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Discussion Forum > How to deal with task that pull you in?

I am a software developer. I use AutoFocus to manage my day. According to AutoFocus, and other systems, you are supposed to do a task for as long as "you feel like it", and then you are supposed to move to the next one.

Sometimes, I start a task that occupies my entire day. Usually, it is a feature that I need to implement or a bug that I need to fix. I tried to combine AutoFocus with the Pomodoro technique, where one is supposed to stop their current task X minutes after the start. I strongly disliked the experience, because forced breaks interrupt my state of mind, and I lose the pace and the context.

As the result, I only perform a single task during the entire day.

How do you deal with situations like this?
April 12, 2018 at 14:06 | Unregistered CommenterBoris
There are many facets to the question.

In regards to Pomodoro style breaks, i never managed to do that. What i find works instead is to take a break whenever energy for the task flags. This should be less than an hour. And it is a pause; you will resume shortly. Before i actually stop, i note the current problem I'm working on so my mind can start thinking a solution while on break.

In theory this break time might be a good idea to start Autofocusing but myself I don't find that works too much. Instead i go for a complete walk and reset break and then resume the project. As for autofocus, I will enter that when I am ready to move on from the project.

This all assumes we are talking about a task that should take most of your day. If you don't have that, then just autofocus normally spending less than an hour per task.
April 12, 2018 at 16:32 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Boris, as long as you're moving forwards with stuff that matters across all the domains in your life – work, finance, health, family, etc – I wouldn't worry about it.
April 12, 2018 at 18:41 | Unregistered CommenterChris
Boris:

"As long as you feel like it" means just what it says. If you continue to feel like working on the same task for an entire day then do it. Some tasks are just best done that way.
April 12, 2018 at 21:56 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I usually get great results when I get into a state of flow and can stay focused on one task for several hours. The other stuff can wait. If the other stuff gets neglected for too long, it will start to assert itself and break your mental flow all by itself. No need to force the matter with a pomodoro.
April 13, 2018 at 1:26 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Boris,

I am a software developer, and I used to say exactly the same thing you are saying. However, when I was new to Mark's "little and often" principle, I experimented with shorter sessions, using the breaks to get little necessities done.

I discovered that the vast complexities I had mapped out in my head, which I felt desperate to retain and which drove me to work for hours on end, were actually fairly simple when written out on paper. Taking a break after 45-90 minutes (pick an interval, set a timer), I jotted down everything that was on my mind. It was a very intimidating prospect at first, but I found it only took a few minutes to capture it all.

Using the break to get a small thing done (phone call, email reply, smoke alarm battery...) gave me a little boost, one less thing on my mind, a slightly lighter feeling.

Getting back to the Big Project and rereading my notes, I often found them not really that complex. Seeing it all on paper in one view makes it seem a lot simpler than when it's floating around in my head. I found that truly shocking. Equally shocking, I would often see a flaw or a better direction right away.

I concluded that I was far more productive with breaks than without.

Nevertheless, that desperate feeling that I need to keep going and cannot possibly afford a break is very convincing. I slip back into it often, but so far every time that I've returned to taking breaks, I have rediscovered that this feeling is a cruel illusion.

I recommend giving it a try. Pomodoros are too quick, though, I agree. I would keep to a minimum of 45 minutes.
April 13, 2018 at 3:19 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
I concur 100% with Bernie's perspective, except for the timer. There are natural moments to take a break and attune yourself to those.
April 13, 2018 at 13:13 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
As a software engineer myself, I know these days when I work on only one task. Given that I can easily fetch a cup of tea, go for lunch or handle a question from a team member and return to the task, I see it as a case of flow and not as fear of losing my context.

For keeping up quality, I learnt to recognise the signs that I'm getting tired (meaning that I need a break or that I should leave for the day) or that I'm turning in a circle (that situation where you can continue for hours without a result or get up and have the solution within minutes) and I use these signs instead of any kind of timer (together with getting hungry at lunch time).

For making sure I don't forget about averything else, I added the rule that I have to have read my whole list before starting any implementation task in the morning ... Usually, anything urgent will make sure I won't manage to concentrate on implementation for the whole day.

And overall, I've accepted that sometimes, spending a whole day on a specific task is the best thing you can do - both at work and at home. I think that was the hardest part of all ...
April 17, 2018 at 19:12 | Unregistered CommenterRuth
HyperFocus. I know it well. It's a little-known but very common feature of ADD. Sometimes HyperFocus is because we're interested in something. Other times it's an escape into something we can control. It's often a feedback loop. We feel good while we're in it, and the longer we're in it, the worse the outside world gets (with its unwashed dishes and urgent email).

