unit and acceptance testing, automation, productivity

How waiting in line can improve your focus

As software developers, and more generally, knowledge workers, we earn our living through mental labor. Our brain is the ultimate tool we use to create value in the world. The intensity at which it can focus on the task at hand over time is directly proportional to the quality and quantity of our contributions.

Few books are as helpful to master and nurture one's ability to focus as Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world by Cal Newport, a book I already recommended here a few times.

My friend Francesca recently wrote me she picked up the book and asked me which of the rules has been the most useful. For me, the one rule that laid the groundwork to make the other successful was embrace boredom.

Our brains don't like boredom, and it's never been easier to satisfy the craving for new stimuli. Social media, casual gaming, and infotainment sites are always accessible through our smartphones no matter where we are, their business model relying on quenching our thirst for "something to do."

Giving into distraction on every micro-boredom occasion corrodes your ability to focus when your work demands it. Picking up your phone while standing in line, quickly checking Twitter while waiting for the code to compile, listening to a podcast fragment while putting out the trash, they all seem like harmless ways to make the most out of idle time, but when you look at their cumulative effect over time, they have troublesome consequences.

A brain used to getting a new stimulus as soon as it gets bored will demand distraction once faced with hard cognitive work. Hard cognitive work requires long periods of uninterrupted focus. Being unable to sustain concentration jeopardizes it.

Giving in to distraction can have devastating results: a study found it takes on average 25 minutes to get back on task.

To safeguard your focus ability, you need to train it intentionally. Embracing boredom, even occasionally seeking it, to get your brain used to it is a way to exercise its ability to sustain focus for long periods.

Since reading Deep Work I've stopped picking out my phone when waiting in line and made it a point of just standing there, bored. As a result, I'm now much more aware of the urge to do something different when faced with a hard task, and I can mostly keep it at bay.

Use queues, elevators, build and test runs, ad breaks, and other little moments of boredom during the day as training to resist the craving for distraction. That way, when your brain will seek it while working on a demanding problem, you'll be able to stay on task.

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