managing distractions

Working from home for the last year has presented a number of challenges. One of them, of course, is managing distractions. It’s hard to stay focused on work when I’m home, in my own apartment, with nobody watching me. It’s easy to pick up my phone and check Twitter, or open a web browser on my desktop PC and check the news, or wander into the living room and turn on the TV. In a regular office environment, it’s a little easier to stay focused, since you have some peer pressure from other people sitting near you, and fewer available distractions. (I could still get pretty distracted in the office, honestly. But it’s a lot worse at home.)

And, beyond the change in work environment, there’s also the additional mental load of living through a pandemic. It’s easy to let my thoughts wander into worries about that. And there’s a lot to worry about.

At some point early in the pandemic, maybe around April, I started messing around with pomodoro timers. The general idea there is to do a focused burst of work, for about 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. There are a number of apps that support this, though you really don’t need anything special. I tried two: Focus Keeper and Be Focused. (I also looked at Focus List, but didn’t actually try it.) I tried using the pomodoro technique for a few days, but I didn’t stick with it. There was nothing wrong with the apps I was using, but it just wasn’t helping me much.

I think that, after a few months of working from home and living through the pandemic, I managed to get into enough of a groove that I could be reasonably productive. I really haven’t pushed myself to be super-productive though. I’ve decided that it’s OK to take some breaks when I need them, as long as I’m mindful and aware of how I’m spending my time, and as long as I’m being responsive at work.

Recently, though, I’ve found myself having trouble making any headway on some longer-term projects that require sustained, focused, work. And I was poking around on LinkedIn Learning, and noticed a course called Becoming Indistractable. So I decided to watch it. There honestly wasn’t much new in it. But there was a brief mention of an app called Forest which looked mildly interesting. It’s basically a pomodoro timer with some extra bells and whistles to gamify the challenge of staying focused. It grows a little virtual tree while the timer is running. And it also has a feature that will “kill” the tree if you exit the app before the timer finishes. That’s supposed to help motivate you to stay off the phone while the timer is going. It’s pretty silly, but it’s kind of cute.

I think this app could really backfire for some people, as you can get maybe a little too wrapped up in the whole “growing your forest” thing, and waste as much time on that as you would otherwise have been wasting on Twitter. But I guess at least the forest thing would be less stressful than doomscrolling Twitter. Anyway, I tried it today, and I think that doing the pomodoro thing was helping me make some progress. Up until a few problems arose that required me to drop what I was doing to put out fires. Oh yeah, I guess the reason I’m not making progress on the long-term stuff is because there’s too much short-term stuff taking up my time. And the reason I’m not able to sustain focus for long enough to make progress on some of this stuff is because I have too many interruptions, not because I can’t concentrate. (Well, maybe it’s a little of both. But today it felt like it was mostly the “putting out fires” stuff.)

This post has mostly been a rant, I guess, but maybe there’s a link or two in here that someone else might find interesting or useful. And, hey, I’m allowed to rant a little.

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