Managing me: one developer’s view on how to manage an overactive mind and stay focused

Benny Brown | February 13th 2018

Ever since I became a developer I have had people talk about “The Zone”, this elusive spot where you work perfectly, you’re at your most productive and you’re the best you can be. I always found that a little odd; as developers, we’re meant to be great at our job 24/7, right?

But it turns out we’re all surrounded by so many distractions, and as developers we naturally have very active minds and want to manage a thousand things a second. Throwing restrictions on that isn’t exactly easy. A quick check of Facebook; read your emails; get asked to quickly complete a little task; a git merge on another project. All of these things throw your focus, not that they are inherently bad things, but when we’re trying to put ourselves in the most productive state, they get right in the way and really pull your focus.

When I joined PushON I was terrible for it. Not intentionally, I just found it so easy to end up in the wormhole of social media or emails and all of a sudden I’d wasted ten minutes! So when I found ways to combat that and improve immensely, I thought that it’d make an interesting blog post. If not then I do apologise!

Managing distractions

Let’s not dance around it, all of us check Facebook/Twitter while in work. Nowadays it’s nearly impossible to separate a work life and a personal life for 8/9 hours a day, but how do you begin to make sure that these little things don’t sap all your time?

I’ve generally found one of the huge keys is out of sight out of mind, which seems simple enough, but a lot of us use tabbed browsers. I think all of us relate to seeing a browser like this:

 

which is perfectly understandable, but it keeps the distraction right there in front of your eyes. Tabs are great because we all have a hundred things going on at once; however I’ve found the best way to stop the call of social media is to have it in an entirely different browser. Or an alternative desktop even!

Thanks to an update in chrome, we can no longer develop on local sites in Chrome, which is a real pain. But it does mean I spend the majority of my productive time in Firefox, so anything personal stays in a small minimised chrome window, something that I only check when I choose to. I don’t accidentally see a notification and then get sucked back in. As for your phone, put it down on your desk so notifications don’t grab you immediately with a buzz on your leg. It is so much easier to storm through a task and get it done than it is to keep interrupting yourself with conversations and notifications.

“The Zone”

I’ve found the zone is a very personal thing. All of us have an environment that is super-conducive for our personal productivity. It can be all sorts of things that help, for example my coworker likes a specific keyboard and mouse that help him be more comfortable in his environment and therefore more productive.

A lot of us on the PushON team use music to sort of shut out the external distractions. I find Greek black metal really helps me lock in and focus; however I’m aware that probably isn’t to most people’s tastes! Whatever music you enjoy you’ll notice some of it is very conducive to helping you focus. It’s definitely worth trying putting your headphones on and seeing if it helps you crack on. For most of us, it really helps a lot!

Setting out your desktop how you like is also very important. Removing the distractions is one thing, but making everything flow well for you is an even bigger improvement.

At PushON we all work on Linux, so our customisation options are huge! I for example made all my windows dark, have my taskbar on the left of each monitor and have shortcuts set up for all the things I need to regularly use. My IDE is the same; I have set up PhPStorm so everything I need is where I expect it to be. This just means once I am in the flow, everything works well for me.

Flow of work

It’s also hard to get into work if you keep jumping between projects. I’ve always found that if you keep getting pulled between things, tickets, projects or odd jobs, you never really hit your stride with any of them. So if there’s any way to structure your day so you work on one thing at a time, it’ll help massively with your productivity and being in “The Zone” as much as possible.

For example I started today with ticket work, finished a few of them off, had lunch and have now taken the afternoon to write this article. I haven’t lined anything up specifically for after this, which means I can just focus on writing without distraction!

Working on things you enjoy

At the end of the day, no matter how much you say you love development, there are always projects we dislike. On those projects it’s hard to really be fully productive if you find yourself disliking the majority of your work; it will always be very hard to lock in. No matter how many distractions you remove or how loud you turn your music up, it will be tough to ever really achieve your best productivity. If this becomes the case, speak to someone about your workload; no-one wants to be unproductive!

These are a lot of simple things but they very easily combine to produce an environment that helps your productivity thrive. We’re never going to achieve 100% focus in such busy environments, but just cutting down on the distractions and optimising your desktop can make all the difference.