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Getting stuff done

July 31, 2014

There is a mood I get in which I seem to accomplish almost nothing. I browse pictures of cats on reddit or I play long, tedious, pointlessly slow games. At the high level, I (retrospectively) consider this wasted time. I look back on it and harass myself for spending so much time on it. However, I still do it. So I’ll assume that time is doing something for me, even if it’s mostly subconscious.

This is gaining interest for me recently because we are having a big push with shameless plug work. I’ve been working harder for longer than I have since finals week in college and keeping myself in a state where I’m still making good progress on my projects is becoming more important.

There are a few explicit states I get in which lead to this wasteful mood.

Exhaustion

Sometimes I’m just pooped. If I just worked on a mentally demanding project for too long or if I’m trying out a new sleep schedule, I tend to shy away from activating any deep thinking. This is the state that I’m most likely to be browsing the front page of reddit.

I come up with the least amount of excuses in this state. In other states I might make a reason for why I’m allowing myself to not work. “You just worked a few hours, you can take a 15 minute break.” “Your code is compiling, might as well see what reddit’s up to.” “You worked hard last week, take the day off and play video games.” When I’m truly exhausted, I don’t come up with excuses. I just end up on relaxation auto-pilot.

I take that to mean the relaxation periods when I’m exhausted are more important or necessary than in the other states, but I’m not convinced. There are drugs with seemingly low consequences that can override this state and get me thinking again.

Laziness

There are times when I’m not tired, I just don’t want to work. Many times this is actually a redefinition of “work”. There is some task that I’m shying away from (because it’s either too boring or too complicated) so I pick a nice easy mental path to concentrate on. This state is where I’m most likely to start an incremental game.

I have internal arguments with myself about why I’m wasting time as I’m wasting time. I see tasks on my todo list and acknowledge that I could be doing them right now if I only focused on it for a few minutes…but I’ll play just a few more minutes of this game first.

However, this state isn’t always a waste. Projects that take a little bit of thought but not too much tend to get done here. Projects like setting up a new organization system for my file cabinet, building a “dev box” for the device I’m working on (was actually way more fun and educational than I thought it was going to be), or a general cleaning of the apartment seem to get accomplished.

Getting out of this state is really just as easy as focusing on an important task for a few minutes. Almost always I’ll shy away from a project because I’m worried it’s going to be too hard. Once I start digging in, I gain some momentum and end up in a good productive state. It’s all about lowering the barrier to entry. In the future, I’ll try to focus more on breaking big projects down into small initial steps so they’re less scary. Maybe that will help avoid spending time on this.

Distraction

This one is my least favorite. It’s the hardest to pin down a source for and it has the most detrimental effects on my productivity. It might not account for as many non-working hours as laziness does, but it accounts for negative hours and that really irks me.

I’ll be working on an issue, being perfectly productive, and I’ll need to do a full recompile. Well, this will take a few minutes, I’ll go take a look at what the internet has to say. Fifteen minutes thirty minutes an hour later, I remember that I was in the middle of something complicated that I probably should have just stayed focused on.

Most of the time this is my own fault, however not all the time. Working from home has gotten me used to having a fairly quiet and distraction free environment. The hours when I’m working and my wife is home tend to be (on average) not as productive. I’ll link it again because I really like it. She used to get upset when I’d give her snappy one word answers to her questions or when I told her to go away. But (and I just had to verify this) she’s learned that if I’m on my computer working, I might be snappy and dismissive and knows not to take it personally.

The best thing I’ve done for this recently is getting a new computer. I’m not sure if it was the switch from Windows to OSX or if it was just the general speed increase, but my distraction rate went significantly down. Adding multiple monitors to the situation also helped. If I keep all monitors full of work related stuff, I’m less likely to see something distracting while alt-tabbing through my windows.

Efficiency regardless of mood

Despite these detrimental states, I still get things done. I’ve worked while exhausted, I’ve accomplished a long list of old simple todo items while being mentally lazy, and I’ve been distracted by something that is more important than what I’m working on.

Most of the time, a good rest will help with the exhaustion. Unless what I’m working on really can’t wait, I try to take down as many notes as I can about where I am and then leave it until I’m more aware. As many other people have found, taking a break and coming back refreshed can do wonders.

If breaking down a task into smaller bits doesn’t overcome my laziness, I’ll try to focus on some other tasks that are more easily accomplished. Getting smaller tasks out of the way can help also with the whole clearing your head thing that seems to inspire creative progress.

Keeping distractions down is a little tougher. Not opening reddit while compiling can go a long way. Instituting a “if my door in the office is closed, don’t bother me” policy with my wife would probably help. There may even be an extreme solution to define multiple user roles on the computer. One for the play/relax context and one for the work context. This would make it harder to switch between them might limit potential slip ups…or it might make the cache-loss when you do slip up way worse.

Pedantically, the best way to stay focused on a project or task is to be interested in it. Surprise, surprise…when you like what you’re doing, you want to do it more. Gamification is all about that. Changing boring/hard tasks into things you can get immediate rewards for so you want to do them. But it would be better if you didn’t need the (most of the time loosely coupled) game wrapper to stay interested. Ideally, you could just be interested in every task you do. I’ll hit on that more in the next post.

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