus and meditation

The last point that Jonathan touched on was practicing focus and meditation. As I mentioned before, we as humans have incredibly short attention spans. The good news though is that this is a skill that we can actually practice and improve upon. One suggestion that Jonathan gives is at least a few times a week try reading a long form article — something that’s longer then the average top 15 Buzzfeed list. Not only does this help with practicing focus, but it will help with being able to think in depth about one thing for longer than just a few minutes. A suggestion I can add to this is to pick up an instrument! I try to practice my guitar for at least 45 minutes every day. During that 45 minutes I’m not watching YouTube or Netflix, I’m only focusing in my technique and getting better. Learning and instrument also has the added benefit of teaching you how to deal with patience and frustration. But trust me, it’s worth it!