Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Where I Start Talking About Distractions, Get Distracted, And Go Elsewhere

The upper right of my monitor flashes me the latest tweets from the #QA hashtag column I have set up in Tweetdeck. I get back to the VB macro code I was writing. Let's see, how do I merge two sheets content again? Ding! New email. Flipping over to Outlook I quickly respond to a question about an open ticket, file the email away, and return to that macro. Ummm, let's see... I think I put in the merge sheets code... yep, that I did. Now I just need to--Oh, my Winamp notifier! It's finished playing the album I was listening to and is starting over. I better queue up a new batch of songs; some post-rock should make good background music. Ok, now I'm ready to focus on that macro... but I better check Facebook quick, my Chrome icon shows I have two new comments to check out... ahh, much better. Uhh, so, uhh... macro time. Shoot, I forgot what I needed to do after the merge. Where's that requirements document again? Oh yeah, out on our Sharepoint workspace... but while I have my browser open, I should quick check Google Reader...

I know it should almost go without saying that it's hard to get anything done when you're distracted, but whereas I used to have no problem isolating myself on a project or task, it's now becoming harder and harder to do so. I've become conditioned to keep up with everything that's going on as instantly as possible. It's no longer ok to check my email at the end of the day or wait until lunch to scan my twitter feed. Instead of glancing at my Facebook news feed on the bus ride home, I have to be continually notified of what's going on. I, along with more people than I care to imagine, have been conditioned to be hyperactively shifting focus.

If I somehow miss a tweet, I might not know what's going on right now. I have to have the perfect playlist right now in order to truly do good work. I want to feel engaged with my friends right now or I might not be the most interesting, involved person there is. We have become a society focused on the moment--if you're not in it, you're not with it.

This may not be a problem for our personal lives, but it's begun to creep into our professional lives more and more and more as I see tendencies of my personal life permeating my work hours. Being super-engaged with social media and the technology that enables it, assuming it doesn't adversely affect your real-world social skills or become a nuisance to those around you, I see as actually being moderately beneficial. That may be because I grew up on a farm in the middle of the country where I was in a state of semi-isolation outside of school months, but I do see being able to manage a plethora of different social circles, news sources, and entertainment options as a great trait to own... just not necessarily in a work environment.

Even though we see so many entrepreneurial opportunities being seized by smart, young people who are doing seemingly a million things at once, the unfortunate truth is that the rest of us (read: me, at least, and potentially you) will have more normal, everyday jobs where juggling a half million tasks won't be in our job description (although, who knows, maybe it might). Personally, I've let too many distractions enter my working space. It's not something that happened all at once either. It happened slowly over time, as I imagine it does for many people. It started with a couple of applications for notifying me of certain events (new email, stock limit hit) which I thought would be useful and over time I found I had set up notifications for everything under the sun.

These notifications weren't just for personal things, though, which made it hard to see that I was doing myself a disservice by putting more and more distractions in front of me. As I installed Tweetdeck to monitor those I followed, I also had QA related searches being pulled in.  After I installed a Facebook notifier I made sure I had all of my task tracking in Outlook configured to alert me to due dates for all of the little things I entered in.

To complicate matters, I had my personal life and my work life cross-pollinating with one another. I would be friends with co-workers on Facebook and put personal tasks in my work task list. OneNote no longer consisted of just my work notes, but also of some items I needed to remember that weren't work related. I used my personal email address as a secondary testing address... the barriers broke down.

So where does that leave me? Well, probably in a similar situation to many other people. The barriers of work life and personal life are becoming more and more permeable, with things slipping between the two categories with more and more ease. How we navigate these waters will help define the environment we work in, as well as how we approach work. I already see myself thinking about work during "my time" but also take moments at work to do  "me things."  Work is no longer going in to an office or a factory from 8 to 5 with a lunch break in between. Work is more amorphous, especially in technology related fields.

Now... where was I going with all of this? Oh yeah, distractions are bad! Tying together the themes of the intertwining of work and personal life with the notion that distractions aren't all that bad in your personal life, but can make you less than productive while working, the biggest hurdle that we have to overcome is knowing how and when to turn "on" and "off" our focus. It might not even be possible the more we allow work and life to mingle... but I think I'll work on it... starting now. Tweetdeck, Facebook, and Winamp, prepare to be closed. Excel, prepare to get macro'd!

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