Managing distractions

Development work requires focus. When we can give our entire focus to our work, our productivity tends to increase. But for most people, maintaining that focus can prove quite challenging.

If you’ve done any development work at all, you’ll recognize this pattern:

You’re deeply focused on the problem at hand and are making progress. Someone asks you a question, requiring your focus to shift away for a few minutes. Then, when you return to your task, it can take you five minutes or more to get your head wrapped back around your work well enough to continue.

The gross distractions

No, I’m not talking about Bill from accounting, who always has food stuck in his beard. Gross distractions are co-workers or anything else that comes into your workspace and demands your attention. They announce the arrival of an email that you don’t really need to read. They come from your smart phone in the form of endless social media alerts. They might even be as simple as noises in your environment. Or…maybe Bill stops in to ask if you have any napkins.

We can help curb these distractions by conventional means:

  • Set your phone to silent or perhaps even on airplane mode.
  • Turn off alerts from your email client and instead schedule time to review/answer email.
  • Lock the door to your workspace. If that’s not acceptable, post a sign on the doorpost indicating that, outside of emergencies, you need some privacy to work; Indicate when you’ll be available for visitors.

These are a few common-sense steps, and you don’t need me to list them for you. You already know them, but perhaps you just haven’t tried them yet. Or worse…you don’t want to try them. Maybe you want and need privacy, but you’re too addicted to social media to turn off your phone (while addiction is different issue you’ll need to work through, what follows might help…so please keep reading).

The point is that we know what steps we can take to prevent many of the gross distractions that can interrupt our work. It’s our choice as to how and when they are used. These are simple to resolve just by making the choice to do so.

The subtle distractions

Perhaps more difficult to cure are the subtle distractions. These are the distractions that come from within. They are the thoughts your brain keeps throwing at you all day; the jukebox that keeps playing that same song over and over; the nagging worry that you can’t seem to shake. There is no sign to hang on your door to prevent these distractions.

These are the thoughts, the “voice” inside your head, that seem to throw random things into the focus of your consciousness. Sometimes they’re related to what you’re doing and are helpful. But often they are random notions, memories of a past event, concerns of an imagined future event, or maybe that dreaded “ear worm” song that just won’t go away.

These subtle distractions can also be the source of gross distractions. Why do you pick up your phone and check Twitter or Instagram in the first place? And the next moment, “oh, better check my email” pops into the foreground of your mind. This happens because the thought to do so, your addictive urge, just “comes” to you.

Thinking about thoughts

Where do these thoughts come from? Some ancient traditions point us toward a possible answer to this. While the full explanation is too involved for this post, I’ll at least go over the basics. First, let’s try an experiment.

Find a quiet place to sit and set a timer for one minute (maybe on your smart phone, where you’ve also turned on airplane mode). Decide—and tell yourself this—that for the next 60 seconds, you will clear your mind of all thought. Nothing will cloud your mind at all. Consider it a mini-vacation, a quick trip into the peaceful bliss of quiet “not thinking.”

You can stop when one of two things happen: either the timer sounds or you realize that you’re thinking about something. If that happens, note how much time elapses.

Go ahead and try it now.

How did it go? It might surprise you how short a time you can actually avoid thoughts. You might have even become so quickly lost in your thoughts that you didn’t even realize you were doing it. Our thoughts have a way of just “taking over.”

Studies indicate that we have anywhere between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts each day (and as the majority tend to be negative thoughts, we would benefit from taming them). Let’s do the math:

Let’s say (optimistically) that you get seven hours of sleep. That leaves 17 hours for conscious thought. On the low end of the spectrum (12,000 thoughts/day) that equals 11.7 thoughts per minute. Completely believable, given our experiment, right? At the high end…well, let’s allow our dream experiences to count in there as well and calculate across 24 hours. That gives us up to 41.6 thoughts per minute. It’s no wonder we become mentally exhausted!

Just sticking to the low-end averages, your attempted one-minute mental vacay might have been as short as five seconds. But with intention to not think, surely it should last a bit longer.

