In my last article, I talked about the various things that I am thinking about for getting the PyMarkdown project closer to a solid first release. In this article, I talk about how I try my best to keep focus on my various endeavors.

Focus Is Not Always Forthcoming

In today’s digital world, it is easy to get distracted. It is for that exact reason that I infuriate my family by leaving my cell phone in another room. In fact, I will often leave it at home when going out, just so I can focus on other things than the phone.

For most readers that own a smart phone, that need or sensation that I am talking about is something you feel on a frequent basis. That urge to check to see if someone has left a text for you. That urge to check social media and see if someone has posted something that you might be interested in. That urge to play a game of solitaire on your phone and see if you can get a new level. We have all been there. It is overwhelming sometimes.

As my Autism continually floods my mind with things to analyze, keeping focus on anything is something that I need to work on constantly. And the level of focus that I may want in any given situation is not always forthcoming.

Get Rid Of Focus-Busters If Possible

No, it is not the failed pilot attempt to mimic the success of the ever-popular MythBusters series. To be honest, I do not think that it would be a bad fifteen-minute Public Service Announcement if done properly. These are all the trivial things that get in the way of me getting a lot of work done on whatever project I am working on.

For me, the first thing on the list is music or lack of music. If I am being creative or relax, I find that music helps. As I have Sensory Overload Disorder due to my Autism, any little bit of noise can prove to break my concentration. Having predictable music in the background helps me not notice that background noise and instead spend a small amount of focus on the music. I sometimes call it my musical focus tax. On the other hand, if I am doing something more physical, I find that music can get in the way of focusing. Therefore, when I am working outside or in the garage, I tend not to have any music on at all. Never thought about why that is… I’ll try and figure that out sometime.

After music and the earlier mentioned smart phone, the next thing I get rid of is anything environmental. If it is too hot in the room, I turn on a fan. If it is too cold in the room, I put on an extra layer. If my feet are too cold (not an analogy, my feet are almost always physically cold), then I sometimes put on socks, but mostly will put on a pair of warm slippers. If I am feeling thirsty that day, I make sure to have a glass of water that I can sip at as I work. None of these are major items on their own, but I have found that each of them can contribute to me losing my focus at the most inopportune times. And with few exceptions, they all have easy mitigations.

The final group of focus-busters should be an easy group of stimuli that everyone is aware of: notifications. On my home computer, I do not have any visual or auditory notifications in place so I can concentrate without any disturbances. If I am seriously focusing, my cell phone is in another room. If not, it is usually within three meters of my desk. Basically, for any notifications that I am concerned about missing, the person either has my phone number or lives in the same house and can come into my home office. As such, there is seldom any need for any notifications. I check for email and text messages as time allows, and that is all that is usually needed.

On my work computer, it is a bit different. While I do need to keep my focus at work, there is more of a focus on responding to colleagues and clients promptly. To achieve this balance, I turn the volume on my work laptop down and have music playing on an external speaker during work hours. I am not sure if this would work for others, but it allows me to selectively focus on the laptop noises if I choose to focus on them. Perhaps it is a learned skill, but I find it helpful. It is also helpful that I am not afraid to turn the volume off if I need to keep my focus for thirty minutes or more, such as reviewing a document. But I try my best to turn the volume back on when done, to maintain that balance with response time. It is not easy, but I make it work.

That gets rid of some of the distractions that I face. But I find that is only half the battel.

…And Those Were The Easy Things

Cell phone tucked away where I cannot see it or hear it. Check. Music to groove to and cover background noise. Check. Environmentals mitigated. Check. Notifications mitigated. Check. Now for the hard part.

I am not sure how others perceive focus and concentration, but for me it is a frame of mind that I need to get in. Basically, I need to feel a connection to what I am doing and ensure that I can think about that thing without pausing. Take authoring this article for an example. During each of the phases of authoring this article, I must focus differently to achieve the goal I am trying to meet. Depending on the goal, if I lose my focus, I may need to go back to the start of the line I was working on, if not the entire paragraph. That is one of the reasons I hate losing focus… I must repeat myself and hope for the same results again.

