Friday, 11 June 2010

How I'm Developing My Focus

There have been days when I have spent an inordinate amount of time browsing the internet, watching movies and reading electronic books. While I have enjoyed doing these things, I wanted to focus more when I'm working and to have more time for other things. Progress in my field is difficult to gauge and distractions throughout my working day can be quite de-motivating.

After reading articles on focusing by Scott Scheper and Paul Graham, I decided to work on removing distractions and changing the way that I interacted with those that I couldn't. Note that it's not about stopping what I enjoy doing. It's about changing the way, when and how long I do them.

First, I removed all distracting programs from my work computer including internet browsers, video players, audio players, and file sharers. For me that meant removing Firefox, Internet Explorer, VLC, Windows Media Player, iTunes and uTorrent. Unfortunately removing Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player required additional software. Luckily, I had invested in a copy of XPLite a while ago. However, while I could stop Internet Explorer from accessing the internet and from properly opening local files, I couldn't remove Internet Explorer completely.

I then removed all video, audio, book and comic book files from my work machines and copied them onto DVD's. I recommend getting a portable or external hard disk and moving all your files.

At home, I disconnected my work computer in my study from the internet. I then prepared a laptop with wireless internet access, an internet browser, and an audio player. I then placed this laptop in the living room.

I have a comfortable sofa in my study that my brother and I use to watch videos on our computers. I placed a video player on a USB for when I want to watch videos. I now use the laptop in the living room to copy the video files onto my USB. I'm thinking about setting up a media centre computer elsewhere in the house. I'm not sure where yet. I don't want more distractions in the bedroom and other members of my family often dominate the living room. I do have to confess that I have quite a few consoles in the bedroom but so far, I've been good about using them.

Due to the nature of my work, I can start at anytime and I often found myself wasting time in the morning checking downloads from the previous night. I sometimes even zone out and just watch things download. That was a few more bad habits gone. I've also noticed that my younger brother had also begun to spend too much time on the internet. We each have a computer in the study. We've now reduced the amount of time we spend online because going online means having to leave the study and going into the living room.

At work, I placed an internet browser onto a USB. There are times I need to use the internet to get information for programming problems and research writing. In regards to programming API's, I plan to download them to use on my work machine that I've disconnected from the internet.

To help reduce tempting distractions, I also installed an add-on for Firefox called LeechBlock to control which internet sites I could visit and when. At first I thought you could only input blacklist websites into LeechBlock but then I found out that you could also input white list websites by putting '+' in front of them. I also found out that you could use wildcards by using '*'. I plan to prepare two machines at work, one for work, and one for internet access. Something about settling down at a work machine reduces the temptation of switching to another machine.

I found that after all this, using a computer without internet access and without multi-media capabilities felt strange. The first thing that I did was to find other means of distraction. I spent a fair while going through all my documents that I had been steadily collecting for years and only now am I going back and to pay attention to them.

I firstly found my collection of picture files to be quite distracting so the picture viewer and picture files will have to go. When I'm working, I like to relax a little and look at interesting images to refresh myself. However, switching to an electronic picture is too distracting but looking physical pictures seems to be okay. The main problem is switching away from the on screen program that I'm using for work takes me too far out of the productive headspace.

The next thing I found distracting was my collection of web pages. I'll have to work on separating my files into work and personal groups and then move my personal files away from my work machines.

I had a few games magazines around to browse when I take my breaks but I found that they too take me out of the productive headspace. Therefore, the magazines have to go too.

The next thing I found distracting was writing this article. However, that seems to be okay. It doesn't take me too much out of the productive headspace.

The underlying idea has been to create spaces dedicated to different things. I used to find it easier to go work in the library or to drive to some picturesque spot to do my work. I've read articles on related topics and there are usually comments about using willpower and discipline but that can be hard when you're working alone for long periods on projects that sometimes progress at imperceptible rates. I've also read articles from and about prolific writers, developers, and researchers where they've recommended setting up dedicated spaces, which inspired me to give this process a go.

The feeling that there is not enough time has often challenged me. I remember as a kid that feeling of there sometimes being too much time. I want that feeling again. As I've been going through this process I've found that I've started to notice things that I've wanted to do but have been putting off like my pile of books that I wanted to read and little to do's. The most important benefit has been feeling the possibility and potential of my projects again.


  1. LOL. I think you have OCD (I mean it in a friendly way). I really identify.

    Perhaps we need lots of clones, so that each one can be engaged in a different task.

    Or perhaps we should take time to enjoy the things we are doing, rather than putting pressure on yourself to get more things done. Afterall, the more we do, the more tasks we will set ourselves. It's OK not too be focused occasionally. :)

  2. Hi Andy

    Yeah, sometimes this stuff drives me nuts :)

    I do feel the pressure to get more things done. Making the time to not focus is critical, as well as setting less tasks.

    My goal is to consistently set aside time each day to focus and work and then stop and just be. It's been challenging but I'm hoping that it's a habit I can develop.