Focus

Link post

One of the things I have the hard­est time with is fo­cus. I have times when fo­cus comes eas­ily, and I get a week’s worth of work done in hours, come up with ideas that need sus­tained think­ing, write blog posts that have been bounc­ing around my head for years. Other times my at­ten­tion is flighty, and I have to strug­gle to keep my­self from find­ing low-in­vest­ment sources of en­ter­tain­ment.

The biggest com­po­nent of this is how ex­cited I am. When I re­ally get into some­thing, that’s when fo­cus comes eas­ily. I re­cently finished a pro­ject at work where I was build­ing some­thing that dra­mat­i­cally im­proved some­thing the team had found frus­trat­ing for years. I could see where I wanted it to go, and I was ex­cited enough that when I ran into is­sues I pushed at it un­til I had good solu­tions for them. The bass whis­tle pro­ject was an­other one like this, where I couldn’t think of any­thing else for about a week, un­til I had some­thing coded up and work­ing. I didn’t need to make my­self fo­cus, I needed to make my­self do the rest of my life.

A lot of other fac­tors mat­ter, but are me­di­ated by ex­cite­ment. Short iter­a­tion cy­cles, where I can quickly find out whether some­thing worked, are so im­por­tant to me be­cause they keep the ex­cite­ment from drain­ing away. Do­ing some­thing no one has done be­fore, that a lot of peo­ple are go­ing to like, that needs do­ing ur­gently, or that I’ve been think­ing about for a long time all help, but mostly be­cause those are ex­cit­ing things.

In-per­son col­lab­o­ra­tion also helps, in at least two ways. When I’m work­ing with some­one, talk­ing to them di­rectly, it feels like ideas flow much bet­ter. It’s most fun when we have com­ple­men­tary skills, each filling in for and learn­ing from the other, but even when the other per­son is in­ex­pe­rienced it still helps to have an­other per­son’s worth of work­ing mem­ory. And then if I’m work­ing one-on-one with some­one I can’t re­spond to brief road­blocks by let­ting my­self get dis­tracted.

There’s also a com­po­nent of men­tal pat­terns: if I’m in the habit of tab­bing over to Face­book I’ll fall out of fo­cus more eas­ily. [1] The hard part for me is that I’m of­ten do­ing work that is full of short breaks that should be fine to fill: wait­ing for com­piles, for queries, for tests. This means that when I’ve tried to make my­self rules like “no dis­trac­tion ac­tivi­ties” I ei­ther get bored enough wait­ing for things that I can’t stick to the rule, or I learn how to turn some pre­vi­ously fine ac­tivity into a di­ver­sion. The feel­ing of “I can’t make progress right now, let’s dis­tract” is shared be­tween “my code’s com­piling”, where wait­ing will help, and “this prob­lem is hard”, where wait­ing (mostly) won’t. How well I’m able to dis­t­in­guish these in the mo­ment varies, how­ever, and I’m not all that good at it. This also means that if I’m do­ing a kind of work that lends it­self to un­bro­ken effort (wash­ing dishes, fram­ing a wall, cod­ing some­thing that’s fully in my head) then I’m much more likely to just work un­til I’m done.

There are also kinds of work where I need to be in a very dis­trac­tion-prone mind­set. Anal­y­sis is of­ten like this for me, where I re­lax my bar­rier be­tween hav­ing an idea and try­ing it. Some­times this leads me to ex­plore as­pects of a prob­lem that are re­ally promis­ing, and other times it leads me to ex­plore the his­tory of bi-level rail­cars. You would think this would be very easy to reign in, and it is for me when I’m ex­cited about the anal­y­sis, but my ex­cite­ment can go off in pretty ran­dom di­rec­tions.

Another as­pect is that when I have some­thing I have to do that I’m just not ex­cited about, it’s re­ally hard to get my­self to do it. I do have strate­gies, like sit­ting down with just a piece of pa­per or a sin­gle browser tab and tel­ling my­self I can’t get up un­til I’ve hit some crite­ria, but it goes very slowly and is very un­pleas­ant. Some­times leav­ing tasks like this un­til I do get ex­cited about them helps, but not if I never end up feel­ing that way.

In the other di­rec­tion, I’ve done some of my best work while dis­tracted from some­thing else that I was sup­posed to be do­ing: my sense of what’s ex­cit­ing some­times gets at some­thing my con­scious pri­ori­ti­za­tion doesn’t. Ad­di­tion­ally, “do­ing things when I’m ex­cited about them” of­ten means “do things when they’re most tractable”. I’m ner­vous about break­ing some­thing that over­all has out­comes I like.

Some of this feels like what Con­stantin de­scribes in The Costs of Reli­a­bil­ity. The whole post is good, but in par­tic­u­lar: “peo­ple given an open-ended man­date to do what they like can be far more effi­cient than peo­ple work­ing to spec… at the cost of un­pre­dictable out­put with no guaran­tees of get­ting what you need when you need it”.

There’s also a lot that res­onates in Gra­ham’s Dis­con­nect­ing Dis­trac­tion, in­clud­ing “Another rea­son it was hard to no­tice the dan­ger of this new type of dis­trac­tion was that so­cial cus­toms hadn’t yet caught up with it. If I’d spent a whole morn­ing sit­ting on a sofa watch­ing TV, I’d have no­ticed very quickly. That’s a known dan­ger sign, like drink­ing alone. But us­ing the In­ter­net still looked and felt a lot like work.” Time holes and cul­ture of han­dling them are both evolv­ing, and figur­ing out how to keep from fal­ling into them in­volves con­stantly learn­ing how to tell good from bad uses.

Over­all, this both is and isn’t a big prob­lem for me. It isn’t, in that I am of­ten very fo­cused and get a lot done, at work and at home. It is, in a sense of op­por­tu­nity cost: pos­si­bly I could be do­ing a lot more if I were able to fo­cus more by ei­ther (a) in­fluenc­ing my ex­cite­ment or (b) do­ing im­por­tant things with­out ex­cite­ment.

I ini­tially wrote this as a “here’s where I am” post, but reread­ing it I do have a few ideas:

  • Put­ting more effort into rec­og­niz­ing the cases where “wait a bit” will help me make progress

  • Bring a book to work to read dur­ing times when wait­ing re­ally is the best next step, since it’s both much less ad­dic­tive than a digi­tal de­vice and bet­ter un­der­stood.

  • Spend­ing more time work­ing di­rectly with oth­ers.


[1] A strong cor­re­late for this with me is, if I put a piece of choco­late in my mouth, do I chew it or am I able to wait and en­joy it slowly? And, weirdly, this seems to still give sig­nal even though I now use it for self-eval­u­a­tion.

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