The pandemic forced a change in the way many knowledge workers work. Many of us have shifted to working from home — some roles are permanent.
I’m fortunate to be in such a position, but it’s been both a blessing and difficult to adjust to.
Distractions are frequent. From regular Zoom meetings, Slack messages and various alert notifications, to email. I think a number of people (myself included) are over compensating in our communication styles.
For software engineers, this causes a lot of context switching. And that’s generally a bad thing.
Context switching can lower productivity, increase fatigue, and, ultimately, lead to developer burnout. Switching tasks requires energy and each switch depletes mental focus needed for high cognitive performance. Over an entire workday, too many context switches can leave developers feeling exhausted and drained.
The impact of context switching lingers even after switching tasks. Cognitive function declines when the mind remains fixated on previous tasks, a phenomenon known as attention residue.
I’ve recently felt myself feeling drained and less productive that usual. While browsing a thread on Hacker News, a comment on Hacker News suggested that someone should read Deep Work by Cal Newport for ideas on how to regain focus and minimize distractions. It was the first I’d heard of that book.
It was pretty enlightening and I was pretty hooked!
It has a number of self-help style steps (that are somewhat obvious, in hindsight) that you can take to improve your situation and increase productivity (e.g., carve out set times when no one can bother you, like early in the morning or late at night, keep consistent times, set reasonable expectations and have a plan, don’t wing it).
But it also had shared some interesting research on how our brains have been rewired to have shorter attention spans, thanks to all our fancy pants technology.
“Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, Nass discovered, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the “mental wrecks” in Nass’s research, it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.”
Anyway, definitely want to put some of these ideas into practice. It was a quick read and had some concrete steps on how to improve attention and focus that I can start using immediately. Excited to try it!