Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

productivity tips for the easily distracted

For the last two months I’ve been working on re-factoring a big chunk of C code. It’s a fun job and I really like doing it but I felt that I wasn’t putting in as much time as I would have liked.

I am very easily distracted and it takes me a long time to get going again after a distraction occurs so I figured I’d have to do something about it or I would end up feeling bad about taking on this job because even if the pay is by the hour they would of course like to have the job done at some point.

The first thing I tried to address is the way I’ve set up my desk. Normally it looks like this:

As you can see, plenty of distractions right there. IRC, lots of browser tabs with interesting stuff to read and waste hours on, email, a cell phone and so on. You probably couldn’t go for 30 seconds without something moving outside of the area that I should be concentrating on, the big black shell window/text editor in the middle screen.

The first solution is obvious, switch off the two side panels and maximize that editor. Much better already.

But that does not take away the issue of phone calls (ok, switch off the phone) and the other occupants of the house interrupting whatever it is that I should be doing.

The second step was a lot more radical. This is a very nice little farmhouse but it only has two rooms and it’s not very well insulated sound wise so any noise in the house carries throughout the house.

So I decided to create some spot outside of the house. I scoured the classified for a temporary office unit, but they tend to be expensive and heavy and need a big crane to lift them in to position. So strike that. Finally I settled on the idea of getting an old caravan. They’re cheap and they have wheels of their own so you can roll them around. Another couple of hours on classified sites and I found a suitable candidate, and coincidence would have it that it was sold (cheap…) by someone living only about a mile from here! Getting it here was easy, just hook it up behind the car and a five minute drive later it was sitting in the front yard.

But it really would be nice to have it in the backyard, one small problem was that it had to ‘jump’ over a 3’ hole in the ground and a whole pile of brush somehow because of how the area is laid out.

The last 100 meters took about 500 times as much time as that first mile :(…

Clearing the brush took two days, mostly grunt work (wow, those roots go deep!). Jumping the hole was a nice little engineering challenge (the caravan weighs about 890 Kg, it seemed a lot easier than it turned out to be).

Eventually - with a lot of help from my fantastic neighbors (thanks Jacob & Martin!) and a few hours of applied Egyptian style engineering (levers, pulleys and beams) and an old but still moving vw rabbit (no longer road worthy but one hell of a tractor) - it was moved in to its desired location.

Because of the distance wi-fi no longer works so I am using an ethernet-over-power device to get the caravan hooked up to the network.

Inside the spot I made to work looks like this:

As you can see it is a lot more spartan than my ‘normal’ desk, I don’t run an email client, IRC, browser or other source of distraction just svn and a text editor, and it’s far enough away from the house that besides the occasional bird tweeting it is dead quiet.

It really feels like ‘going to work’.

Finally, time tracking.

I must have tried a hundred different time tracking solutions and none of them made me really happy. There are software solutions, there is the pomodoro technique (but I find myself working in much longer stretches than 25 minutes and I don’t want to stop when it’s going well for a break) and so on.

My final - and so far best, but I’m open to further improvements - is a very simple mechanical one, an old chess clock!

(if you look on the left in the picture you can see the ethernet-over-power modem, the orange status led in the middle is a tribute to the distance covered, it would have been green otherwise. When it’s raining, probably due to the increased capacitance to ground of the power wire it turns red indicating even worse conditions).

The left hand side clock indicates elapsed time worked, when I enter the caravan I press the right-hand side button which starts the clock, and when I leave I press the left hand one. It’s very simple but extremely effective. I’ve set it up far enough away from where I’m sitting that I’m not tempted to get up and stop the clock to go and while away some time and the fact that ‘the clock is ticking’ is a good reason to sit down and actually do something.

If you wanted to you could use the ratio between the two clocks to track your productivity.

At the end of a day I just look once more at the left hand clock after I’ve stopped it and note down the hours worked + a comment on what I’ve done in a log, which I use to periodically make my bills.

Simple, cheap and effective.

So, that’s my bag of tricks to get me through the day in a more productive way. The caravan paid for itself in the first 10 days after I got it. The productivity jump is huge, easily a factor of two.

And an upside that I didn’t expect came out of all of this as well:

When I’m in the house, I’m really ‘there’, I’m no longer at work! This makes me an easier person to be around and if that was the only benefit from all this it would have been well worth it.