There are many other facets, so most methods of avoiding or getting out only work some of the time.

"As long as you're interested" is a double-edged sword. It gives you permission to take a small, doable step (rather than all-or nothing on a big one). It allows you to take advantage of flow. Unfortunately, it also allows you to do too little (as in zero) or too much (and ignore other important things).

Sometimes, hyperfocus isn't a problem. Do you still get the minimum done on other things that day? Can you catch up? Do others suffer? Do you choose the focus days well? Does the single day extend into many days? One of the reasons I like to look ahead each week is so I know what's coming up, and whether I can afford to ignore everything else for a day.

Unfortunately, hyperfocus can last a lot longer than a day. I've lost weeks to a single project (often one that's only worth half a week). The longer I'm in one, the harder it is to break out and re-establish a healthy balance, and the more broken other things get due to lack of simple maintenance.

Waiting until the other stuff gets bad enough doesn't work for me. If things get bad, I want to escape even more.

Here are more techniques that sometimes help.

One of the things that holds me there is the fear of dropping something, or losing connections. It's like a vast web, holding all the things I need to remember. While I hold it all, I feel omniscient and competent and god-like. I feel like I'm succeeding, or am very close, and I will lose all my progress if I pause.

I haven't tried putting all the bits in a safer place (aka write them down), as Alan and Bernie suggest, but I'm going to try it.

Thinking of the big project in steps. If you start the session thinking, "Today I will write an outline," rather than "Today I will make great progress on the big poject," you'll likely lose interest once that step is done, and it's a natural pause and record your status point. At the other extreme, it's also easier to get moving on the smaller step, so that technique works against both resistance and hyperfocus.

At the same time, the longer I'm in it, the worse everything else gets, since other areas are ignored, so I want to stay in the zone.

Daily non-negotiables. Weekly grocery shopping. Daily email triage. Biweekly email batches. 30 minutes of housework daily. Outside every day. Aerobics every other day. Doing them keeps me calmer and more in control, so I don't need to escape. They also limit the time I'm in the hyperfocus feedback loop.

A weekly grid, day vs life area. I don't have to fill in every square every day, but life goes better when I do most of them. Even if I don't actually follow the plan, shows me what areas are at risk, and looking back every day and week can often catch things I'm ignoring before they get too bad.

Sometimes batching work on other tasks in the morning and focusing on the project in the afternoon works. I look forward to the reward of working on it, or I get out of the rut of thinking about only one thing. Other times, spreading the other tasks over breaks works better. I'm able to do a small task, go back to focus, then another small task, but might not be able to a) put put the project down for an entire hour and b) start an entire hour of another project.

Take advantage of natural breaks. When getting coffee, socialize. Do physio while getting rid of the coffee. Go for a walk at lunch. Also, after each break, change projects. Maybe a short chunk of another project (phone call) or a long chunk another one. When I'm hyperfocusing in a bad way, this is great advice that I don't take. I do the minimum, then get right back to the project. Again, keep the bits small so you're not tempted to skip them.
April 18, 2018 at 21:41 | Registered CommenterCricket
Cricket:

You've introduced a new expression: "As long as you're interested".

The expression I recommend is "As long as you feel like it".

Do you consider these two to be the same, or is there a shift of emphasis involved?
April 18, 2018 at 23:11 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Purely accidental. Glad you caught it. Thinking out loud now about the overlap. Is there anything that I am interested in but that I do not feel like doing? Yes, I'm interested in learning all sorts of things, but don't actually feel like putting in the effort or adding them to my life. Next question, is there anything that I feel like doing that I'm not particularly interested in? Yes, when I'm done this post I will do some routine maintenance that's not very interesting, but I feel more like doing it now than I felt like doing it an hour ago.

So, another thing to experiment with. Do something as long as I feel like it, or do something as long as I'm interested in it. Does one method consistently give me better results than the other? If not, is there a pattern as to when which one is better?

I suspect feel like doing will give me better results more often.

