Chris Alexander

On Engineering

Avoiding distractions

29th August, 2016

Last one was an interesting one for me at work. Reviewing the week on Friday afternoon, I realised just how little I had managed on my main objective for the week, a rather gnarly upgrade to a fiendishly tricky (and important) bit of data synchronization code. For the past 9 months or so I have run a time tracking app voluntarily on my machine, so I had a pretty good idea what I had been up to. It’s not that I hadn’t been busy! It’s just I had a lot of other things to do.

When I sat down this morning and saw exactly what I have running on my machine on a day-to-day basis, it’s hardly surprising it is so easy to get distracted.

There’s e-mail and calendar; separate IM and group chat apps; notebook, work timer, task list and development work items (again separate); log viewer, helpdesk app, RDP and console windows; and that’s before we get on to IDEs, the actual applications I am working on, text editors, and the like.

Given how many of those pop up notifications, add stuff to the Windows 10 notification tray, take focus and flash their taskbar icon, it is easy to see how something else could very easily distract from the task in hand. Add to that the three phones normally on my desk and people walking past my desk to the meeting rooms and about the office, it’s a surprise I got anything done!

But what to do about it? It’s not possible to be sealed off from the outside world completely - well not without a home office, or one with a door and poor WiFi.

So for this week, I am trying out a process of setting aside periods of high concentration to work on complicated bits of code which require some deep thought. During this time, I am headphones-on (something I have not done for several years, for long periods of time at least); Outlook has its pop-ups off; Skype is set to Do Not Disturb (which swallows IMs and sends them as e-mails instead); and Slack is notifications-off apart from support-critical channels. I am also now deliberately taking advantage of Windows 10’s multiple desktops, by putting Visual Studio, my dev tools, and work items on a separate desktop completely. My phones are also mostly on silent with vibrate off - again apart from support-critical calls.

After one day, I already feel more productive - and the stats back it up. Let’s see how (or if!) it lasts the week.