I’ve been having trouble focusing a lot recently. When faced with a difficult problem that I can not find an obvious solution to, I tend to procrastinate or shy away from the problem. Other things become important suddenly; like checking email, talking on IM, reading slashdot. All these things do not lead to a productive day.
If I’m not productive, my energy level in general goes down. I notice that when I finish a day of work where I felt like I accomplished something, my evenings are so much better. There is less stress, and I feel proud of my work and what I’ve done. Even if I didn’t finish what I set out to do, as long as I’ve made some notable progress I get this effect. But I’ve been failing to do that with a particular problem I’ve been working on recently.
I’m a regular reader of Pragmatic Programmers. I believe that the original The Pragmatic Programmer is probably the best book for programmers around. There’s a new one that is still in “beta” called Pomodoro Technique Illustrated: The Easy Way To Do More In Less Time. It’s a fairly basic technique about time boxing and learning to focus on focusing. The basic technique is to pick a task you want to complete, set a kitchen timer for 25 minutes, then do that task and only that task until the timer dings. This means avoiding any distraction, from checking email to going to the bathroom or answering the phone. Now since things come up that you can’t ignore (the phone sometimes, or a colleague), there’s a system for dealing with interruptions. If you complete the full 25 minutes without being interrupted, both internal and external interruptions, then you mark an X next to your task as having completed one pomodoro. The sense of accomplishment you get at the end of the day is how many X’s you’ve built up.
There’s a free PragPub magazine on the Pragmatic Programmer’s website that has an article in the November issue that talks about the basic technique. You can try it out with just the knowledge in there. I ended up buying the book as a way to really force myself to focus, but I’m sure the basic idea is enough to get many people started.