So You’ve Got Attention Issues?

Do you know the feeling you get 2ms after you just convinced yourself that it’s ok to check the news while you’re

  1. waiting for your code to compile
  2. just about to switch tasks
  3. stuck in a problem
  4. starting up your IDE/environment/application etc…

It’s that procrastinating feeling, right?

The thing you do because it postpones something else that you can’t handle right now. To overcome the guilt you ensure yourself that you’ve got the power to break the cycle at any point in time, but that’s not necessary right now because you can handle it…knowing that I can always pick up work 24 hours a day (if I leave my workstation turned on when I go home that is), I can ease a little at times and multitask during day hours.

Having been in and out of this evil cycle from time to time, I’ve been trying to work out systems which could help me break bad habits, reading several books such as:

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning

Mind Performance Hacks

Mind Performance Hacks

Skimming these books (yes..I know…attention issues), hasn’t helped me sufficiently in this inner battle. Although the temptation to slack is reduced when you’re working with a task that really triggers your interest, the tendency to try and multitask will creep up on you in an increasing number of aspects in your life. Perhaps you’ll find yourself checking email during breakfast with your family, bringing more books on vacation than you’ll ever find time to read, rarely spending an evening doing absolutely nothing because you feel guilty about not utilizing the time to learn something new.

Eventually I think I’ve come to terms with this feeling, knowing there are always new topics to dive into, new books to read and new technologies to familiarize myself with. I’ve often wondered what factors determine the learning capabilities of an individual. Generally I believe that we are all capable of learning (almost) everything, we just have very different ways of doing so. I finally found what I was looking for in this blog post about developer inadequacy.

Some of the stress I believe is imposed by our constant connectedness which feeds us immense amounts of information and impressions, I end up assuming that a normal person has time to take care of their family while both creating an identity as tech-guru, a hard working determined career and naturally having a plethora of rewarding spare time activities.

Finding a ‘diagnose’

Recently I stumbled across an interesting article in one of the papers I subscribe to. This article debated an increasing known symptom of our time which Dr. Edward Hallowell, had coined as ‘Attention Deficit Trait‘. ).

Basically the vast amounts of inputs, opportunities and available distractions gradually wreaks our brain, or dulls it. So we become increasingly impatient, impulsive and restless, which evidently affects our effectiveness and leads us to underachieve in our job and probably other parts of life as well.

When people find that they’re not working to their full potential; when they know that they could be producing more but in fact they’re producing less; when they know they’re smarter than their output shows; when they start answering questions in ways that are more superficial, more hurried than they usually would; when their reservoir of new ideas starts to run dry. 

Dr. Hallowel

Either this is the usual coach/therapist mumbo-jumbo telling us that we’re all near unlimited potential…all we need is to live by their patented model, or is the reason I’m getting cautious that he actually points to some of my everyday frustrations?

Where is the medicine at?

You have probably heard of Stephen Coveys book ’7 habits of highly effective people’? The title alone seemed appealing to me by it’s alluring promise that if I could master these habits, my efficiency would soar and perhaps I could then realise all these professional fantasies.

Post-reading this book, I’ve adjusted by hopes a little (basically it’s the same feeling you’ve probably had as a kid when you finally got that propeller hat…and it didn’t make you fly).

One of the most useful habits/techniques I did find the book was described in Covey’s 3rd habit; ‘Put first things first’, in his Time Management Matrix which quantifies how we spend time into four quadrants:

Quadrant 1: Important & Urgent

Quadrant 2: Important & Not Urgent

Quadrant 3: Not Important & Not Urgent

Quadrant 4: Not important & Not Urgent

If you’re good at time management, you’ll do the stuff that can be placed in Quadrant #2, namely the stuff which is important but not urgent, e.g. stuff that prevents future issues, instead of running around stressing about putting local fires out.

Another method that is gaining popularity is the Pomodoro Technique developed by Francesco Cirillo (there’s a free ebook available at his website). He developed this technique in the early 90ties, but during the last year or so it has started hitting the blogs quite extensively. The ebook starts by outlining two aspects on time:

  • Becoming; The linearity and volatile nature of time which yields this feeling of time as it being something which inevitably slips through our fingers.
  • Time as a succession of events; we don’t necessarily measure all events in quantified time, but instead by what the event is (eating, shopping, washing the car etc etc).

So…what is the Pomodoro technique…well basically it’s just time boxing work to focus on a specific task. The cookbook for the method is as follows:

  1. Choose a task to be accomplished
  2. Set the Pomodoro(typically a tomato shaped kitchen timer…) to 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task at hand until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper
  4. Take a short break (3-5 minutes)
  5. Repeat the cycle, but take a longer break every 4th cycle.

Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro technique is founded on three basic assumptions:

  1. It’s a different way of seeing time as it reduces the focus of the Becoming aspect of time. This alleviates the anxiety of loosing time…which should improve effectiveness instead.
  2. It gives better use of the mind as the focusedness gives us more clarity and self discipline.
  3. It’s fairly simple…thus you don’t need a lot of fancy stuff to use it.

I’m going to try this out in the next couple of weeks, we’ve got a crazy time schedule at work, so if  this helps I’m definitely on the Pomodoro advocate team :-)

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