This is the first in a short series of things I'll likely write about the coming year (2007). The end of the year is often a good time to look back and think about what has happened and why, not to mention how they compared to my expectations and goals (assuming I had any).

Distraction and Productivity

In the last couple of years, my self-improvement efforts have centered around physical health. I've lost a bunch of weight and kept it off (see: Diet Tips or How To Lose Weight with a Spreadsheet and a Web Site, The Diet Plan and The Three Habits, The Diet Spreadsheet, Diet Tips: How To Eat Less), improved my eating habits, and am beginning to exercise more.

But my mental health has been slowly going down the crapper. While I've made half-hearted efforts to reduce the non-essential demands on my limited brain time and power (see: The Hopeless Email Battle, Shooting E-Mail Like Bullets, E-Mail Stress Disorder or Burnout?, E-Mail Tension Syndrome, E-Mail Newsletters and RSS, My 30 Day GMail and Yahoo! Mail Challenge), there's a lot more I can do.

I need to put the same amount of effort, time, and dedication into drastically reducing the "inputs" in my life, most of which are computer assisted and amplified. I need to reduce, focus, and filter my inputs.

Distraction Causes

In thinking about it, I've come to realize that there are surprisingly few underlying reasons for my mental distraction. Here they are:

  1. Longevity. As of a few days ago, I've been at Yahoo for seven years. I started in late December of 1999 and it's now late December of 2006. That means I've managed to get myself on a lot of mailing lists, many of which are "legacy" in the sense that I'm not involved with the stuff on a daily basis anymore, but I can't seem to convince myself to cut the cord. Similarly, I often get asked for my opinion on things that I only care about in a minor way (see next item) or that can be handled just as well (or better) by someone else.
  2. Difficulty saying "no!" For whatever reason, it's easy for me to over-commit and difficult for me to say "no" when I ought to. The strange thing is that I often know I'm doing it at the time (or shortly after) but can figure out how to correct the problem.
  3. Many Interests. I'm too interested in too many things. I always have been, so when someone passes me an interesting link or I stumble on a web site about some topic that I don't read about often enough, another 45 minutes can vanish in a flash.
  4. Availability of information. For someone of many interests, the web is a seductive technology. Information is so abundant and easy to come by that it rarely feels like "work" to dig it up. It's not like you have to travel to a library, navigate the bookshelves, and read without the aid of a search engine. So much of the friction is gone.
  5. Lack of obvious penalty. Unless I become more ruthless about setting goals (even simple ones) and somehow punishing myself for not meeting them, there's a lack of obvious penalty or downside to all this. That's not to say there aren't any but they're certainly not strong enough in most cases that I'm forced to change my habits.

What to do?

With all that in mind, I'm setting a few goals. Well, there're more like rules, but if I can stick with 'em, who really cares?

  1. I will unsubscribe from every email list that I don't consider essential to my work or hobbies. It's so easy to get occasionally interesting information when I need it (via search) that I shouldn't be spending mental energy reading a large stream of incoming hay on the off chance that a needle shows up.
  2. I will end every day (both at work and at home) with no open tabs in my browser. I've been using tabs as a sort of ad-hoc todo list that has no obvious order or priority and often spirals out of control. No more of that.
  3. While the echo chamber is fun, entertaining, seductive and often frustrating, I will check the various blog amplifiers and aggregators only once a day (barring unusual circumstances).
  4. I will try harder to say no.

There aren't many and they sound simple, but they represent pretty important changes to my daily workflow.

My goal is to spend more time on quality stuff: getting deeper into stuff that I already do and want to do more of, building more stuff (more on that later), and spending less time on trivia, and generally trying to have a clearer head and less of a sense of urgency.

Do you have any distraction reduction plans in the works too?

Posted by jzawodn at December 31, 2006 02:40 PM

Reader Comments
# Tim Converse said:

Great post! Really clear and insightful.

This is an issue that has been bothering me too, and it's something we all need to think about because it's an inherently new problem. There just weren't that many inputs before. Also as part of the industry that creates new inputs, we bear some responsibility -- kind of like oil companies and air pollution. :)

I realized only late in the process that this was one reason for my move from bigcorp to startup. A smaller company just has fewer cross-connections - fewer person-to-person pairs. If that's the only motivator, of course, there should be less disruptive ways to deal with it. :)

A mentor at Y! advised me to periodically (like every couple years): delete inbox (if you have one), cancel all meetings, unsubscribe from all mailing lists. Then slowly add back only the ones you have to, or the ones that really really interest you. I never did this.

on December 31, 2006 04:06 PM
# Kevin Burton said:

"Do you have any distraction reduction plans in the works too?"

Step #1. Stop reading Jeremy's blog ;) (joke of course)

on December 31, 2006 05:08 PM
# Stewart Johnson said:

You and I have similar problems Jeremy, it's good to see someone else tackling them and having success.

I've just started on the CSIRO diet, and I'm having good results to far -- 2007 will be the year I get back to a healthy weight!

One thought: for your Rule #4 -- you probably need some kind of process rather than "I'll try harder". I found that's one of the great things about David's GTD system, you don't have to think since there's an easy obvious process to follow. So maybe instead of "I'll try harder" you can say something like "when people ask me to get involved, I'll write it down on my List of Other Projects and get back to them no sooner than 24 hours later." (just an example). That way you give your natural tendency to say no the time it needs to kick in.

Other than that, good luck!

PS: Considered OpenID enabling your site?

on December 31, 2006 06:31 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Good point on rule #4. That's not a bad way to do it.

As for OpenID, assuming you mean as an OpenID consumer, I have thought about it. But I haven't spent enough time looking into it.

