I’m not one for notifications.
The only notifications I allow on my computer are for calendar events, because otherwise I would miss meetings frequently. I disabled email notifications, slack alerts, dings, pops, and anything else that might pull me out of focus on my task at hand.
I thought this would be a better way to work, uninterrupted, but it’s worse. And it’s worse because of me, but I didn’t realize it until now.
I started a new process when working, but it made something really clear to me that I didn’t notice before. I have a near-constant urge to check for messages frequently, like, really frequently. Any time there’s a pause of any kind, I check.
Building a container: check slack, maybe someone messaged me
Running a unit test: any new emails? have I been fired yet?
Twelve seconds pass without checking: any new notifications on github?
I’m compensating for the lack of notifications by checking super frequently to make sure I’m not missing something or someone isn’t waiting on my response. Nine times out of ten, there is nothing new for me to attend to, but it still interrupts my flow. Maybe I’ll see a message in #pets about someone’s dog, or a calendar invite for a meeting next week, or… you get the point. It’s a distraction at best, and at worst I’m completely pulled out of whatever context I was in.
So this was a bad habit obviously, and it kind of crept up on me, so what I needed was a system to help me break out of it.
Right on cue
What I needed was a way to deliniate time so that I knew when I should reasonably check for messages and when I shouldn’t. I vaguely remember trying out this pomodoro timer technique a long time ago, but timers are anxiety inducing for me… I’ll obsessively check the timer to see how much time I have left before the alarm rings, because I want to avoid that awful sound.
By happenstance, a month ago a new album came out that I really love, called Music for Animals. It’s a unique album in that it’s over three hours long, but only has ten tracks. I frequently find myself lost somewhere inside the album, unsure about how much time is left, or how many tracks I’ve heard. And it turns out this is intentional:
“My constant inspiration,” Frahm explains, “was something as mesmerising as watching a great waterfall or the leaves on a tree in a storm. It’s good we have symphonies and music where there’s a development, but a waterfall doesn’t need an Act 1, 2, 3, then an outcome, and nor do the leaves on a tree in a storm. Some people like watching the leaves rustle and the branches move. This record is for them”.
Talking about this album in general should be tangential to the blog post but I can’t help myself. The track Right Right Right is a favorite—a stand out that invokes so much frisson in me—from the title to the synth sounds that wash like waves of emotion.
I love this song so much that any time I’m interrupted I find myself restarting it, and this was the seed that planted this whole idea in my head.
The technique I use now to get longer periods of focus work is to pick a musical album, preferably Music for Animals, and dedicate myself to listen to it in its entirely, without interruption, while I focus on a task.
When doing this, there’s two outcomes that I have found. As the album ends, if I am still deep at work in my task, I can keep going without any penalty. Alternatively, if I notice the album is over, I can snap back to reality and check slack before rinsing and repeating.
Even with this technique, my bad habits are so strong, and I had to employ other techniques just to catch myself falling back into checking slack. This was fairly easy to do: when I start my focus block I’ll move slack/gmail/other distractions to a different i3 workspace, so when I jump to the usual workspace I see a familiar face reminding me to stay focused.
This isn’t your usual productivity hack and I don’t promise that this will make you stop procrastinating working on some dumb jira ticket. However, this is something that has worked quite well for me, and it was even employed to help me finish writing this post.
If you try this out and it doesn’t work, maybe try listening to Music for Animals. I haven’t really generalized this tactic much outside of that album 🙃