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 I’m 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 didn’t even register it.
But a teacher told a group of us that we needed to work on our attention spans, because we hadn’t spent enough time studying some artwork. That also made me think, because I’ve never considered that I have an attention span problem. Maybe it wasn’t that I couldn’t stay focused, but that I am easily distracted.
I think there’s an important distinction between staying focused and getting distracted. I feel like I can stay focused for many, many hours. If Therese an interesting problem in front of me, I can stay focused on it. But if Theresa nothing that’s absolutely interesting in front of me, then I’m 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 there’s nothing there. It’s a permanent disaster.
It’s not the laptop or the web browser that distracts me. I do lots of productive work with a web browser on my laptop. It’s 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 can’t handle it, and I end up on YouTube.
It’s 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 I’ve written, I do pretty well. The key is to not open a laptop (or phone) until I know exactly what I’m 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 I’m in Dresden, my laptop is also my apartments router. It can’t 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.
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Sam Stevens, 2022