I’ve blogged a lot about my struggles with attention and focus over the years since I started working remote. I continue to find tools and adjust my behaviors tiny bits at a time to help align me with the world I work in. I’ve been doing mindful meditation daily, usually in the morning, to help calm the brain and prepare for the day.
Just yesterday I was introduced to a fun practice called Morning Pages to help organize my thoughts in the morning to start the day. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, uses morning pages to spill out thoughts and ideas from her head onto three pages of paper. The daily practice involves stream-of-consciousness writing (or commonly called free writing) three full pages of handwritten text. Topic is unimportant – it’s whatever comes to mind. Julia says some of her students call it “mourning pages” as it usually turns into a bitch session.
The things you write during morning pages help clear out the brain for you to start the day. You’re not writing for anyone except yourself and even then the pages aren’t written to be read. Imagine the stuck ideas flowing out of your head onto the paper and then throwing the paper out at the end. The things that end up written may or may not be really true thoughts and feelings – they’re just what’s occupying the recesses of your mind. Don’t judge yourself during the process – just do it.
I’ve modified the technique slightly to fit into my daily habit. I’m starting this week with five minutes of morning pages and then my normal 5-10 minute mindful meditation. This all happens before I start work but after I get the dogs fed & insulin injected for the old guy, and the coffee put on. As of right now I’m physically writing the morning pages but I could see moving to an iPad. I do enjoy the physical sensation of writing with a pencil, however.
Learn more about Julia’s techniques at http://juliacameronlive.com/basic-tools/morning-pages/
It’s been nearly four years since I started the journey of understanding how my attention & focus work. Along the way I’ve learned several things that have been key factors in developing tools to modify my behaviors to perform better.
Most importantly any tools/habits you use or create are ephemeral. The tool may or may not work for you. Maybe the tool works for you for a couple months but then it becomes a hinderance. Possibly even the tool feels like it has always worked but something lets you understand it never really did help. The key thing to realize is your toolbox will and should continually change with you over time. No matter what people say you’re a continually changing person – even old dogs learn new tricks. It’s okay to throw things out and to try new things.
Don’t try to change too much too quickly. This is probably just as important as the first key but it’s not very obvious until you start trying new things. If you try to change too many things or switch a habit drastically it’s much easier to abandon when you don’t feel immediate successes. Instead try to incrementally change towards something longer term.
I’ve always wanted to have a meditation practice and make it part of my daily regimen. I felt it was the one missing piece to my daily routine with exercise that could help curb some of the ADHD symptoms. The problem was I didn’t know where to get started and was really afraid of being a failure. I’ve always had a very open heart and mind when it comes to spirituality – if I couldn’t “get” meditation then that would make me question a lot of things. I realized that my biggest fear was based upon my perception of how meditation can work and look.
Mindfulness meditation is one of the many ways you can practice meditation. Specifically it focuses your mind on being present in the moment – to be aware of what you’re doing but not getting overwhelmed or misdirected by emotions, memories, and other inputs. My husband started meditating with the Calm iOS app to help with his challenges with anxiety. I learned that meditation doesn’t require hours of effort every day and having an app on my phone made the barrier to entry super low. It also helped that he broke the ice by starting the practice and the two of us support each other with motivation to try to get a session in every day.
Today marks the 122nd day that I’ve done a mindfulness meditation – either with the Calm app or on my own. I usually find streak analysis to be demotivating when life gets in the way and you miss a single day. I found after about 30 days of use of the app I started incorporating small moments of mindfulness meditation when I felt my attention slip. On the few days where I forgot to do a formal session with the app I logged a few minutes of time where I knew I was being mindful.
Mindfulness will slip into parts of your day where you don’t expect it. When giving one-on-one reviews with my team I frequently find myself popping into a moment of reflection before the video chat starts. Being mindful upfront brings the memories and feelings of that specific teammate into focus so our conversations are relevant and scoped to the purpose of a one-on-one. In the past those calls frequently were disconnected from the past because I got caught up in the actions of the operational nature of the call rather than the true nature of what they should accomplish.
It only takes a couple of minutes out of your day. Pick a time that is quiet and consistent throughout the week including the weekends. For me lately that’s been in the morning after the dogs get fed and before I have a cup of coffee. On average I’ll do a 10-minute session but try starting with a shorter amount. Calm uses a subscription model but they do offer a seven day cycle for free as well as several other options. There are plenty of other apps out there as well but I would suggest to start with one that provided some guidance narration.
