Minimizing distraction as a developer

We all experienced the downsides of working in an open space office where keeping focus is using noise cancellation expensive headphones. In my opinion, productivity through isolation seems counterproductive.

I can recommend this video about the history of open space design from Vox (#Bürolandschaft).

Add smartphones (or notifications, to be specific) and a meeting-driven culture and you end up not getting much done. This business is not correlating with productivity or outcomes — it is often the opposite. In my experience, escaping them completely is often not possible but with some small changes in our habits, we can start being more productive again.

It all starts with yourself. Some wise words:

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself. — Rumi

We are all bound to our organizational structure and its way of working. Often we accept how things work (also myself!) and don’t question certain routines, ways of working. This is quite normal but makes it much more important to listen to new joiners, outsiders. But first, let’s start with ourselves.

  • Disable your notifications — This one seems pretty obvious. Still, I see many people struggling in being strict in not looking to their smartphones. We are all so used to our smartphones and notifications. Ignoring that our way of consuming content is also hurting us (skim reading) is why many complain about the lack of focus. Go to your settings and disable notifications completely. At least once in your life go through the list of all applications and disabled them manually. After that, (maybe) enable the most important 3 apps. I disabled all Social Media Notifications. As it is asynchronous anyway, why do we want to sync something which is by design meant for asynchronous consumption.
  • Turn your smartphone face down — That big screen of your hip 5 to X” screen looking to you is attractive as it might provide you with your next dopamine kick. So the best way to not get distracted is to turn your screen off or turn it so you see the back cover.
  • Don’t put your phone on your desk — Putting your smartphone on your desk is not only distracting you but also others. For example, I had a co-worker who received many messages because relocating with family. This isn’t easy, but after some days I asked him to put his smartphone somewhere else as my desk was also vibrating every time or turn it off. You should always think about how your distraction also can lead to others around you getting distracted.
  • Reduce the number of screens you’re watching — We all think it is cool to look at 3+ screens like in these fancy movies. Over the last years, I went from a Macbook Screen (for communication), one screen for the web app I’m debugging and a second screen for the debugger, to almost one. For me, one screen to focus is fine. Some still might want this huge 2–3 screen setup but when I talk to them, many are not happy with that setup et all. Reduce your screens. Get one big screen, one 4K screen, still focus on having one.

my setup as of early 2019 ^^

Personally, these small changes in my habits helped me a lot on keeping my focus on the task I’m working right now. But there is more I’d like to share regarding the bigger domain, your team, your Org. The following rules go back to a sentence I read years ago:

“Your time is $1000/hour, and you need to act accordingly.” — Jason Cohen

My understanding with this sentence is that many of us are working in a well-paid position and the company has expectations. Still, I observed quite often certain behaviours which are not helpful.

  • Don’t allow people backslapping— The so-called Störenfried (German; Troublemaker). If you’re working on an application and have a clear work process (Scrum, Kanban…) it is unlikely that you need to discuss something immediately. People are buying expensive headphones to be productive. Especially in open space offices going frequently to peoples desk is an anti-pattern. Don’t get me wrong, there are cases where it needs to be, e.g. a critical bug needs attention, ad-hoc grooming, team coffee breaks (+ cake times). Yet they happen rarely and asynchronism is the way to go. Everyone is using Slack / Hipchat / Jabber or some form of internal chat. So ping them there and wait. Move on. Do something else. If you want feedback the same day wait an hour or two and try to catch them when they are already in a discussion or follow up. On the other side, as a developer don’t accept the behaviour of constant shoulder pinging and getting distracted. I’m always asking people to send me anything via chat if not urgent so that I can pick up once I have a moment. This behaviour is difficult to follow always but discipline is a key aspect of being a developer.
  • Don’t join meetings with no prep/agenda — You should expect that a person inviting you to a meeting prepares it beforehand. Thanks to awesome web interfaces, creating a meeting and inviting people is a matter of minutes (even seconds). Preparing it takes hours. This is why many people invite and use a meeting as some form of brainstorming session but call it different and often expect a decision. This is why whenever I get an invitation I check if there is any content, agenda about it. If not, I’m writing the organizer and ask them to provide something before the meeting otherwise I will skip it.
  • Listen to feedback — Often developers see a new team member and the process of onboarding as a blocker. I don’t. It is the opposite. Such a fresh mind joining your team, your Org can be a gold mine of important feedback about things you’re basically blind. Be supportive, be open and ask a new team member to actively challenge you. This way you will always find something valuable.

Conclusion

“Focusing is about saying No.” — Steve Jobs

When you’re reading through the change in habits we have to do in order to reduce distraction, the goal is focusing on a task. As a first step to having focus, reducing unnecessary noise around yourself is important. Often developers start in optimizing the workflow, try out different `get stuff done` methodologies without realizing that even the best tool is worthless when you’re constantly checking out other things. This is why I agree with Steve Jobs that we need to start saying No more frequently to things around us.

I’m sure there are more rules people are following, I would really like to learn more about what everyday ‘hacks’ people have to get into ‘deep work’ mode, so comment here, or reach out to me via Twitter.

https://upscri.be/hackernoon/

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