Okay this was supposed to be a quick post but it seems to have rambled on - I guess I had more to say on this than I thought.
Anyway, this is yet another post that has come out of Alex Hillman's ever-excellent unstick.me live weekly session. During a discussion on distractions the notion of taking a break from your work came up. Of course we weren't focusing on the work, but on the break. A lot of us who work in front of a computer all day are beset by myriad distractions, some inflicted by others but most self-inflicted. We're checking Twitter, checking our RSS feeds, checking our personal email (at work of course), etc., etc.
For me this worsens when I'm doing work I can't get into or that involves more focus then I'm willing to give. However when I'm really rolling on something my focus is almost unflappable. Emails go unread, "Good mornings" get ignored, lunch goes uneaten and Twitter notices go, well, unnoticed. But what happens when I inevitably get stuck or get interrupted? Well, I better check those emails, see what my friend's are tweeting, eat. And once I get into that, I have a really hard time getting back into whatever it was I was doing. Why? Because it's really easy to just keep checking and checking and checking. There's always new articles coming in, always new posts.
One of the best pieces of advice I read a long time ago is that when you're programming and you're stuck, get up and do something else. Just get out and take a walk. (This is why dotcom developers argued for foosball tables). And I used to do this - walk that is, not play foosball. And you know what, it worked. It gave me a chance to clear my head, get my blood pumping and let thoughts just percolate. But now I don't do that because it's easier to just shift focus to Google Reader. And I know it's not just me because of all the great people who joined in unstick.me live tonight and confessed their sins.
This is a problem that more and more people are going to have as the world gets more connected. People have already started calling it "information overload" but that's really a misnomer because that makes it sound passive. But it's not passive because I'm actively choosing to overload myself. A lot of us referred to these distractions as an addiction tonight and to some degree it is. It's also the human instinct of not wanting to be left out of the loop or not wanting to miss something important. However, when it comes to what happens during work time I think we all need to be honest and just admit that it most often falls to procrastination. I know I'm guilty of it and I think I'm getting worse.
So what's the answer? Well here's what I said in the session:
"Sometimes you need to walk away for a while. The problem is we tend not to walk away but navigate away. And it's not the same." (Thanks to Alex for tweeting this for posterity)
Taking a break from work is fine. Getting stuck is natural. But when you automatically reach for your timesink, you've already failed. It's no different than the down-on-his-luck alcoholic reaching for the bottle or the just-one-more-hand gambler spending his kid's savings. Sure you're cheating you're employer out of some time (even if that employer is you) but really you're feeding a bad habit.
So my advice is, when you need to take a break and clear your head, you really need to walk away. And when you do, make sure you really walk away. Get up, leave your desk/office and go somewhere else. You will not only have a better chance of coming back refreshed and ready to get back to work but you'll also be helping yourself break the cycle of work-check-work-check-check-wo...-CHECK.
Now I'll be honest here. I have no idea if this will work. I certainly don't do this now and the thought of taking a walk in sub-zero temperatures this time of year does not necessarily appeal to me. However, I'm going to give it a try. I know that last week just a little exercise in the morning helped me be more alert at work and I'm hoping that getting out of the habit of hitting the web every break will help me be more engaged. The only downside I can see is that it looks way better to be zoned out but sitting at your desk then completely absent from the office when co-workers or your boss are looking for you. I work in an environment where this shouldn't be a problem but I'd be interested to know if anyone runs into any problems, or successes for that matter, if they attempt this approach. I'll be sure to post how it's working for me.