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I'm a senior software dev at a contractor company. The issue I'm asking about goes as follows: When I program or debug or do something I like, I'm super-fast. I'm fast enough that I do tasks in 50% the budget-time. On the other hand, when I do something that doesn't interest me, I'm super-slow! I'm so slow that I start feeling guilty for taking the company's money!

For example, for reasons related to time management and summer vactions of other colleagues, I had to work for a week on documenting some software. Literally, I can't focus for more than 10 minutes. I MUST get distracted by something. It can be some idea that pops into my mind (library I want to read about)... it can be arbitrarily opening stackoverflow and looking for interesting questions and answering them... it can be looking at my phone... It seems like to my mind, everything else is a priority when I'm doing something I don't enjoy.

I consider myself an ethical person, and I want this to stop.

Am I the only one who has this problem? What do you recommend to resolve this issue, or at least minimize its impact? Your advice is highly appreciated.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Jul 24 '17 at 19:06
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    Good question, I struggle with the exact same problem! – Mel Reams Jul 30 '17 at 4:49
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    This sort of thing is on topic and discussed at length on Productivity Stack Exchange- it could be migrated. – Rory Alsop Jul 31 '17 at 7:36
  • Dont know if this is helpful, but when i have to do things on lists (like a list of functions) i start at the bottom and move to top. Also possible to random choose an entry which attracts you and do that. Then choose another random entry. For some reasons this works for me. – Nils Oct 3 '18 at 15:54
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It's perfectly natural to struggle to concentrate on something which is not mentally stimulating to you. To answer your question - no, you're certainly not the only person who struggles with this.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, you just need to find something which works for you. One thing worth considering is the Pomodoro Technique. This basically alternates between periods of focus, and short breaks between. You need to be diligent with yourself. This way, you can force yourself to get through the task at hand, and also stimulate yourself in-between.

Here's a free browser option: Tomato Timer.

  • Never seen the Tomato Timer. :-) – Mister Positive Jul 21 '17 at 11:41
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    I love the Pomodoro technique...works like a charm for me. – DLS3141 Jul 21 '17 at 13:24
  • Yeah! Pomodoro!! Are those timers still being sold? :) – Igor Soloydenko Jul 22 '17 at 1:39
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    This has never worked for me. It's too easy to disobey the tomato. – Mateen Ulhaq Jul 22 '17 at 3:52
  • Instead of software recommendations here, if anybody wants to Q/A about pomodoro timer software in StackExchange style, you can do so at Software Recommendations Stack Exchange site. – miroxlav Jul 23 '17 at 10:14
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It's probably not efficient for everyone, but what worked for me is breaking down the boring work into smaller tasks, still as boring but much shorter.

  • Make a list of these shorter tasks, for example when you arrive in the morning, and plan what you're going to do today. (It takes some time, but hey, we were about to be unproductive anyway...)
  • Make sure to list everything you have to do, even trivial things. For your example of writing documentation, you'd have tasks like "write chapter 1", "write chapter N" but also "spellcheck" or "choose the title colour" and "e-mail document to X for review".
  • Complete mini-task #1
  • Congratulate yourself on having achieved something and proudly check task #1 off your list
  • Realize that it was really not that much effort, who are you kidding, you just chose the title colour
  • Still allow yourself a well-earned 2 minutes break
  • Move on to task #2.

The point is to divide your work into smaller parts that you can finish during one concentration period instead of stopping randomly (you were saying 10 minutes, some tasks will be way shorter but they should not be longer), and also giving you a sense of actually progressing through your list of tasks as you take items off it.

You'll notice that the small breaks won't really be necessary as you complete really small amounts of work, but I find that it's always motivating to have them as a potential "reward" when I'm doing the things I hate the most.

Good luck to you!

