Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Leaning Into Distractibility

Some days, I'm able to focus for hours without distraction, getting my head completely into the problem I'm working on, and nothing short of the building collapsing will pull me out of it.

Other days, the slightest passing thought or noise distracts me, and I'm constantly checking my email, opening news sites or blogs in new tabs, and getting up to get snacks or drinks.

Today was one of those distractible days. After watching the inauguration in the morning, my mind was abuzz with thoughts about politics, the economy, the future... pretty much anything but work.

I've tried a few mechanisms for dealing with days like this, before finally landing on one that seems to work and results in me still getting things done. I've tried to power through it, and work on exactly what I otherwise would have worked on, but distractions pop me out of my mental constructions, and I have difficulty solving big problems. I've tried leaving work for some time to allow myself to be distracted, but this almost never results in a quick return to productivity.

The final approach, which I used today, is to take advantage of the distractibility to deal with all of the small niggling tasks that have been building up over time. Tiny and annoying tasks lend themselves to distraction regardless of mood. There is a natural breath after the completion of any task, so even when feeling focused, a series of small tasks lends itself to more interruption and wasted time than a single larger task. When I'm in a distractible mood, I'm going to be wasting that time anyway, so its an ideal time to get rid of these annoyances without detracting from what I could be getting done.

So instead of making progress on my larger tasks, today I spent my time on a myriad of small tasks. I investigated a number of reports from our support team, fixed a few bugs I found with that, refactored some controller logic for our Birthday Cause feature to make it easier to reorder pages in various flows, merged in a lingering branch of cleanup from our last fixit day, and made a number of other small tweaks, fixes, etc.

None of these was very big, none of them very interesting, but all needed to get done at some point. By leaning into my distractibility instead of fighting with it, instead of a wasted day I'm going home with a list of things I no longer need to worry about.

Cross-posted from my company's engineering blog: code.causes.com

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