(By the way…if you’ve read this far, please let me know in the comments how long your experiment lasted, and we’ll conduct our own unscientific data collection.)

What’s the point to take away from this? Even with intention—with you deciding that you will not think any thoughts for a few minutes—you can’t seem to do so. Why is this?

I hear voices in my head…

One explanation from the Eastern traditions is that you—the true you, the true Self, often called consciousness—are not your thoughts. If you (the Self) were the one controlling your thoughts, then you could, well…actually control them. But instead, your thoughts seem to run roughshod over you all day—and perhaps through the night!

The implication here is an apparent separation of you (the Self) and the incessant thought machine that is your brain. If you think about your brain as what it is, an organ of your body, you can see that it operates in the same way as your other organs do. Just the same way your heart pumps blood and your stomach digests food, your brain performs its basic functions; among other things, it produces thoughts and translates sense perceptions. You don’t need to “do” anything for this to naturally happen.

Note: What follows is one of several models of human consciousness. I use it here, not as cognitive science or a comment on the hard problem of consciousness, but as a common metaphor for our experience of thoughts. I also present a common dualistic conception of existence. While it’s useful to make the point, I personally believe it’s just a first step toward a non-dualist conception of existence. But that is beyond the scope of this post.

The mental landscape

Your brain takes in sensory input and presents it to your consciousness in the form of experiences of the external world. Your brain also takes the mix of knowledge, experience, worldview, desires, fears, biases, etc. to produce thoughts. These thoughts come before our consciousness most often in a “verbalized” form that seem to speak to us from within. We can also experience an audio/visual scene in the form of “daydreaming.”

But rather than thinking of ourselves as an apparently separate consciousness that interacts with our human body, we instead think the “me” we identify with is just something that exists in our head, somewhere roughly between the eyes.

Here’s a fun visual from the movie Men In Black. It depicts a separate consciousness working with and through the machinations of a human body. For this metaphor to fit the current topic, the alien would have to forget that he’s a little creature operating a machine.

Where the Self and the brain “meet,” we call the mind. That concept isn’t really too far fetched. Even in our language, we say that a thought “just came to mind.” Just think of the brain as where the data is pulled from the physical goo of memory and senses and then presented on the screen of the mind. Our consciousness (Self) is that which watches the interactive display, the activity of the mind.

If you’re still with me, and you at least see that it’s possible that you are not your thoughts, that they might come from a more basic, physical/mental construct separate from the “real” you (the Self)…then we have a basis for claiming control over our own mental space.

Eliminating distractions from within through meditation

One effective way we can begin to quiet our mind is through meditation. If you don’t like that term because of religious convictions, you can think of it as contemplative prayer. Either way, it gives us a framework for taming the landscape of the mind.

More valid than quickly-formed opinions about meditation is the direct experience I—and millions of other people—have had with it. I urge you to try it as well. To paraphrase the Buddha: don’t just take my word for it…try it yourself!

While this post is ultimately about the good that can come from meditation, I hesitate to provide any specific guidance on how to meditate. There are many different techniques to do so, and many resources available to you online.

Short of giving any direct guidance, I would just suggest that you begin with a meditation technique that focuses on your breath. You don’t have to buy any program or need any equipment to do this. You just sit comfortably, close your eyes, and focus on your breath going in and out. When your mind wanders—and it will—just notice the thought, let it go, and gently bring your attention back to the breath.

When you find a meditation resource you like, please try it daily for at least two weeks. Give yourself time to see the results. The first few attempts at meditation can often be more frustrating than relaxing. As you saw in the experiment, it’s a difficult task to quiet the mind. This process is like taming a wild animal. Don’t try to “force” thoughts from your mind. Just notice them when they arise and then let them go again.

As meditation becomes a regular part of your day, you’ll begin to look forward to it. You’ll also notice that the serenity that eventually comes from meditation begins to filter into the rest of your life as well. As developers, the primary benefits (but not the only ones) are a quieter mind, sharper focus, and an ability to better handle stressful situations.

Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?

Lao Tzu – Tao Te Ching
Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay