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I recently started working full-time as a software developer. [potentially unnecessary background info here]

I've always had a problem focusing. It's very difficult for me to push down my curiosity in order to produce.

One thing that is particularly troubling to me, however, is that during work I find myself staring at the same thing for minutes at a time. Particularly if there is something I've been thinking about on my non-work time, it's INCREDIBLY hard to stop thinking about that thing and instead focus on the work I have to do. As I mentioned, I'll stare at something for a few minutes before realizing I've been background processing a completely different thing. I'm not actively thinking about something, in fact I'm actively NOT thinking. I've gone for over five minutes at a time with a completely blank "active mind".

I was able to graduate from college despite this, but now it's gotten to the point that I'm starting to feel incredibly guilty that I'm not focused. I feel I owe it to my employer to be on task, even if I don't like what I'm doing.

I've tried meditation and other things to try increasing the skill of focus, but nothing has seemed to help. Meditation has without a doubt made me a calmer, more patient person. It hasn't helped me focus. Also, I read the recommendations here: How to focus on a long class?. Great ideas, but even minimizing all potential distractions is worthless when the biggest distraction is myself!

Any recommendations? Please, anything at all that could help. I'm at my wit's end with myself.

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Do you like your work? I find it much easier to focus on work I like! –  Wikis Oct 27 '11 at 17:44

8 Answers 8

Try using Pomodoro technique. Here you focus on a task for 25 minutes continuously and than take rest for five minutes. This is called one pomodoro.You can start another pomodoro after that.The numbers are the tradition and may be changed to suit you. The key point is to concentrate on a particular task for a small period without distracting yourself.

Below link provides details about pomodoro technique.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

I created a open source portable timer (portable if you have .Net framework on your machine). You can download this from below link:

http://keepfocused.codeplex.com/

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+1 for your tool –  articlestack Jan 18 '13 at 12:52

As a young programmer with the exact same problem, I'd like to point out that, while liking your job and other 'feel good' advices have their purpose, this set of symptoms could be caused by a deeper and very physiological problem. Short version: your brain might temporarily shut down and restart because all is not right with your biology. The worst thing about this scenario is that you'd also be heading towards chronic exhaustion, a nasty thing which takes years to recover from.

A checklist:

  • do you happen to have low blood pressure? While not mandatory, this tends to aggravate everything below.
  • do you work out? Not neccessarily fancy stuff, but reserving 15-20 minutes in the evening for school-style calisthenics might make a very notable change. I started seeing an improvement in the first week.
  • how much do you sleep? Is your sleep schedule regular?
  • do you eat well, in the farmacological sense? Vitamins and minerals especially.

[EDIT] Lastly, like JB King said, see if it happens with other tasks. Because if it does, it's almost certainly a physiological and not psychological problem. And physiological problems are solved through physiological means.

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I bought a consumer-grade EEG recently (http://store.neurosky.com/products/mindwave-1) and from just a few hours of playing around with it I'm pretty confident in its ability to detect how focused I am. I was planning to write some software to alert me and snap me back to reality when my concentration decreases and my mind starts to wander... but perhaps you should beat me to it :-)

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+1 for the link! –  Click Ok Mar 31 '13 at 20:00

Have you verified this with different kinds of tasks? For example, if something seems to require a lot of physical work but isn't very taxing mentally, how much stamina do you have to do this? Similarly, if something is mostly working in abstract thought and has little physical work how do you do in this case? I'd be tempted to collect some more data to see if this applies all kinds of tasks or if there are some that are worse than others.

Have you considered the idea of trying to find your strengths and see how this could be useful here? For example, have you considered cases where your curiosity could be an asset rather than a liability? Just an idea to toss out there.

Something to consider is that you did write a rather concise question on here so you are capable of doing some things at least.

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Well, as long as there's something to think about, I can do the dishes for as long as needed. Mindless physical tasks I enjoy, actually. I have more problems with sustained abstract thought. For example, I have incredible difficulty reading dense text (like a philosophy text), though I have very little trouble reading even the most dense of science fiction. -- I know a number of my strengths: I'm good at relating to people (though I have minor social phobia). I'm ok at writing (I just KNOW the right words to use, usually). I'm great at martial arts (I pick them up really quickly). –  ZeeKay Oct 26 '11 at 21:32
    
Martial arts in particular are an interesting case, in that I have no trouble focusing when I'm practicing. But then, martial arts require an active non-thinking state, so perhaps I'm ok at quieting my mind, but not at keeping it in order when I DO have to use it. ---- I'd love to be in a place where I could use my curiosity as an advantage, but I'm a rather lost fellow who can't really figure out a way to change the life I'm in to the one I desire. The path seems foggy, at best. Downright invisible, on other days. –  ZeeKay Oct 27 '11 at 1:47

I think everyone struggles with this.

Aside from the standard advice of getting enough exercise, having a good work environment free of distraction, etc, one thing that really helps is to break your work into smaller and smaller tasks. Each day, write a list of everything you want to accomplish. For each of those tasks, break it down into concrete steps you need to accomplish the goal. Each task should only take 5-10 minutes.

As you are working on the task (ex: "debugging a function") narrate in your head what you are doing. "Getting the records from the database, looping through the record set, fixing a bad reference, etc". By putting your thought process into words, you are keeping your brain from getting distracted. If you run into a roadblock, you probably need to break your tasks into smaller steps.

Of course, it’s impossible to keep this kind of pace up for 8 hours in the day. It’s important for any programmer to take is to step back and think about the big picture. Go for a walk. Think about how you can simplify your tasks. Think about how algorithms or data sets can be abstracted into cleaner structures. This is where you can let your brain wander.

Maintaining discipline, focus and motivation is probably one of the biggest challenges for people who do "brain-work".

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This may be a great problem if not controlled at time.

I think there is one question you have to ask yourself: are you happy with what you do at work? If you aren't, then that will be a reason for distractions.

Even if you are really happy, or at least working as a software developer isn't that bad to you, you may have work related problems:

  • Bad working environment.
  • Annoying people working with or around you.
  • Your working hours are hard to fulfill.

Another important possible factor may be bad diet. Have you changed remarkably your diet or food habits?

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Heh, no I'm not happy at work. I'm fresh out of college and I was tasked with recreating a legacy system in Java/SQL by myself. There's little to no oversight, and I have to trust that I'm doing the right thing. Unfortunately, changing my work is not very possible right now (I just started, and really need the experience if I'm going to continue writing software). -- As far as environment goes, I isolate myself with headphones to drown out the country music my coworkers play on the radio. I mostly listen to music I like, as I get frustrated by white noise. –  ZeeKay Oct 26 '11 at 21:26
    
Now I think that this is a very important reason for your distraction. When you do something interesting and challenging sometimes it's really hard to lose focus. I understand your need to be working somewhere, because right now you do need experience, but try to find something challenging with that legacy system. May be some open source module you should need (then build it and try to make it useful for others), or find something you don't already know and then learn it... –  Nicolás Oct 26 '11 at 21:29

I agree with the others. Find meaning in what you are doing. Try short burst like one hour of intense work with no distractions at all and you'll see improvement. This is called progress principle.

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I suggest using paradoxical intention. In this case, instead of making effort to concentrate, make an effort to get bored. Then as you are now having troubles to concentrate, you will have troubles getting bored, and then you won't get distracted.

I'm also a software developer that happened to be bored when I'm programming or doing computer related work. But how can you be bored doing what you like?, and because of that question I couldn't realize I was bored, I didn't want to believe it. But the only time that I feel like trying to concentrate in front of the computer, is when I am alone in my car, waiting for the traffic to move.

Now I know that works, I understand why people that is not as interested as I in the job, got more things done, and of course concentrate easier.

To know more about paradoxical intention, I recommend the book Man Search for a Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

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