Sanity and singletasking

trafficloop.jpegI saw a man driving down a busy street the other day, with a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other. I was driving toward him, and in the brief period between his coming into my field of view and his passing by, I observed him attempting to juggle the aforementioned accessories as he tried to downshift. I didn’t get to see the final outcome of the procedure, but his panic was clear as I watched him pass. I laughed, but then the gravity of the situation hit me. This man’s inability to focus on the task at hand put other driver’s lives at risk.

While my work life might not have the same potential for dramatic consequences as distracted driving, the panic I saw on that driver’s face was familiar to me. To be clear, I never multitask… on purpose. I do, however, allow distractions to creep in, and sometimes find myself trying to juggle a phone call, an IM session and an emergency email, all from different sources, while my brain tries desperately to keep track of where I was when the fires started. It rapidly snowballs, as emergency emails and phone calls rarely end without initiating additional work.

I’m a remote worker. That is, I work from home, and therefore I lack the filters that most office inhabitants have. I can’t shut a door and rarely can I ask someone to leave me alone. My field typically requires me to be aware of multiple channels of communication at once. I only check email a few times a day, but I can’t control phone calls, meetings and personal IMs from co-workers and employers. Thus, the circus act happens more often than I’d care to admit. It often just means a few minutes of feeling overwhelmed, then taking a moment to go over my quick notes, file information and create task items for things that require additional work or followup. Focus returns, and I move on. Occasionally, I metaphorically swerve into another lane and end up with a wreck of a day.

I’ve come up with a couple of preventative measures, so I thought I’d share…

Working stealth

One thing I’m working toward is clearly defined “dark” times, or the equivalent of shutting my office door to let people know that this is “work time.” I work on multiple fronts, so syncing these times up is a challenge, but the idea is uaually well-received. People like productivity.

Going dark means more than setting my IM status to “busy,” or even “leave me alone, I’m working!” It means completely disconnecting my multiple IM and IRC accounts, switching Skype to voicemail and closing my email app. Voicemails reach me as SMS messages on my iPhone, so I have one delayed communication channel for urgent situations. Even a couple of “dark” hours a day can improve my productivity exponentially.

The continuous brain dump

Beyond any carefully-constructed, distraction-free environment, my state of mind is a major factor. If I’m already keeping a mental to-do list as I work through a project, my stack is full and any distraction is going to push that stack. Whether I actually lose a train of thought or not doesn’t matter, it’s easy to think you did in those situations, and that only increases the panic. That “overwhelmed” feeling is easily avoided by constantly emptying my brain while I work. I use VoodooPad, LaunchBar and Ian Beck’s Scratchpad setup to do this. It means I can dump todo items, notes, links and random thoughts from my mind into a notebook with a few keystrokes.

Using the same scripts, I also keep a log throughout the day. Like git/svn commits, I’ve trained myself to log regularly. Short messages during a project, and a summary of progress when I’m moving to a different project. I can tag entries as they come out, and simply mentioning a project title in a note or log lets me aggregate it in various ways. The notebook literally sorts itself, and I can feel safe and sane, no matter what intrudes on my focus. Even if I were never to reference the logs (which I do often), it means that a sudden interruption can only cause me to lose my train of thought back to my last note or log. It’s my seatbelt when I can’t control the car, and it keeps me sane.

What’s your crash protection?

I’d recommend both of these ideas to anybody, though I’m sure the implementation will vary widely (the Launchbar/VoodooPad combo is pretty geeky, I know). A lot of this is my own bastardization of GTD principles, of course. I’m not a purist, I take what works for me and run with it. Let me know what helps you keep your focus, I’m always open to new ways to improve my productivity!

Brett Terpstra

Brett is a writer and developer living in Minnesota, USA. You can follow him as ttscoff on Twitter, GitHub, and Mastodon. Keep up with this blog by subscribing in your favorite news reader.

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