Using zen-like focus for minimizing distractions

For those of us in the world of tech, we tend to be busy folks these days. Some of us more than others, but at least in my work there is a lot going on all the time. The key is to know what deserves your attention, and what doesn’t. Every distraction is seemingly benign. A spam here, browsing a small site there, doing a little this and that. It adds up before you know it and pretty soon your day is over, and you’re wondering “What did I do all day? I know, I was just so *busy*”. Yes you were busy, but unfortunately you were busy much of the day doing the wrong things.
There have been several developments out there that call to attention this problem. Lifehacker has some tools to minimize distractions.  OS X Lion now has a full screen mode for its apps to remove create a distraction free environment to read or create. While tech tools are just one step in helping out, they’ll only get you most of the way there. So what to to do?
The tech tools are the easiest to implement. The hard part about minimizing distractions is that this isn’t a 5 minute, or even 1 hour activity. Instead, this is a continuous process. When, for example, you’re reading your e-mail, really decide if any of these are a waste of time. A lot of us tech guys get many of these and yes it’s easy to just hit the delete key, but if you’re doing this daily, or hourly, and this isn’t adding real benefit, you’re doing it wrong. Remember the sysadmin axiom that if you’re doing anything repetitive more than once, you should consider automating it.
The next step is the toughest. You’ll need to train yourself to focus, really hard, one one thing at at time. Make this your mantra. Unitasking is something you should be proud of. There have already been many studies that humans are horrible at multitasking. Multitasking simply doesn’t work, and if you have a boss that is convinced otherwise, you’ll need to disavow them of this notion. You need to focus on unitasking.
This means to focus on a single task till completion for as long as possible. If you can do this for 90 mins at a time, you’re likely well ahead of many.  You may even consider using a task timer to show yourself how well you’re unitasking. If you’re aware during this task that you’re finding yourself wandering towards other things, this is normal. Steer yourself back to the task at hand if the others can wait. In fact, this sort of unitasking is not unlike zen style meditation. Clearing your mind. Focusing on a single thing deliberately.
Another key to this style of unitasking is to schedule when you’ll be doing things to increase your mental discipline. Yes, you do need to take mental breaks during your long tasks. Again this can vary from person to person. Some folks can do 30 mins at a time, others much longer. Those mental breaks are a great opportunity to get up, stretch, focus your eyes elsewhere. Some folks will take a mental break by doing some social networking, and a little minesweeper, or tetris but this doesn’t work for a couple reasons.
  • You’re still engaging your brain, and doing nothing for your eyestrain, but now you’re doing something else.
  • You’re annoying your boss and peers by such behavior. They think you’re just goofing off, and admit it. You are.
Schedule when you will be doing these fun things however. Everyone wants to know what’s going on with their friends, and in the world. Nothing wrong with that, but just regulate it to certain times of the day. Likewise for the rest of your tasks, schedule them out so you know what you’ll be doing. The more structure you’re able to put here, the more chances for succeeding in what you sought to do that day you’ll have. I highly recommend Getting Things Done and Time Management for System Administrators to help with creating systems for task lists.
Don’t forget that you will still need to make time to go through your e-mail, build up your spam lists. Create tasks to reduce those distraction creators. With discipline, you’ll be able to further increase your productivity, and show yourself at the end of the day that you really were busy doing the right things.