What ever happened to being able to chew on a problem, anyway? You know, concentrate, think, wonder, and sketch a bit...

I find myself unsubscribing from more and more mailing lists and RSS feeds. I'm being more and more brutal in how I deal with email (just moved everything older than 2 weeks into my "archive" folder--sorry if you expected a response). I'm avoiding instant messenger as much as possible. I'm wearing headphones at work more, mainly to make up for the lack of any quiet space. My voicemail message simply spells out my email address, hoping that I'll have one less inbox to check for new stuff demanding my attention (not that it seems to deter people from talking at it).

Our high tech world kind of sucks from a productivity standpoint. Instead of creating an office space or environment in which it's easy to focus, we've been dropped into an obstacle course that throws lots of little tantalizing distractions at us along the way, each one is quite small. Combined they're formidable.

Nick Carr writes:

Like me, you've probably sensed the same thing, in yourself and in others - the way the constant collection of information becomes an easy substitute for trying to achieve any kind of true understanding. It seems a form of laziness as much as anything else, a laziness that the internet both encourages and justifies.

That only makes it worse. There's so much to choose from that deciding what to focus on can be a full-time job in and of itself!

As much as I complained about having to sit so long in a small airplane, I'm realizing how distraction free last weekend was. All I had to do was look at a map now and then, keep the plane flying, and enjoy the scenery. There was very little task switching taking place. The only thing demanding my attention in an interrupt-driven sort of way was my instructor. But that's what I was paying him to do. :-)

What's your secret? Or are you so distracted that you didn't make it this far?

[In related news, Popular Science tells us that Too Many Meetings Make You Grumpy. Shocker!]

Posted by jzawodn at April 24, 2006 03:12 PM

Reader Comments
# Beuno said:

I agree 100%.
I've had to start using headphone most of the time, leaving IMs and Email on a different desktop then I'm working in just to focus for more than 20 minutes on anything.

on April 24, 2006 03:34 PM
# David Gammel said:

Most of these things can be turned off or muted. Why not try it?

on April 24, 2006 03:39 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Was it not clear that I've been doing more and more of that?

on April 24, 2006 03:44 PM
# Stuart Langridge said:

I don't have a secret. Distraction is a big problem. However, every day I manage to come up with an idea to solve something which I only knew about because I read a lot around the subject. Focusing more on what, ostensibly, I do would make me more able to concentrate on the stuff I'm doing but less good at it.
I'd like to think that there's a sweet spot somewhere in the middle, but hitting it is...complex.

on April 24, 2006 03:45 PM
# gaba said:

I think this is related with Gladwell's speech that you almost missed the other day. He used the word "overwhelmed".

on April 24, 2006 04:18 PM
# Marshall Kirkpatrick said:

I put my RSS feeds in folders according to priority, I let the vast majority of unimportant new items flow by, I get IM notification as soon as really important feeds get updated and I take 2 days a week totally off work unless there's a crisis. Works great for me, no problems.

on April 24, 2006 04:22 PM
# said:

A lot of it is simply what you've been doing... restricting the distracting stuff, either by segregating it or simply not doing it. Part of the difficulty in doing this is training others that we're not going to be available 24/7. No, I will not be checking work email and IM on the weekends. No, you cannot call my cell on vacation. Then doing things like reading RSS feeds once or twice a day instead of throughout the day (and tagging the critical ones so that if you don't have time to read everything you catch the stuff you feel is key).

on April 24, 2006 04:42 PM
# Mitch Contla said:

I constantly struggle with this. For me, the biggest distraction is certainly RSS! I wonder how much information the mind can process efficiently, before it simply becomes a leaky sieve with nothing of value left behind.