I did just enable it as an OpenID *provider* (well, delegating to LiveJournal for now) about 2 hours ago. :-)

on December 31, 2006 06:41 PM
# Stewart Johnson said:

Yeah I meant OpenID consumer (so I can log in for this comment with OpenID). Is this an example of somewhere you should be saying "that sounds interesting, but no." :-)

on December 31, 2006 07:14 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Say no? Nah, I've been poking at OpenID for a while now...

on December 31, 2006 07:20 PM
# Bharath R said:

Being interested in too many areas (of technology / Computer Science, I presume) is a problem most geeks face. The result is that you end up spending less time strengthening / working on your primary area of interest and tend towards being a generalist. (Whether thats indeed a bad thing is another matter altogether.)

on December 31, 2006 10:33 PM
# ChessMess said:

#3, #4, and #5 are a huge source of my distrations as well. To help me I ran down to my local library and grabbed the book Getting Things Done (the GTD system by David Allen) and make my home page. I have heard good things about the system so I am hoping it helps me to filter out all the distractions and better prioritize the things that I need to focus on. Sometimes I wish I could go back to the days when my only online distraction was spending time on CompuServe. :)

on December 31, 2006 11:02 PM
# Hanan Cohen said:

Distractions can sometimes lead to serendipity which might enhance productivity.

So, some lack of focus does not necessary contradicts productivity.

on December 31, 2006 11:47 PM
# Aaron Schaub said:

I have a problem with small shiny objects on the Web distracting me too. While it can be a major distractor, it has also given me some valuable insight and I didn't want to give it up. I reconciled my need to wander and inclination to do so for a long time by blocking out an hour of "office time" every morning.

This has a number of benefits. First, it's the first hour of the day, which prevents me from having to walk into a meeting immediately. Second, it helps me get a feel for what the day might bring. Third it gives me permission to wander on the web. Finally, it gives me a defined time period for my wandering so it doesn't overwhelm the rest of my obligations.

As for saying "no", I've found that it helps to have a clear idea in my head of my "mission" at work. If my mission at work is to make sure projects X, Y, and Z are successful, it is easier to say "no" to projects that are not directly related because they don't get me any closer to my goals.

That's my $0.02. I hope it helps.

on January 1, 2007 07:14 AM
# Joe Zawodny said:

I think Aaron hit it on the head. You need to have a clear idea of your Mission or Purpose at work and away. I just finished a multi year project at work this year and spent the latter portion of 2006 wandering aimlessly and bored stiff. In the 2-weeks I took off at the end of the year, I came up with a few ideas for what I want to do, what needs to be done, and that I am best suited for. For me that meant phasing out the large team HW/SW activities to focus on SW project that I could pull off with minimal teaming. At home it is more difficult because my hobby is collecting hobbies. I plan to trim that to Astrophotography, R/C planes, and HO trains (Need at least one bad weather hobby).

on January 1, 2007 08:56 AM
# Charles said:

BTW, I wanted to thank you for the diet tips. I followed your diet tracking methods, I lost 60 pounds and got down to a normal BMI. Wow, I didn't know I was carrying so much extra weight.
Now if you can do anything similar for fighting distraction, I will be eternally in your debt.

on January 1, 2007 02:31 PM
# Tamar Weinberg said:

Great post, Jeremy. I especially appreciate you linking back to your diet experience et al.; I found out about your blog a few months after those posts, and that was excellent reading. :)

on January 1, 2007 04:59 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Charles, that's excellent news. Congrats on your... uh, loss. :-)

on January 1, 2007 05:55 PM
# David said:

Browser tabs are the devil. I always leave several (ok 10+) open for "later reading" and they will suck the life out of you.

I love browser tabs.

on January 2, 2007 09:15 AM
# Joe Duck said:

Great advice as usual. Heck, I think you could pull in your diet and life hacks and advice posts of the last few years and make a good little (big?) book.

on January 2, 2007 09:34 AM
# AndyF said:

Just watched a PBS show of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett answering questions from college students. One was, "What was the best advice you ever got?"

Bill answered that Warren told him to "Learn to say no." If it works for these guys....

on January 2, 2007 10:15 PM
# justinf said:

you might want to try the brainwave generator, both for relaxation/meditation and also to pep up your mind.

works best with headphones

on January 5, 2007 07:28 AM
# GilbertZ said:

I have bad news for your goals. If you want to run a blog, particularly one like yours, and not get pulled in multiple directions? Not doable. I think a blog like yours winds up being a full time affair. The only way to achieve what you suggest is to give up the blog.

BTW, I totally resonated with everything you said (plus I lost a ton of weight too in the last year and kept most of it off. Eat a loss less and exercise.) Sometimes I think it would be great to get out of the technology business, not have a computer anymore and just lie on the beach. As much as I enjoy all these interesting things, it doesn't seem to be real helpful to mental peace of mind...

Read Richard Restak, MD. He writes books on the brain. He says that all these channels and windows and multitasking are physically changing the structure of our brains. And this is what causes ADD and similar brain problems. I'm sure he's right. He also did that PBS series on the brain a few years ago.

Think about it. Synapses are formed to trigger memory and calculate things. Having 20 tabs open causes your brain to physically change.

I have 20 tabs as I write this. It's very frustrating.

on January 6, 2007 11:36 AM
# areaem said:

I want to share a post I read a few months ago. It's similar to what Jeremy describes here.
See -

Also, in my 10 year career, in all the jobs I worked, there was atleast one person who told me that I should surf the web lesser. It's not games or chat or porn. It's always news, flickr, blogs, eBay, maps, YouTube, digg, reddit etc.

I hear so many people myself included, feel that time flies so fast... I think if we somehow control the amount of information we process everyday like Jeremy describes above, we could slow down things a bit.

Sometimes, I wish I could go back to the days when there's no Internet or when computers/internet were so expensive (for me).

on January 9, 2007 07:07 PM
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