I remember a few years ago I was renting a room from an older gentleman after moving to the city. I rented rooms in this time in my life partly because my work location was moving around a lot, but also as a social experiment to see if living with someone else would improve me personally. Living close to someone requires the kind of compromise, tact, and patience, I’ve always been notorious with the people who know me well to lack. And I tried so hard to let that experience affect me, but there was surprisingly one thing that drove a wedge into our relationship that I just couldn’t seem to get past.
At the time, I was doing the most intense work I’ll probably ever do in my life implementing core Wayland interfaces for the wlroots project. It’s the kind of work that requires your full, undivided attention for hours at a time to make any progress with. Now this old man happened to also be a collector of antique grandfather clocks and there was one in particular in the center of the house that would loudly chime the tune of big ben for about thirty seconds once an hour. This very deeply annoyed me. Every hour, whatever I was thinking about just drained out of my head and I had to start over on whatever thought I had built when it was over. I even started to instinctual planning the deeper parts of my work around the chime by starting my important thinking at the beginning of the hour.
When I brought this complaint to him, he seemed to be confused why someone could get emotional about something small like this, and I understand his point of view. I’m kind of an unusual person with some unusual requirements for concentration. None the less, I demanded that he get rid of the clock. He asked me to leave. Now I live alone. My social experiment may have been a failure, but at least I don’t have to live with that damn clock anymore.
I know you probably think I’m weird after reading that story, but I don’t care. I’m doubling down on this. Here’s why small distractions matter if your productivity in life is at all important to you.
Headspace and Intelligence
The idea of headspace is a great word that metaphorically describes what’s going on here. There’s only so much space for thoughts to fit in your head at any one time. The technical term for this in cognitive psychology is called working memory. People are limited in the amount of information they can use for processing at any given time. This is why multiplying large numbers in your head is nearly impossible. You have to occasionally write down some intermediate result on paper so you can forget about it and process it later. When I’m designing a complicated system, I have to think about how a lot of different things work together at the same time and my head fills up quickly. The number of things I can reasonably think about at any given second is only maybe about seven to ten, and that’s really pushing it.
All this sounds very scientific, but you can’t ignore the human factor either. My experience is that using working memory is a very painful process. I think this is the core reason why the general population doesn’t like math. You have to really enjoy the end result of mathematical understanding to offset the violence you have to do to yourself to understand it, and most people get more enjoyment from normal people things like walking their dog or something. To each his own.
Since it’s painful to use working memory, there is only so much time in the day we can actually think deeply about things. The ability to concentrate seems to fatigue when you strain it like a muscle. In my experience, I can only be at peak mental performance for maybe four hours a day. I get most of my work done in short bursts of concentration and use the rest of my time to recharge. I’ve heard people describe this as their good hours. Losing my good hours for a day on an unproductive task may mean I have an unproductive day.
Studies have shown that working memory is highly correlated with fluid intelligence. This sort of intelligence is the ability to reason abstractly about things and solve novel problems. This seems to me to describe the raw ability of someone who works with systems like engineers. There is unfortunately no known way to increase fluid intelligence. But we can improve the efficiency of how we use working memory by making changes in our environment to eliminate distractions. And it follows that if we do that, we should be able to focus more of our capacity for fluid intelligence towards a single goal.
The consequence of working memory being so small and the time of day we can use it effectively being so limited is that small distractions take up a proportionally large amount of space in our head. If you can only think about seven things at a time and one of your seven things is being used up by a small distraction, you can become fourteen percent smarter by eliminating that one distraction. You can get large productivity gains by increasing your focus by just a little bit and this is why engineers tend to be very guarded about what they allow themselves to think about during their good hours.
The ability to pay attention and use all of our intelligence towards a single goal is the fundamental skill of an engineer. Taking steps to identify and ignore distractions is an essential part of the work we do on a daily basis. In fact, concentration sometimes feels more like an exercise of shutting things out than letting things in. Distractions are everywhere.
For instance, a study shows that even just having your cell phone on your desk can impair learning ability. The anticipation of a notification on your phone in the back of your mind takes up a measurable amount of your attention. When I really need to concentrate, I put my phone in another room and forget about it. I end up missing some calls and people might think I’m being aloof, but for me it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. The things in front of me are more important.
This is also a reason why I don’t like open office plans which are show to decrease productivity. There are a ton of small distractions in an open office happening all the time. Even just someone walking past me can break my concentration for long enough for me to lose my train of thought. The effect of being around that all the time is I’m always operating at about eighty percent of what I could be and my work suffers.
I’m not saying that you have to shut yourself in and work all the time without distraction. My philosophy is to do whatever I’m doing fully. If I’m working, I need to pay complete attention to what I’m doing during my best hours to be productive. But the reverse is true as well. If I’m relaxing socially, I should put all my attention on that situation and not think about work. And of course leave some time for softening up your focus by daydreaming or meditation so you can reflect on whether you are doing the right thing with your concentrated hours to begin with.