Like you, I'm turning things off; starting with about 300 feeds!

on April 24, 2006 04:45 PM
# Timothy Li said:

=) good point, finally a sound explanation for the massive unsubscribing declarations lately

on April 24, 2006 04:53 PM
# John S. said:

I've been trimming my feeds as well. The ones that are left I've tried prioritizing in folders, but that hasn't really done much (too curious when a folder is lit up what's new in there). I also try to keep my email closed and only open a few times a day. I have a program running that tells me if there is new mail and lets me quickly scan it in case there's an urgent matter to attend to.

on April 24, 2006 04:55 PM
# Steve Mallett said:

I've been experimenting with sleep/naps & other cognitive therapys I'm documenting at sleephacks.com I've come across a few real gems that are helping me "deal" with reality more... in addition to tweaking work toward being a healthy mental environment as you sound like you're doing.

on April 24, 2006 05:06 PM
# Halfdeck said:

I'm starting to turn my ICQ off days at a time. I feel bad about shutting people out, but what else can I do? If I was making 5k a day I'd probably turn ICQ back on lol, but when I need to concentrate, I just don't have the space in my brain to handle the distraction. With ICQ on, the entire day feels like a coffee break.

on April 24, 2006 05:06 PM
# Jonathan Johnson said:

Check out the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. It has changed the way I approach life, and it's been for the better. Plus, it's only about $10 from Amazon, so it's not too much of a risk :)

on April 24, 2006 05:08 PM
# Jeffrey Friedl said:

I've found two things that do wonders for my productivity: daycare for Anthony, and the lack of an Internet connection.

(For you, I'd recommend swapping the first one with "turn off comments on my blog" :-)

on April 24, 2006 05:18 PM
# Rob said:

Will you be putting out an updated edition of High Performance MySQL anytime soon?

on April 24, 2006 05:20 PM
# AV said:

No internet connection or closing browser/email-client for a couple of hours everyday does wonders for me. On days when it gets worse, staying away from any computing device for a couple of hours or more.

But, my constant reloading of feeds makes me wonder whether I have ADD!

on April 24, 2006 05:29 PM
# Jimmy Dickinson said:

You know, information over saturation doesn't lead to greater understand... it just leads to information saturation. It took me six months, deleting 40 plus RSS feeds, cutting bank on half of these e-mail list serv's & nearly dismissing podcast in their entirety; I think I finally got it. Smaller scope of information; greater retention & refinement of knowledge. Larger scope of information; less retention and understanding.

It's just like in business. The biggest and best companies fail, because they stretch themselves to thin and focus on to much. Great companies define scope and add resources as needed to match scope growth. Unfortunetly, we can't add another brain or small pet to be to read those other 40 RSS feeds or check our e-mail!

I'm glad I am not the only one struggling through this. Great article.

on April 24, 2006 05:35 PM
# Joost Schuur said:

I've been using Brainwave Generator (bwgen.com) for the past week to induce a more sound sleep and feel great after only 4 hours a night now. They also have settings for 'creativity' and 'attention' that I've been meaning to try out at work, if only I could wear headphones long enough before I have to interact with another person.

on April 24, 2006 05:40 PM
# vanderwal said:

I am turning off RSS at 9:30 every morning and open it at 4 or later. I keep IM off for good chunks of the day.

A week ago I was in Florida with little e-mail access (drive 20 minutes to Panera to get WiFi grab e-mail and send what had built up and fill up my RSS reader). It was a little un-nerving for the first couple days, but it got a little better. The problem was my instant access to e-mail on my Treo was impacted by its broken keyboard. I was in the midst of booking time on a trip to California with meetings and e-mail was the forum (I am not a fan of voice) as I can't save, parse, highlight, nor annotate it easily. Mail on my mobile is acted upon or deleted as I will deal with it on my laptop (it is POP mail of course).

The best thing is to go to a place with no connectivity for a few hours a day and get things done. Don't tell anybody where you are going or they will track you down and ask questions that could wait an hour or two. I don't have this luxury these days, but I wish I could do it for a day or two.

on April 24, 2006 05:58 PM
# Rasmus said:

I have been doing this for years. I refuse to do voice mail. I don't even know how to check it and have taped over the blinky things. No cell phone, no RSS reader (other than the my.yahoo.com start page) and no new mail indicators on my desktop. I run irc on a private channel and I tend to log onto IM when I am working because I work with folks in other offices but I am very good at ignoring IM's that aren't urgent. Even with that, there are too many distractions.

on April 24, 2006 06:13 PM
# Jeff Boulter said:

I struggle between thinking that lots of think time is what people need vs. having good communnication. What good is having lots of time to work on something if you're working on solving the wrong problem? Maybe someone else has already solved that problem if you just talked to them. There's probably some balance there. Perhaps working from home 1 day a week is fair.

