How do I focus on my work?
May 1, 2013 10:54 PM   Subscribe

I have been trying to focus on my work...Usually I'll work for 15 minutes, and would have the urge to surf the Net, check forums, read up on TvTropes...

I'm a programmer by trade, and the project I am on is not actually my interest. However, I notice this is starting to be a habit for work that I used to enjoy too. How can I maintain my focus and attention on what I am doing?
posted by crowbar_of_irony to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 89 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Look up the Pomodoro technique, which directly addresses this urge to focus and then wander and focus again...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:56 PM on May 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Listen to binaural beats that tweek your brain to help you focus.

Get Relax Melodies app, set the binaurel tone to "focus," put on headphones, listen and let the app do the work.

100% effective, no effort other than getting in the habit of using it. Done.


After enough use, you'll stop needing it to focus. If you slip into bad habits and need it again, just start using again.

Google "binaural beats" to understand how the science behind it.
posted by jbenben at 11:47 PM on May 1, 2013 [14 favorites]

I have been using - it's a music productivity service that has preprogrammed radio stations playlisting tracks that help you focus.

I recommend the classical station. It's low key and doesn't distract me from tasks.

It's based around 110 minute cycles. So I work solidly for 110 minutes until the counter reaches zero and the music stops. Then I have a short break and start all over again.

Other solutions people use include software to lock them off particular sites for certain periods of time.
posted by skylar at 12:21 AM on May 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

I found that setting up two or three little Buddha machines with different loops on the Zendesk Buddha Wall was surprisingly immersive.

Some loops and sample mixes built on the original machines are here.
posted by maudlin at 1:16 AM on May 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I disagree with these sound and music based recommendations. As far as I know, the large majority of studies suggest that any sound, including classical music and various kinds of purportedly performance-enhancing noise, actually works against cognitively demanding task performance, and that the effect is surprisingly strong. If ambient noise bothers you, consider a pair of high quality ear plugs (eg musician's ear plugs like Alpine makes) rather than headphones.

I can second the Pomodoro technique, which I use every day. If you use this or other similar "time chunking" methods, you should definitely keep track of how many "chunks" you get done each day. This will help prevent you from suffering those guilt-driven bouts of insomnia at the end of non-productive days.

You might also consider editing your hosts file to prevent yourself from visiting your most time sucking web sites (maybe even this one!)
posted by w1nt3rmut3 at 1:38 AM on May 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

After reading recommendations for the Pomodoro technique on here for years I finally tried it IN TRUE LIFES last weekend and it was really helpful.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 1:53 AM on May 2, 2013

In conjunction with the Pomodoro technique, I find Leechblock really helpful. You can block your favorite time-waster websites, either for, say, 25 minutes as you work a Pomodoro, or you can block them for certain periods of the day.
posted by BrashTech at 5:27 AM on May 2, 2013

Selfcontrol is a free Mac app that blocks selected (or permits selected, blocking others) sites for a fixed period. It works across all browsers and continues working even if you restart your machine.
posted by epo at 6:07 AM on May 2, 2013

I find the urge to surf the internet is often actually another emotion in disguise -- boredom, sure, but even more often for me it's frustration with a tricky problem, or fear of asking someone for help when I'm stuck, or annoyance at myself for working as quickly as I feel I "should". It helps me to take a couple of seconds to examine that "internet now!" feeling to see if it's any of those. If so, I can talk my way through those feelings or figure out a work around for what's frustrating me or whatever.
posted by LeeLanded at 6:27 AM on May 2, 2013 [23 favorites]

There are some good suggestions here and everybody is trying to be helpful but this is a little bit like somebody complaining of hangovers and getting told to take aspirin. Read Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows". Usage of the Internet is changing our brains. We get a little jolt of neurochemical pleasure from finding new information (we like novelty) so surfing/clicking starts to look like addictive behaviour. And restlessness looks like withdrawal. Carr said he found that he was losing his ability to concentrate in a sustained way or even read a book. If you read his book, you can see how he dealt with the problem. You can consider meditation as a way of strengthening your ability to focus, have media-free weekends, or, as some above have suggested, use software to cut yourself off. But as a programmer, your ability to focus intensely for longer periods is critical so I think some self-examination is in order.
Good luck.
posted by PickeringPete at 7:05 AM on May 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

Similar to Leechblock, my Internet-blocking tool of choice is the StayFocusd add-in for Chrome. I found Leechblock to easy to get around.
posted by Asparagus at 7:50 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Adding to what PickeringPete said, I've found that I take spontaneous web-browsing breaks because my brain is hungry for stimulation. My ADHD coach recommended taking short exercise breaks instead, to get my dopamine up. I don't always follow that advice (hence me being on MeFi right now), but when I do is is very helpful.
posted by neutralmojo at 10:39 AM on May 2, 2013

Search Inside Yourself is a guide to meditation for engineers. It's still got some fluff, but gets to the point more than many other meditation guides.

Why the hell would that help?

Meditation is actively practicing focus, which is what you want to get better at. Focus is a trainable skill, and meditation is a several-thousand-year-old way of training that skill.

In a nutshell: pick something arbitrary and easy, like your breathing, and focus on it for awhile. Do this regularly; a minute a day, every day, will help notably. Spend a minute politely pushing out other thoughts, and focusing on your breath. Then go do whatever you're going to do.

A minute is *nothing* compared to the number of cat videos I've watched. But it's enough to give me slightly more focus the entire rest of the day, which ain't so bad.
posted by talldean at 12:03 PM on May 3, 2013

Came here to recommend The Shallows, but I see PickeringPete has beat me to it.

Like talldean said, focus takes practice. I find a yoga practice to be helpful, along with meditation and mindfulness in general. However, what has worked best for me is turning off the internet in the evening and in the morning, and reading a book without distractions.
posted by therumsgone at 4:05 PM on May 3, 2013

Seconding what therumsgone said here, moving to Kindle in the evenings instead of browsing moar internets has also helped me.

I also work as a programmer, and also get bored with projects from time to time. They gotta get done, and someone's gotta do them, and sometimes, we all get the short straw. Reminding myself when I sit down in the morning of *why* I'm doing the task I'm doing actually helps as well; yoga teachers would call this "setting intentions", which isn't a bad plan.
posted by talldean at 7:02 AM on May 4, 2013

Nthing Pomodoro technique.

I agree with posters above that the web surfing can produce a little chemical boost, which is what makes it so attractive. One way I've dealt with that is to find other very quick tasks that can give me a similar boost. neutralmojo's exercise suggestion is great.

In addition to exercise, you might look for tiny productive tasks you can do when you feel the urge for distraction. Sometimes I'll allow myself a 4-minute flashcard break and do a few vocabulary flashcards (it's surprising how many flashcards you can review in four minutes). You could also set up a list of work-related tasks that are very quick and see how many you can get through in a short time. For example:

* write up a quick list of pomodoro tasks for the next day
* make a list of code chunks you need to document
* come up with a quick outline of the past week's work for the weekly status check-in meeting

Completing little 30-second tasks gives me a little boost AND makes me feel more productive, providing a second little boost.
posted by kristi at 12:16 PM on May 4, 2013

I just wanted to revisit the thread before it closes to drop a link to Vitamin-R, another mac app that combines pomodoro techniques with GTD task management and includes distractor-disabler features and improvement tracking here. I'm still trying to get fully used to the habits it forces but it seems effective.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:04 AM on August 3, 2013

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