And getting in a focus frame of mind is a fickle thing. One thing that I know helps me is to make sure I draw a solid imaginary line in my head between the different things that I am doing. If I am switching from professional work to anything on my home computer, I almost always take a walk or watch some anime. It helps me to clear any residual thinking from work out of my system. Sometimes watching short films on my home computer does the trick, but often I must physically change environments for at least twenty minutes. I need that separation.

If I am doing any kind of work and I need to change focus, be it my own open-source work or professional work, I find that the same rules apply, but with some softening. While I will not watch anything online while at work, I will often move around, go to the bathroom, or clean up the dishes when switching focus at work. I can try and switch focus without such a clean break, but I often find that trying to force it just amplifies the cost of switching focus.

Regardless of what the task is, I must find that “groove” that allows me to think about what I am doing in a way that is conductive to what I am doing.

For example, me focusing on debugging is annoying to people around me because I often talk through things as I debug. Now, I have this thing where I talk in a whisper when I am doing that, but that seems to confuse people. Basically, it looks like I am having a full conversation with myself, but they cannot hear anything. So, I try not to do that in office settings.

As another example, for creating new code and new features, I need to scribble. As old fashioned as it sounds, I need to have a couple of pieces of blank paper, jotting notes to myself as I go. Some of those notes will be about improvements to the code and some about improvements to the tests, including several types of test data to try against my current implementation. I just write my thoughts out or scribble a drawing and worry about what it means later. For some reason, the act of switching tabs or windows on a computer causes me to lose my focus while the scribbling does not. Therefore, I stick with what works.

And for me, these are the things that work for me to help me keep my focus. That is the important thing for me to remember. Different people focus in different ways.

Snapping Out Of It

As part of my Autism, I tendency to hyperfocus. Most people have heard stories of “that person” who kept on doing something they were focusing on while everything around them was going on, only to express confusion later as to what happened. That is me. When I was working in an office, I wore headphones to play music (see above) and drown out the background noise. There were times where I would hyperfocus on my work to the point that someone was waving their hands behind my monitor, and I would not recognize them. While it was sometimes comical to others, I was often embarrassed by it.

Looking back to those times, I think that the hyperfocus was triggered by the amount of effort that it took me to focus in that office environment. While I do occasionally hyperfocus at home, it occurs less often by orders of magnitude. My best guess is that I had to try so hard to get into the right frame of mind and cancel out all the erratic visual stimuli, and as a result, just mentally negated it in my head. Since I have not done any serious focusing since I started working from home, I think it is a good guess.

Another time when it happens is when I feel that I am under a lot of stress. While I actively try and mitigate stress using various techniques, I do still get stressed like other people. The last time I got incredibly stressed was around the time that I talked about in this article. I felt that I had to find the solution and I was letting myself down for not finding it. That reduced my ability to focus on the problem which in turn causes me to not be able to concentrate on workable solutions. Enter the hamster wheel.

From experience, it is important for everyone to have ways to get that focus and concentration out of their system and reset. As counter intuitive as it may sound, I find that for me to concentrate on things more clearly, I need to work on how to release those same things from my thoughts. Basically, I need to be able to walk away. My crash in May taught me that this is something important that I need to work on. I got into a vicious circle that took me over two months to properly recover from. I was not sure how to let it go, and it just dug into my psyche so deeply that it hurt. And it was mentally draining.

While it is important to be able to figure out how to focus, I have great confidence that it is also important that I take time to figure out how to remove the effects from focusing on myself. And I hope readers can learn that without having a crash situation, but unfortunately failure is a great teacher. But my fingers are still crossed for any readers!

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So what do you think? Did I miss something? Is any part unclear? Leave your comments below.

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