on April 24, 2006 08:26 PM
# Rob Steele said:

What works best for me it to have a project that I can obsess about, something so intensely interesting that distractions fade into the background. I start separating out chunks to think about while doing mundane chores like eating and driving. I can keep it up for months and be enormously productive but eventually have to relax and reset. While the fit is on it's easy to ignore things that don't contribute directly to the goal. The fact that I'm posting here suggests that I'm not in that mode now.

on April 24, 2006 08:38 PM
# Justin Davis said:

I have been taking public transportation to work. Sometimes, I feel I can get more done on the train (with no Internet connection and only occasional distractions by weird people) than when I'm in the office.

on April 24, 2006 08:56 PM
# Melissa Della said:

This is why my IM is on permanent away, I don't answer phone calls (you can leave me a message if you like, but I may not listen to it for a while), and email is dealt with slowly (and brutally, like you). Too many distractions, not enough doing what I want. I got sick of it.

on April 24, 2006 09:22 PM
# Deepak said:

I think all of us are in much the same boat. IMs/Skype/RSS/Email/Phones

What I would like (if my company would support it), is a single interface, handling phones/IMs/voicemail, and where I can apply suitable filters. That would probably work for me.

I am getting brutal with email too. Lots of filters.

RSS .. I use it for research, so I have it appropriately organized, but easier said than done.

GTD concepts have helped. Backpack has helped a lot.

Like Justin .. best place to work ... PLANES!!!!

on April 24, 2006 10:43 PM
# grumpY! said:

there is another side to concentration. of course its partly about removing distractions, but also its about the mental toughness to simply focus. i never had this until i started doing marathon running a decade ago. they are not kidding when they say it is half mental. endurance sports will definitely improve your ability to focus, even in the midst of adverse conditions.

on April 24, 2006 11:19 PM
# Bharath R said:

Or maybe we're so used to multi tasking that we find it difficult to concentrate & awkward doing just one thing at a time? I'd give a lot to know how to get 100% concentration back on like the good ol' days.

on April 25, 2006 12:54 AM
# Abhi said:

I am surrounded by noise(there's a house being constructed next door), children playing on the street, loud traffic..

Two weeks back I bought a pair of ear plugs( http://elvex.com/reusable-ear-plugs.htm ,they are imported in India by a company called dbsafe.com ) They are quite good in noise attenutation. Cuts out 25 dB. Prior to acquiring these ear plugs, I was thinking of going in for over the ear ear-muffs(29dB noise reduction, http://elvex.com/HB-650.htm .) Headphones just don't cut it for me. The ear plugs do a wonderful job.
I've divided my rss feeds into 2 categories. Personal and Work(finance.) The work feeds, I check 2-3 times a day until 6-7pm. The personal feeds are only checked after 9pm(usually after dinner.)

on April 25, 2006 01:07 AM
# Robert Oschler said:

That's why you hear more and more people say that they actually enjoy their long car commutes, even during rush hour. It gives them an hour or two to themselves in the car.


* Get rid of TV
* Meditate
* Long walks


on April 25, 2006 01:21 AM
# Joe Hunkins said:

Too much info .... concentration ... getting harder....

What was the question?

on April 25, 2006 01:27 AM
# Rick Walter said:

Welcome to the world of Modern Maturity, it only gets worse from here my friend.

on April 25, 2006 05:07 AM
# matt said:

I have had to learn to organize my habits to get anything done. I set aside a small amount of time to read some blogs I enjoy (like this) twice a day and don't read blogs the rest of the day. Then I check my email every hour or so unless there is something important I am waiting for. The rest of the time email is closed. I don't work with IM going unless I am using it for work.

I have learned, that for me, I have to seperate things and not try to multitask. I can multitask but it is less productive for each thing.

I have also cut back the blogs I read, dropped of several mailling lists, and am pickier about email.

on April 25, 2006 05:56 AM
# jeremiah johnson said:

You've got to filter. You can still multi-task, but you really shouldn't be multitasking inside any given 20-30 minute window. Do one thing for 20 minutes, back away, do something else for 20 minutes, etc.

