I used to have this picture hanging on the wall in my old office and one day I took it down because I realized why it resonated with me so much and why it needed to go. The hot topic now seems to be about how the daily barage of communications we receive is making us all A.D.D. and unable to concentrate intensely on one task – in order to be effective people have to force themselves into seclusion to get stuff done. Just the other day I was on the phone as messages were piling into my inbox, two IM windows popped up and my treo started vibrating as a text message came in. The person on the other line said "what the hell was that?" and I had to say "oh, don’t mind me I’m just weathering a tsunami of communications right now." No joke, I got a skype call about 5 minutes after I hung up and our fax machine ran out of paper later on that day and started beeping at my partner and I. Into this volley of exchanges mix in the constant temptation to tune into Bloglines to read the latest RSS goodness, or technorati alerts or to check up on the latest stats for your site are you can see that we’re dealing with a blizzard of distractions each day. So here is my advice for what to do:
Unplug. Literally remove your ethernet cable and disable the your wireless interface on your computer.Never in mankind’s history has an individual had so much access to knowledge and yet the stream of information has become a flailing fire hose out of control and the only way to to manage it is to occasionally "kink the hose." I know it sounds harsh and people say "how do I connect to the _fill_in_the_blank_service on the network i need to do my job?" If you rely upon remote resources during development then you’re pretty much screwed and you need to stay wired and handle each comm application individually by disabling them one at a time (IM, email, skype, IRC, gtalk) and then remove whatever shortcut you have on your desktop to your web browser and make it just inconvenient enough to browse so you resist the temptation to do anything but focus on what needs to be done. If you’re running VMware or VPC though, like I do, then you are already fully self-contained and it’s literally as simple as pulling the plug and doing your work. For those that rely upon things like livedocs and other hosted documentation, there are generally offline versions of this documentation you can get. For those that rely heavily on asking other people on lists how to do things, well maybe this is a well-deserved wakeup call for a little "RTFM" for you…
There are people like this and this that somehow thrive in this hyper-connected world and stay productive. Sean Corfield is, by today’s standards, a modern-day superman – he is seemingly omniscient and omnipresent, five places at once solving technology problems around the world and holding a steady full-time position for Adobe. How a human can be this multi-threaded is beyond me (Corfield you rock). This is the exception however and not the rule – the rest of us mere mortals are sadly only capable of devoting full attention to one task at a time and therefore need to make a conscious effort single-thread our work routine.
It may be a stupid analogy but the way I like to think of myself when I’m on critical path is as a submarine that comes to the surface occasionally to conduct communications and then submerges and goes silent. Depending on what projects, deadlines, etc you’re facing you can be more or less flexible at the depth you set. Right now, it’s crunch time for me on my ABC project so I’m only coming up to periscope depth about 3x per day at this point. When deadlines are loose you can cruise on the surface and run with fully-open communications. If you have a family that depends on you or are awaiting time-sensitive information and you need to make yourself accessible to certain people in real-time (ie. turning off your phone is not an option), there are ways to selectively let certain people through. There is Call Filter for the treo (an app actually written by a guy we know) that does for your phone what rules in Outlook do for your email. It lets you specify conditions based on contact categories, contacts, and time of day so that only certain people can call you during specified times. Very slick.
The other thing I recommend is going back to good ole audio CD’s for music listening during crunch time. Generally during an average day I have winamp tuned to some ambient channel on shoutcast streaming non-obtrusive chill background music without lyrics. But radio of any kind is by nature fragmented. There is something to be said for the musical contiguity of listening to a CD start to finish – one artist, one album, continuous musical theme throughout. Things like satellite radio, internet radio or (heaven forbid) traditional airwave corporate radio in my opinion seem to contribute to the scatter-brainedness one faces each day. You consciously or unconsciously absorb these 3min ala carte snippets from a bunch of different artists interspersed with commentary from various radio personalities (major oxymoron btw) and commercials. I have a rack of CD’s left over from college sitting in my office that I still have yet to transfer to my iPod and I find that popping in a CD while I’m submerged helps focus.
My friend Dave just launched his blog and is taking it further with an experiment that will potentially allow him to ditch his cellphone altogether. I’m not quite there yet – I still find the cellphone too convenient to toss – but I agree with the premise that we need to exercise periodic isolation in order to achieve our best productivity. If this whole thought of "yourself as a submarine" feels ridiculous, ask yourself what’s more ridiculous in a crunch deadline…
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