Doing something as long as I feel like it, or as long as I'm interested, they're both double edged swords.
April 19, 2018 at 21:19 | Registered CommenterCricket
More thoughts: Feel like doing usually implies a shorter time frame. I feel like doing it now, although occasionally it can mean a longer frame. Interest can mean more time frames. I'm very interested in how this story ends, or I am interested in learning how to fly an airplane. In the context of this discussion though, I made a mistake. The feeling or interest should only apply to the next few moments. So, are there things that I am currently interested in but do not feel like doing? Yes, I might be very interested in how a craft or story is going to turn out, but don't feel like doing the craft or reading the book at the moment. Are there things that I feel like doing that don't interest me in the moment? Yes, I sometimes feel like doing very boring things, either to get them done, or because boring fits my mood better. So, interested in and feeling like doing are definitely different things. Neither one is a subset of the other, and there is overlap.
April 19, 2018 at 22:41 | Registered CommenterCricket
Cricket:

Yes, I agree with what you are saying.

The way it works out for me is that I put things I am interested in on my list, but only do them when I feel like doing them. And if I never feel like doing them, I will eventually weed them out.
April 20, 2018 at 10:40 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I'm getting better (in an steps forward and back sort o way) at not doing things just because I'm interested in them. I want to try actually writing the words "consider doing". Yes, I've often said that those words are implied, but I was fooling myself. In the moment, I often Do rather than Consider, or look at it in isolation (yes, interested) rather than looking at the big picture (interested, but what will I cut to make room for it?). Feeling like doing something isn't reliable for me. I often don't feel like doing urgent important things, but do feel like doing unimportant things. It varies widely. Smaller steps seems to help.
April 20, 2018 at 17:01 | Registered CommenterCricket
Cricket:

<< interested, but what will I cut to make room for it? >>

Well, this question will kind of answer itself, won't it?
April 20, 2018 at 18:14 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Cricket,

"HyperFocus. I know it well. It's a little-known but very common feature of ADD. Sometimes HyperFocus is because we're interested in something. Other times it's an escape into something we can control. It's often a feedback loop. We feel good while we're in it, and the longer we're in it, the worse the outside world gets (with its unwashed dishes and urgent email)."

I can totally relate to this, and it makes me wonder whether I might have ADD. I've read various descriptions, and they seem to describe me quite well.


""As long as you're interested" is a double-edged sword. It gives you permission to take a small, doable step (rather than all-or nothing on a big one). It allows you to take advantage of flow. Unfortunately, it also allows you to do too little (as in zero) or too much (and ignore other important things)."

Yep.


"Unfortunately, hyperfocus can last a lot longer than a day. I've lost weeks to a single project (often one that's only worth half a week). The longer I'm in one, the harder it is to break out and re-establish a healthy balance, and the more broken other things get due to lack of simple maintenance."

Yes! Months, even.


"Waiting until the other stuff gets bad enough doesn't work for me. If things get bad, I want to escape even more."

Mmm-hmmm. Every so often, I get myself painted into a little tiny corner by neglecting the other 87% of life. Then when I can't stand one more second of feeling so far out of control... I go deeper. Finally the right sort of energy appears out of nowhere, and I start furiously, eagerly catching up. I actually enjoy it. Taxes, statements, weed killing, whatever--it's fun! Typically I discover that only a relatively small amount of work is required--and I mean *required*, the minimum to be okay for a while longer. Then there is a branching point: I either do the bare minimum and go back to my prior hyperfocus, or I hyperfocus on the catchup and get all of my trivialities in tip-top shape. My father coined the phrase "rotational neglect" to describe his working style. He says it with a wistful sigh. He probably has whatever I have.


"One of the things that holds me there is the fear of dropping something, or losing connections. It's like a vast web, holding all the things I need to remember. While I hold it all, I feel omniscient and competent and god-like. I feel like I'm succeeding, or am very close, and I will lose all my progress if I pause. "

Again, I can totally relate, as I wrote earlier. Don't fall for it!! ;) I'm actually in its clutches right now, having finished several marathon days at work trying to make up some time. I went down so many blind alleys, so may half-baked ideas that I ultimately abandoned from something far simpler. Looking back, I can't say that more than 50% of the time I sank into it was actually productive, even though I was working continuously. And guess when the breakthroughs came, the new directions that got me out of the weeds: when I finally tore myself away from the desk, because I was starving or felt my bladder about to burst or decided to get yesterday's time-tracking off my desk. In the gap between furiously typing away, trying to force something to happen, is where things actually happen. I say this, but will I listen, and for how long? We'll see.

Thanks for sharing.
April 21, 2018 at 5:34 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
Ruth,

"For keeping up quality, I learnt to recognise the signs that I'm getting tired (meaning that I need a break or that I should leave for the day) or that I'm turning in a circle (that situation where you can continue for hours without a result or get up and have the solution within minutes) and I use these signs instead of any kind of timer (together with getting hungry at lunch time)."