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    This works well for me for disagreeable tasks too. Say, cleaning the bathroom. If I don't reward myself after each little sub-task (I can have a beer after scrubbing the toilet) the job never gets done. – Michael J. Jul 21 '17 at 17:34
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    This can be effective for me, so long as those two minute breaks don't turn into 20 minutes. (In other words, don't visit Stack Exchange during them.) Giving yourself rewards for completing tasks can be a great motivator, and it definitely works best if they are frequent. – Kat Jul 21 '17 at 19:03
  • improductive --> unproductive – jpmc26 Jul 21 '17 at 22:17
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    This, exactly this. I've tried many methods of productivity management, but for the boring and disagreeable tasks this is the only thing that works. Key is in not feeling sorry about yourself for the amount of breaks you take: feel good about the amount of time you've saved compared to procrastinating it all away. – Mast Jul 22 '17 at 9:35
  • @MichaelJ. That needs to be adapted to different temperaments though. If I get a beer already just for scrubbing the toilet I will not go back to clean the rest of the bathroom. You need to find out what tasks are a reasonable size for your brain. I sometimes ask myself to do X tasks from a list of Y disagreeable tasks (Y>X) before giving myself a break or reward, because otherwise, I train myself to do very little without a reward. – skymningen Jul 31 '17 at 11:28
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My solution to this problem? Meditation. Not the kind where you blank out your mind, but the kind where you focus your attention on every. Single. Detail. around you. This is an awareness technique called Mindfulness and does require some practice. Try it first while doing something enjoyable, such as eating something tasty. Notice all the textures, tastes, smells, sounds, etc. Don't analyse them yet, just acknowledge each one, then move on to the next. This sounds weird, but trust me, once you get the hang of it you will use it all the time.

Let's try it now. Smell: I smell my coffee, the odd electronic smell my computer tower gives off ( it sits on the floor next to my chair), raspberries from this morning. Feel: I feel the way my fingertips hit the keyboard, the ache in my lower back from sitting too long, some muscle tension in my shoulders, the wood of the desk on my forearms, the soft skin of my face as I rub at my eye, the chair seat under me. Hear: The alarm going off- time to eat again, the soft hum of the AC, music across the street, dog getting a drink of water, soft clatter of keys on the keyboard. Etc...

OK, hopefully you get the point! Every time your brain goes down the road, off on it's own adventure, just bring it back to the task at hand by using this technique. It really does help! This kind of meditation can be safely used while walking, biking etc. After all, how likely are you to wander out into traffic if you are paying attention to your surroundings?

When you practice Mindfulness, be kind to yourself. Don't criticize your attention span or anything else. Talk to yourself as if you were your best friend, being nice and supportive. This will help you advance faster than any number of self-criticisms. Also, expect your mind to wander a lot, especially at first. Just bring your mind back as needed, and begin again. Go through all five senses. Good Luck! From a grandma with ADD, with kids & grandkids with ADD.

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    Doesn't your computer get clogged with hair if you have a dog and your computer is on the floor? Maybe that's why it smells so funny.., – Kat Jul 21 '17 at 19:06
  • I have just tried this over the past hour and it has really helped me. Thank you! – aero Jul 21 '17 at 22:23
  • this has had a massive impact on my ADD, though i tend to focus on breathing – aw04 Jul 24 '17 at 16:13
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I have problems with this too. Here's some things you could try:

  • Try to eliminate distractions. Turn your phone off, use browser plugins to block your favourite websites, etc.

  • Tell someone who sits near you at work about this, and get them to be your 'accountability buddy'. Just knowing someone is looking at what you're doing from time to time might help. Or every time they catch you procrastinating, you owe them a beer... that could add up quickly!

  • One thing I find helps is setting myself mini deadlines. Write out what I have to do, pick a chunk of it, estimate how long it will take, and give myself half an hour to do a half-hour block of it. It's satisfying to tick them off, and usually I can mentally handle just half an hour of focus.

  • To follow up on the advice to eliminate distractions - there are apps that lock your phone for a set period of time and not let you check it. Super useful! – Catsunami Jan 11 at 17:21
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You train yourself to do it just like anything else. You make a conscious effort to focus and you do so every time you remember, after a while it becomes habit.