Being mindful isn’t just about listening to yourself. Developing a mindfulness practice will help you realize when your own emotions and memories are preventing you from seeing things external. Think of it like wearing a pair of sunglasses that have been cloudy from smeared sunscreen for years. Laziness stopped you from cleaning the lenses and over time you stopped even noticing the reduced clarity. Mindfulness lets you recognize the cloudiness, without judgement, and lets you understand what you’re seeing differently because of the smudges. You can then choose to clean the lenses and see how the world looks with more clarity.
Every year at Automattic’s Grand Meetup we’re required to give a flash talk of up to four minutes on any topic. This past year I gave mine on a subject related to my post “How Working Remote (Probably) Saved My Life“. I’m actually developing a much longer talk to dive deeper into what’s been involved with my successes and failures. Until then, here’s my flash talk for your enjoyment.
I’ve been trying to brainstorm ideas on paper lately before committing to an approach on how to solve a problem. For some reason I wasn’t getting a ton of satisfaction switching back to pen & paper – it wasn’t helping my focus. Then I realized something from my days in school. I used to prefer pencil over pen because of the feel of the graphite on the paper and the non-permanence it implies.
The biggest obstacle I have to starting something is my brain trying to understand an entire solution before I’ve started it. Brainstorming like this should be helping me with incrementally breaking down a problem into pieces and finding out what I don’t know. For some reason the permanence of ink makes me feel like I need to put more thought into things before writing them down. That defeats the point of brainstorming!
So for me, I’m back to a pencil.
I drafted this post with an idea that I wanted to apologize to all the people I’ve met at conferences and I do not recognize them the next time we meet. It’s especially embarrassing when I’ve had conversations online with them and didn’t connect to two realities. The problem lies with how my brain works and how Attention Deficit Disorder can skew memories and how I process things.
Frequently when I meet people I’ve forgotten their names within seconds. I try to say their name over again and to reinforce the memory of meeting them with some facial features or bits about what they work on. This process works well in the beginning of most events but within a few hours to a second day or more, I’m toast.
Conferences are a unique challenge to me when coping with how to process information. I can combat the issues of focus & attention in my home office with tools. Using my treadmill / standing desk with exercise mid-day helps reset whatever brain chemistry is fucked up. Note-taking apps, reminders in Slack, and other apps help with reminders and not losing information that doesn’t make it to long-term memory. I lack most if not all of these tools at conferences.
I do try to exercise at a conference but it usually ends up being in the morning or later at night. This past summer at 360iDev I snuck out before lunch to go for a run on the hotel roof’s track. It was an absolutely brilliant idea and it helped recharge me for the afternoon. At my company’s annual meeting last month I did a similar thing and found it kept me going.
I try to help people with their own recall of who I am by being emotive and a bit more of an extrovert than I normally am. I also try to connect on Twitter or LinkedIn and add add them to a list with the conference as a title. Within a week or so after I try to interact. I also make sure my business cards have the same avatar that I use on Twitter and LinkedIn. I really find that makes the biggest difference!
So if you meet me at a conference or a work event, please do not be offended if I have to look at your name badge or ask your name. I have to entangle facts in my head with other reinforcements like your voice, stories from your life, and your general personality before I start to cement those memories for recall later.
I have always believed I was a procrastinator. I tend to put difficult tasks off until when they are due. I always believed it was the pressure of the deadline that forced me to complete the task. College gave me a series of structured deadlines to learn new things. Procrastination can also add undue stress onto your system. Over time it will make you feel like you’re stupid and can’t get anything done. ADHD and procrastination seem to go hand in hand as well.
I’m sort of done with procrastination. It sucks and I know I’m smarter than this.
This month I’m speaking at two conferences and giving two different talks. The first is on remote working (a “soft” topic) and the other on an introduction to RxSwift – a fairly complex programming topic. I’ve known I needed to prepare these talks for several months and I have been doing the work. The remote working talk went off well. The RxSwift talk is upcoming and I’m sweating it. I want the people at my talk to get something significant out of it and not walk away feeling something was missing or it was a waste of time. When I finally made this statement to myself I realized something significant:
It’s not procrastination – it’s a failure to start.
I didn’t dive into the demo project for the talk because I felt like an imposter. How could I give a talk about a topic I am not an expert in? The reality is I needed to dive into code to incrementally learn the topic better to give people a leg up on their first try at RxSwift. This fear of being an imposter kept making me lose focus on simple things and putting them off.
I seem to have an enhanced behavior of finding something else to do instead of the “real work” when I encounter mental resistance. Mental resistance can come from not knowing a subject or the task feeling remedial. I tend to find other things to do instead like opening up a Facebook tab or checking the 14 different Slack instances I’m in for new messages. I know it is time to step back and re-center myself when I notice that my brain starts derailing like this.
