On flow (a digression)

February 9, 2011

Recently I saw a blog entry (via Hacker News) from a developer who had turned off the digital clock in his machine's menu bar; he advocated doing this so as to reduce the potential of distraction from looking at it. What I took away from his entry, though, is the sure knowledge that people are very different, because what he described doesn't apply to me at all.

You see, when I'm focused on something, when I am in a state of flow, the digital clock on my screen is not going to knock me out of it. In fact, I'm demonstrably capable of ignoring far more intrusive (and occasionally important) things like my mail notifier. If I'm head down and programming away, I can dismiss a mail popup in seconds with essentially no attention (it's basically a fidget behavior, like saving editor buffers); a digital clock that's been there for years and I'm completely habituated to has no chance at all. When I'm working away like this, you practically have to use an axe to get my attention.

(This has its downsides in my job, since sysadmins are kind of supposed to be at least a bit attentive to the environment around them. Instead, I'm disgruntled that the outside environment is intruding into my valuable programming time.)

I was reminded of this rather vividly today when I sat down at 9am, started programming, and surfaced sometime after 2pm. Maybe 3pm, really. I paid no attention to the time (among other things) during all of this; in fact, I don't think I got up from my chair. After all, I was busy.

(I'm aware that this probably wasn't the healthiest thing in the world. But I was too busy to take breaks, and by 'busy' I mean 'absorbed'. (Even now it's hard not to be programming.))

Now, if I'm not in this absorbed state it's another matter. But then the real problem is that the work is not absorbing me, not that the clock is distracting me; if I wasn't distracted by the time, I would be distracted by a nearly infinite number of other things. If you want to be distracted, there are always distractions available.

(This is especially so for sysadmins, because we tend to have a basically endless collection of little things we could be doing that are nominally productive. At the extreme, we could be cleaning up our inboxes or our home directories.)


Comments on this page:

From 192.100.130.7 at 2011-02-09 05:33:29:

I just had a similarly-themed revelation (http://paperairoplane.net/?p=143) - synchronicity! I think the soft distractions (clock, email alerts etc) are easily ignored when you are in the right headspace for constant work. The hard distractions (co-workers, phone calls, SMS messages) are hard to ignore and only serve to increase your awareness of the soft distractions.

When I'm in coding mode, I don't check my email window obsessively, check for new feed updates etc. When I'm already distracted by what is going on, I find myself checking them frequently, as if I already know I'm going to be distracted by them and proactively resolve the distraction.

-- Oliver

Written on 09 February 2011.
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