Avoiding distractions as a programmer

Distractions are kryptonite for programmers. They should be avoided at all costs. Reducing your distractions is key to productive software development. As a programmer you should be aiming to spend as much time as possible in a state of uninterrupted flow.

Distractions lead to insecurity

As you become more senior in your career you may think that you have become less of a programmer, that you lack skills you had earlier in your career. What is more likely to be the case is that you simply have far more distractions.

We all remember how we were during the first few weeks of a new job, when our email inbox was empty, nobody walked over to ask us questions, there were no random IMs popping up, and no urgent escalations.

It’s simply a fact that more time you spend in a particular position at a single company, the more knowledge you will acquire and the more people within the company will consult you to share that knowledge.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of responding to all requests for time as they come in, this is fine for the people requesting your time, but it is terrible for you, and ultimately your employer.

Permission to waste time

Distractions occur when you allow yourself to permission to waste time. This happens when you aren’t clear on the work that you should be focussing on at a given moment, the moment an interruption or distraction comes in.

The Pomodoro Technique can take away this permission to waste time. During a 25 minute pomodoro all interruptions and distractions should be deferred, and it is clear what work is being focussed on. Very few distractions are so important that they can’t wait until the pomodoro is complete.

Permission to relax

The Pomodoro Technique also gives us permission to stop working, because there has to be a short break between every pomodoro. This gives time to review the work that has been completed, so that planning changes can be made. Loss of focus is prevented with these regular breaks.

It’s recommended that you actually leave your desk for this kind of relaxation, and at least leave your keyboard, because your brain doesn’t really rest fully while left staring at your computer screen.

Logging time to identify time sinks

I’ve been using kanbanflow.com to start the day with a plan of what I will be working on (including all meetings and conference calls that I have scheduled) and then it is clear to me that I don’t have permission to waste any time if I want to achieve what I have committed to.

When you actually see in advance how many calls you are attending it becomes clear how much time is going to be lost to them, and you can make an informed decision about which ones you really should be ducking out of.

Kanbanflow also logs where my time was spent so that I can review how I’m spending my time and adjust to deal with any areas of work that I’m neglecting. In the past I’ve gone for long periods knowing that I’m wasting time, but not being specific about what I was wasting it on.

Making time for work that is important but not urgent

If we’re not constantly following distractions, then we can make time for work that will improve our productivity, but isn’t required urgently and therefore typically doesn’t get done. These are what productivity author Steven Covey referred to as Quadrant 2 Activities.

These tasks are key to really improving out productivity, and they are so easy to leave out if we aren’t in control of what we’re working on each day.

In summary

Giving yourself permission to ignore distractions is key to being productive. Use the Pomodoro Technique to defer distractions until you are finished with the task that you are currently working on.

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