When you find yourself slipping on a task or unable to commit to get something done I suggest doing the following:
- Break the task down into smaller bits and just get started on the first one. Just get started.
- Walk away. Literally – walk. Exercise is my number one tool to combat attention and focus issues. Grab your headphones and take a short walk around your office or neighborhood. Don’t actively try to think about your problem at hand – just take in the different atmosphere. You’ll be surprised how often an idea comes to you seemingly randomly during this process.
- Prevent the distraction by blocking the thing you’re using as a mental crutch. In my case it was logging out of Facebook and blocking the site on my machine. The behavior broke after several months on my work computer. If it’s something like wandering and cleaning your house, close your office door and leave a note to yourself to focus. Maybe try the Pomodoro Technique for 20 minute focus sessions.
- If all else fails stop committing to things you can’t get done. You’re not a failure if you don’t have time or interest. Dig deep in your head to see what’s important to you and your future.
Sometimes we don’t have a choice and we just have to buckle down and get something done. Reward yourself. Check off that box and celebrate! Sometimes the little successes are more important than the big ones.
I tend to set myself up for defeat with how my brain works when trying to accomplish a task. I overthink things.
When I pull a task from my list of things to do a process starts in my head. I visualize the task and then try to figure out what the solution is and how it looks at the end. Smaller tasks with a clear goal seem to start just fine. Tasks that are a bit more nebulous or aren’t clear how to do everything end up stalling. I end up wasting time misdirecting myself so I don’t have to face the fact that I don’t have an immediate solution.
I also tend to misdirect myself with tasks that have a clear solution but aren’t terribly exciting. It takes a serious conscious effort for me to keep a grasp on things that tend to be mundane but are a part of my day.
While my focus on this post is generally around my job it applies to how I approach things with my personal life too. Unimportant or difficult tasks tend to get stalled and I will find myself doing other things (like cleaning, checking out Facebook, the weather…) just to not face the task at hand.
So … Just Start.
So how do I get over this fear of working on a task?
Sounds simple, right? It boils down to these things:
- If this is a larger task admit you can’t see the end and just find the first small chunk you can work on. Smaller tasks are easier to finish and it lets your unconscious noodle on the entire project in the meantime.
- Turn off the distractions and be cognizant of when you misdirect yourself. Try to figure out a pattern to what causes it and stop it before it happens.
- If this a task that’s just not engaging or not exciting but its something you need to do, just start. Once you get moving and you prevent the misdirection you’ll finish and feel good.
- Celebrate the finished tasks.
Before Working Remote
In July 2013 I started working remote at Automattic working on the WordPress for iOS app. I was pretty happy with my life at that time and the transition to the new job was not for reasons of disliking my previous job. In fact I loved working for Red Arrow Labs in Milwaukee and it was incredibly hard leaving them. I only left Red Arrow because it felt like Automattic was my unicorn of jobs and I had stumbled upon it by sheer luck. It turns out that I really wasn’t entirely happy with how things were going in my life at the time even though the job was great.
I don’t believe single data points like body weight can gauge happiness. It is, however, an indicator of my overall health and satisfaction with my daily life. In 2010 I had dropped to 235lb/106kg without much effort except eliminating bad foods and walking around the neighborhood a lot. Life changed a bit and within three years I was back up to the 280lb/127kg range.
I was admitted to the ER in 2011 when my heart rhythm freaked me out. I was diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation (aFib) which is when the electrical signals around your heart freak out. The major risk associated with aFib is stroke because while your heart is beating all weird blood has the chance to pool causing a clot to form. I ended up being put on two medications and regular checkups with an electrophysiologist. Something had to change.
Weight Loss Failures
I’ve learned over time that major self change only is successful when done in super small increments. Drastic short term changes, while satisfying to the impulse buyers in us, end up failing for myself because I miss the old way. Riding my new bike to work was a great success for me and made me feel really good – but it took a lot of effort. Instead of continuing with the biking to work I dissuaded myself by convincing myself it was too cold, or I had an early meeting and couldn’t be sweaty, or my knees hurt a little. Turns out I was doing too much too fast.
I didn’t really find out how to let myself be successful until I left my office job and starting working remote at Automattic. Almost immediately I realized I really did have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and couldn’t ignore it any longer. My level of success as an Automattician depended on me being able to focus and alter my environment to remove distractions. I immediately changed everything in my office and set up all these tools like using the Pomodoro Technique, notebooks, standing at my desk. I felt super successful at first but in the end none of these techniques helped because I got overwhelmed.
