While thinking about hard problems, I started thinking about how hard it is to stay focused. There are a lot of things I want to do, from exercising to programming to writing to reading to meeting new people. So why do I keep spending time on YouTube, Reddit, etc.? Why is it so hard to stay focused?
At first I thought it was because I can get around whatever technical distraction-blocking tool Im using. At first, the uBlock Origin page coming up whenever I visited Youtube was enough for me to realize that I should stop. Then I clicked the visit anyways button once because I really felt like watching some videos, and the floodgates burst. After that, the extra uBlock page was just another step in getting to YouTube, and I didnt even register it.
But a teacher told a group of us that we needed to work on our attention spans, because we hadnt spent enough time studying some artwork. That also made me think, because Ive never considered that I have an attention span problem. Maybe it wasnt that I couldnt stay focused, but that I am easily distracted.
I think theres an important distinction between staying focused and getting distracted. I feel like I can stay focused for many, many hours. If theres an interesting problem in front of me, I can stay focused on it. But if theres nothing thats absolutely interesting in front of me, then Im really good at opening YouTube before I know whats happening. The worst is when I sit down at my desk after school. I open my laptop, open a new browser tab, and theres nothing there. Its a permanent disaster.
Its not the laptop or the web browser that distracts me. I do lots of productive work with a web browser on my laptop. Its the blank canvas that a browser tab represents. It forces me to both ignore all distractions on the internet and think of something productive that I want to do. My little brain cant handle it, and I end up on YouTube.
Its more important for me to always have something interesting, rather than avoid distractions. Instead of looking for the ultimate distraction-blocking tool, I want to be led to interesting (and useful) things, where I can happily spend many hours.
Luckily, I have such a tool. A pad of paper and a pen. When confronted with a blank canvas where my only options are to think, write, or read what Ive written, I do pretty well. The key is to not open a laptop (or phone) until I know exactly what Im going to do with it, and then do that. I leave my laptop and phone in a drawer in my desk and leave the legal pad on my desk with a pen (unfortunately, while Im in Dresden, my laptop is also my apartments router. It cant really be moved).
UPDATE Jan 14th, 2020:
Another technique that has helped/is currently helping is to make the problems big. When focusing on a big problem (research problem, startup problem), I always know what I should be doing, so I don’t need the paper and pen step. In fact, this has been one the best things about doing undergrad research: it is so much more interesting than courses, that I rarely get distracted. I open up my laptop and know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, because I can’t stop thinking about it.
Please email me if you have any comments or want to discuss further.
Sam Stevens, 2019