I've had the multitasking problem for decades, but it wasn't because I wasn't filtering, it was because I couldn't. I have narcolepsy, one effect being complete lack of concentration. Your body thinks its time to sleep when it isn't, and somehow you can't concentrate when your body thinks it shouldn't be concentrating.

Anyway, I got some narcolepsy treatment and now I'm able to filter out unwanted junk without effort. I close my email when I'm working on something, I put the headphones on and I put a do not disturb sign on my cube. IM goes down. I work. Filtering out the stuff you don't want bothering you works amazingly well, and I find that often my 20 minute isolation periods become 120 minutes long, and I get LOADS of work done.

If you don't want things to bother you, turn them off, shut them down, and keep them away.

But I have a question for you - how do you pee in an airplane? I think that would be quite the concentration breaker...

on April 25, 2006 06:51 AM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

You don't pee in the airplane. You do that when you're back on the ground. :-)

(Do you pee in your car?)

on April 25, 2006 06:56 AM
# Jay Liew said:

I use a combination of headphones and a white board door. I'm not fortunate enough to have my own office (for those of you who can just opt to shut your door), but I do have the equivalent of a big standing white board that acts as a "door" to my cube. I block the entrance to my cube with the "door", and put my headphones on. On the door, I just write something like "I've got my headphones on" - so people know I am busy and only try to talk to me if it is urgent.

Also, at my company, we promote the use of Dr. Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (lookup Amazon) - and thus, I just write "Q1" or "Q2" on my door and people know exactly what I mean.

Disclaimer: I like Stephen Covey's 7 Habits + GTD by David Allen. Definitely, recommended.

on April 25, 2006 07:48 AM
# Jon Woolley said:

Two words. Wireless headphones. Load up your library with music you love, and away you go.

on April 25, 2006 08:23 AM
# Roderick said:

On a related note when you are in the office do you ever feel like you are not allowed to stop and just think about a problem?

I find it is one of the really limiting factors of attacking challenging situations in an office environment. I like to think about problems and attack them from different angles, but I am also expected to be constantly working, or at least have the appearance there of. So how does one stop typing, reading, talking long enough to think about a problem while still apearing productive?

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that...

on April 25, 2006 08:55 AM
# Gerald Buckley said:

Close your eyes for two seconds and imagine you're Mr. Semel.

Scary wasn't it? Life ain't so bad NOW is it? :)

Congrats on getting the plane home safe and sound.

on April 25, 2006 09:35 AM
# Marc said:

I know exactly what you mean. Information overload. I'm an information junkie.

Luckily, I just found this post which cleared it all up for me:


on April 25, 2006 02:57 PM
# Michael Stoppelman said:

I've always felt there should be some sort of "focus" application for windows/osx/xwindows/etc. Maybe you type in that you're going to be coding on X and it would just grey out everything else in the background. If you got side-tracked and checked email it would prompt you saying "hey get back to work on X". I've found my ability to focus has dropped considerably after getting more IMs and emails than a normal person should.

Do you think that would help?

on April 25, 2006 11:27 PM
# pedro said:

Maybe the wisest thing to do is not to read email anymore, as the revered professor Knuth did.

on April 26, 2006 05:35 AM
# Tracy said:

And I was thinking that I had ADD or thought overload; it's good to know that others have the same issue. Maybe technology is the downfall of humanity. We may need to go back to carrier pigeons and stone tablets for information distribution. The molasses effect may kill impatience.

on April 26, 2006 11:44 AM
# Joe Hunkins said:

>> Maybe technology is the downfall of humanity...

Always a provocative notion. I hope we aren't losing the tendency for good thinkers to spend long and reflective amounts of time solving complex problems.

I'm still in the "pro technology" camp that says it's more likely to save us than bury us, but I'm not sure I'd want to debate that in light of the current state of global affairs and internet abuses and info overload.

on April 26, 2006 12:28 PM
# Sean Tierney said:

I just wrote up the prescription I'm using to deal with this very problem-


on April 26, 2006 02:47 PM
# Rose DesRochers said:

Maybe you woke up one day and like me you realized that you hate most people.The world is made up of rude people and it's easier to tune out the world around you then deal with the BS.