I wish that worked for me! Sometimes it does, but just as often my attention can only be wrested back to real life by descending into a haze of starvation or other bodily hardship. Or a coworker asking me a totally unrelated question--the proverbial swat with a Zen stick. I've been thinking of moving downstairs to where the other developers on my team sit. That's one reason I hadn't thought of.
April 21, 2018 at 5:42 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
Bernie:

What I have found is that the list itself and the system you use to process it needs to become the focus of your interest.
April 21, 2018 at 11:33 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark,

Agreed! "Needs to become..."

These flexible lists have been the most effective tools I've ever found. Sadly, they do not work themselves.
April 21, 2018 at 16:30 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
Bernie,

Rotational neglect. Great phrase! Also, ADHD runs strongly in families. About 80% of people with it have at least one parent with it. (Yes, they've studied it over adopted families. It's not just environment, although environment can help kids deal with it better.)

Procrastination is very rewarding. The task is now close to failure (adrenaline) and novel (since you haven't done it in a long time). When you pull it from the brink of disaster, you succeed (dopamine). Responsible procrastination isn't always a bad thing. You also don't get tempted to spend time needlessly revising. I often ask my kids, "What is the last responsible minute?" They're now pretty good at thinking it through. I need to check the packing list on Friday so we can shop (and do laundry) on Saturday so I can pack on Sunday. I need to print the report Sunday morning, since the printer might run out of ink on Holiday Monday. (True story. Experience means you've made the mistake before. Intelligence is learning from your mistakes. Kid learned.)

Oh, yes, the interruption. I often don't start things, even short things, because I anticipate being interrupted. No, this is not a successful strategy.

Ruth,

Yes, reading the list (or at least a recent sublist of more urgent things) before starting helps a lot. I find that if I'm not resisting my routine tasks, doing them before looking at the list works best, otherwise the list will distract me. If I'm resisting the routine tasks, then going to the list ASAP at least gets me doing something useful.

Mark,

I agree. If the list and system are the focus, then we can keep going back to it. We trust it to remember things and remind us at the right time.
April 23, 2018 at 15:00 | Registered CommenterCricket
Cricket:

That cartoon made me realise something. The whole list is my focus of attention when I'm working on it. Changing tasks within the list is fine as long as I'm still working on the list. It's interruptions that take me away from the list that are the problem.
April 24, 2018 at 11:23 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Also, I think being able to switch tasks very quickly is quite a skill that gets better with practise.
I certainly get loads of interruptions, but I don't mind in the slightest.
I read somewhere it takes 25 minutes on average to return to the original task after an interruption.
I'm sure that is total rubbish, unless I decide to stare out of the window for 24 of those minutes.
Perhaps it is a case of accepting interruptions are generally unavoidable and instead learn how to manage them.
April 24, 2018 at 12:27 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
Mr Backlog:

<< I read somewhere it takes 25 minutes on average to return to the original task after an interruption. I'm sure that is total rubbish, unless I decide to stare out of the window for 24 of those minutes.>>

No, you would be spending 24 of those minutes filling in the report forms given to you by the experimenters.
April 24, 2018 at 13:22 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
It probably depends on what you were doing, and the nature of the interruption -- much like being interrupted while sleeping. Sometimes the interruption is unexciting and routine and I can get back to sleep. Other times it's exciting, or it makes me turn on my brain (which then refuses to turn off). Other times, something interesting happens while I'm awake, something that has nothing to do with the interruption, but my brain refuses to put down. Interruptions just after I go to bed are a problem; so are interruptions an hour before I normally wake up.

Keeping good notes as I work helps, since it's easier to pick up where I left off. Making notes before handling the interruption doesn't work for me. It effectively closes the file for the day.

I'm generally too afraid of interruptions, and won't start work if I expect one. (Eg, I won't open the mail if the kids are due home soon.)
April 24, 2018 at 21:05 | Registered CommenterCricket
Random reading: If you have difficulty returning after interruptions, hold something physical related to the original task while dealing with the interruption.

(Extra effective if you've trained yourself to never, ever, put something down anywhere but its home. You'll eventually need to put the item down, and at least return to the correct desk.)
April 27, 2018 at 20:47 | Registered CommenterCricket
Cricket,
"hold something physical related to the original task while dealing with the interruption."

I do this when I've used up an item that will need replacing, until I'm able to fetch the next one from storage or write it down on my shopping list. It is foolproof! Without it, I can't go even 30 seconds without forgetting.
April 29, 2018 at 20:22 | Unregistered CommenterBernie