In October 2013 I realized I needed help. I ended up seeing a counselor who specializes in both substance abuse and ADD. She helped me work through some of the issues I was having with my attention and got me to realize how I was able to succeed in the past and why I was failing now. The nature of working in an office with the multitude of distractions worked in favor of the ADD. Removing those distractions made me entirely in charge of my workday and my brain spun out of control. For around four months I was on Vyvannse to help let me see how my brain could operate with the focus I was looking for. Ultimately I took myself off of the meds because of some behavioral changes that were too drastic of a change. What I discovered pretty quickly though is a daily regimen breaking things up into chunks made a big difference in my ability to do work.
Combating the Change Aversion
I started biking again mid 2012 after buying my first “real” bicycle made by Trek. I had no excuses any longer to biking – I finally had the comfortable seat, full range of gears, and a proper fit. I recorded all of my trips in RunKeeper for future analysis (like this post). I wanted to go for longer bike rides but excuses like being sweaty or its a bit chilly got in my way.
I started working out over my “lunch hour” to help break up the day. Your brain chemistry changes during exercise and I discovered it helped reset my thoughts. I found a bunch of great step aerobics videos on YouTube from Jenny Ford. A small investment in a step bench allowed me to work out right in my office with a minimal mental barrier. I can shower after I’m done and there is zero commute to the gym. Over time I went from one day a week to around three days.
As time has progressed I’ve mixed in riding my bicycle almost every day during the summer for an hour (roughly 15 miles) with exercising in my basement. On bad weather days I stick with the routine because I now consider exercise just a regular part of my day. I don’t need to overdo it to get benefits from it. For the last year I’ve been also using a treadmill under my desk walking on average of 6-10 miles a day. I absolutely love walking and working especially in the morning.
All of these changes to my exercise regimen happened super gradually. Any time I started something new I would come in at the ground level with no expectations of success. If I didn’t like something, I stopped doing it. There was no need to try to fool myself with doing something like just because it burned a lot of calories.
Working remote is a big part of my success but the other part is specific to Automattic. A subset of us have banded together to encourage fitness routines and providing support when things go wrong. We have a Slack chat room dedicated to fitness that is full of awesome praise and discussions. RunKeeper friends from work also provide that boost of support when we have that tiny success finishing a workout. At our grand meetups every year we also encourage physical activities to connect us together doing something active and fun. Automattic even recently bought everyone a Fitbit device of their liking to let us be aware of our activity levels.
Before working at Automattic I always thought of fitness as a specific set of things – things like P90X and powdered drinks/supplements, talking about your current weight lifting levels and competition meant to boast not encourage. Turns out none of that is the truth here. We have a bunch of people doing weight lifting, Crossfit, and running but its all ego-free. We all have our own approach to fitness and no judgement is passed only encouragement. It’s super awesome.
Where I’m at Today
My weight has dropped to around 225lb/102kg and remained relatively plateaued over the past year. Recently I’ve mixed in weight/resistance every other day which I am really enjoying. My goal isn’t weight loss but rather increasing my focus with the side effect of increased stamina to do the fun things like biking or walking. With the weight loss and greatly improved active lifestyle I’ve been able to stop the aFib medications and just have biannual checkups with my electrophysiologist.
Having both the flexibility of working remote and the support of my coworkers going through similar challenges has helped a lot. I am a better person for combating the physical health issues and establishing a framework to counteract the ADD. While I don’t believe I’d really be dead today if I had continued on the path of the unchecked body weight, I do know I am healthier and much happier.
Have you heard about pinning tabs in Safari? If you have Mac OS X El Capitan then you have Safari 9 which includes tab pinning. From Apple’s Support documentation:
Pin Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Gmail, or any other website you visit frequently throughout the day. Pinned Sites stay put on the left side of your tab bar so you can easily get to them at any time.
I frequently keep several tabs open on my work computer – the three Gmail instances I’m in and WordPress.com’s Reader. Battling with my attention requires me to analyze my behaviors and continuously adapt to prevent problems. I recently discovered I frequently flip back over to Safari to look for the unread count in the tab titles and will derail my current thought process to read the email. My solution? Pinned tabs.
As you can see I have an unread count in the far left Gmail instance. I’m driven to see what’s behind that (1). Now with the tabs pinned:
I know the email is still there and I’m super familiar with what order those tabs are in. The miracle though, is, I no longer see the title of the tab and am not driven to read the unread messages. When my mind has a moment to change course during the day, I’ll check my email.