Ps: I'm still reading.I'm not distracted yet or am I?

on April 26, 2006 07:58 PM
# Malcolm Tredinnick said:

Your comment about wearing headphones more and more to get some quiet space is a real indictment on cubicle cities. I have worked inside Yahoo's Sunnyvale buildings (as a contractor for a partner organisation) and you seem to have some of the better cubicle setups around (large spaces, reasonably high dividers). If it is still too noisy, then there is really no win to be had from cubicles (and I am generally against the concept, but my impression was that Yahoo had done better than many organisations with their setup).

I also tended to wear headphones as much as possible for noise reduction when I was in an office environment, but a day of wearing headphones isn't always comfortable, so there's no panacea as far as I can tell.

on April 27, 2006 05:28 AM
# Dustin Diaz said:

Now that it's sunny outside, I just take strolls. Otherwise unsubscribing to RSS feeds, changing voice mails, and archiving email wouldn't work for me.

Also, sometimes its healthy to get off the coffee at work - and get a nice relaxing beer.

on April 27, 2006 08:10 AM
# Casper said:

John S. wrote: "... I have a program running that tells me if there is new mail and lets me quickly scan it in case there's an urgent matter to attend to.

And what program would that be? Are you referring to a standard filter that alerts you when it comes across an e-mail from your boss or have I missed out completety on some sort of program that actually *does* apply more than just simple comparisons to analysze the urgency of e-mails?


on April 27, 2006 08:41 AM
# Dom Delimar said:

Have you tried Mark Joyner's Simpleology 101?

I have and it did wonders for me. How do I know? Well, I really felt it helped me focus on only the important things and also helped me ignore the unimportant ones at least until I got some free time to deal with them.
And the thing that made me realize all that was after I lost flash support on my browser (gnu/linux os, mozilla firefox and I can't leave it alone, I constantly play with some stuff I probably shouldn't be playing with...) and could not follow the Simpleology lessons because I could not access the quizes (which are in flash) so the experience wasn't full and I kind of stopped using it. And only then I felt how much this helped me organize myself and how much I missed it.

If you haven't you should check it out and signup at http://www.simpleology.com/ (it's free) and if you'd like to give me some recognition you can signup from http://uncover.simpleology.com/ - :) thanks!

Jeff Boulter, the Business Organization professor (I'm a student of Business & Economics) asked us the other day: what do yout think is better: being efficient or being effective? You got it, it's effective as what matters if you're efficient in all the wrong things?

Oh, and yes, my IM is closed almost all of the time and I no longer have those programs that automatically check my e-mail inbox... One thing that still bothers me are some 5000 unanswered e-mails in my inbox... :=) But it's not that scary, all of these are actually unread newsletters and that sort of things so I take about an hour every now and then to catch up on one newsletter I haven't been reading for awhile - I read several recent issues and it's easier to determine then whether I need it (contains a lot of good info) or not (contains pretty much just advertising) and unsubscribe if I don't need it.


on April 28, 2006 09:16 AM
# Peter Bowyer said:

Michael Stoppelman: it's been written (well something similar anyhow) - it's called Temptation Blocker http://www.webjillion.com/archives/2005/08/01/free-software-temptation-blocker.

Now why am I lowering my productivity by posting here ;)

on May 1, 2006 07:24 AM
# Jeremy Weiland said:

Actually, I just wrote an article about managing content overload here. I dunno if it would help you but I feel like I've found a way to at least get a handle on the avalanche of info. I've slowly discovered that articulating and sticking to a workflow process is important. But, yeah, there's no substitute for unplugging from the matrix.

on May 1, 2006 07:26 AM
# Jeremy Weiland said:

oops, sorry, that article is here:


on May 1, 2006 07:28 AM
# vinodkamble said:

hello, sir
iam vinod ,27yr old degree college physics lecturer.my problem is iam not concentrating on the subjects? i feel lazy in reading the book for atleast one hour.iam bachlore . plz suggest me.

on May 7, 2006 08:15 AM
# Muriel Mae Day said:

I needed to read your article. I was wondering if I was the only one that had brain overload. For one year, I was without a computer. I could think more clearly. I read the newspaper. Relaxation came easy and my thoughts weren't so muddled. I spent more time with friends and family.

on April 28, 2007 10:55 PM
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