I have a lot of boring work that MUST be done carefully and efficiently, this is what worked for me.

Don't waste time with half measures treating the symptoms, train yourself to resolve the core problem.

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Try everyone's suggestions but also consider that it may not be possible for you to concentrate on tasks which do not interest your brain. The solution might be to redesign your job role so that you can do more work which interests you and less which does not.

I say this with some experience - I've had exactly the same situation and have quit four jobs over it. Finally I discovered that I was dyslexic (which was a complete surprise) and that it wasn't my fault - it's the way my brain works.

One hypothesis for dyslexia is that it's a different brain structure from non-dyslexic brains, one which is highly capable at making connections between concepts but not as capable on focusing on details. This might explain your excellence in coding (in linking problems with various kinds of solutions for those problems) and also your difficulty doing documentation work (because your brain is constantly making connections away from the boring work and making it difficult or impossible to concentrate).

My personal experience of boring work is that while doing it my brain is triggered to think about other things and it can be several minutes before I even realise that I'm not doing what I'm meant to be doing. Then I drag my brain back again and the cycle repeats (forever).

I can do work which is 1) interesting and challenging, or 2) boring and straightforward (allowing my brain to think about other things). What I can't do (no matter how hard I try) is work which is 3) boring and challenging. I suspect that you can't either.

I suggest, therefore, you read a book called The Dyslexic Advantage to learn more about dyslexia and about the strengths and challenges that it presents. If you're like me, reading the book will be like looking in the mirror.

To overcome your immediate documentation challenge, you might find that you can talk to someone about what the code does (which is interesting to your brain) for them to write it down or even possibly to record your conversation and then write up your notes (which is boring but straightforward).

Feel free to ask any follow up questions about what I've written.

  • Thanks for the exceptional idea. I'll try to find out whether this is a problem I have. – The Quantum Physicist Jul 23 '17 at 10:09
  • Good luck. Note that if you're a 'stealth dyslexic' like myself, you might 'fail' the tests (i.e. not be diagnosed as a dyslexic) offered by the dyslexia establishment who view dyslexia as merely a reading disability (when reading difficulties are probably only a symptom of a dyslexic brain - imagine a five year old dyslexic kid whose brain is constantly making connections to other things rather than focusing on the mundane task of reading and writing words). IMHO the best place to start is The Dyslexic Advantage book. – Andrew Mackie Jul 23 '17 at 22:29
  • @Andrew that makes so much sense, very similar situation to the OP (hence looking up this post) and really struggling with boring-but-hard work in my new job whereas could do the boring-but-easy work in my old job. Diagnosed dyslexic since I was about 7, but never caused me any issues outside of memory and organisation (maths degree from a top uni and working data and fintech company). Book added to my amazon wish list... – Bee Jun 26 at 15:42
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One thing that Ive found helpful is listening to binaural beats. I use it for studying, working, or anytime I feel I need to really focus in on a task or othwrwise it wont get finished. Binaural beats are formed by playing two pure tone sine waves with frequencies less than 1500 Hz but the difference between them is less than 40 Hz. Each sinusoid is played in one ear and it creates the effect of a third tone that appears to be at the frequency of the difference between the two tones. For example, playing a 1000 Hz sine wave in one ear and a 980 Hz sine wave in the other would give you the perception of a 20 Hz tone, the binaural beat.

The key idea here is that neural tissue is able to generate oscillatory activity each having a certain frequency, amplitude, and phase. Many experts in neurology have noted how the brain can adjust it frequencies to be in snyc with frequencies from an external source. By listening to binaural beats, you brain will automatically tune itself to the frequencie of the sound you hear. This process is called brainwave entrainment.

Certain frequencies will either make you more attentive or more sleepy, but in your case obviously you would want to listen to a binaural beat of a frequency that would make your more focused. Listen to a binaural beat of gamma waves (usually anything between 25-40 Hz will work). They have a bunch of stuff of Youtube that you can look up and listen to many of these binaural beats. The sounds are a little wierd, but after a while you get used to it. Make sure though to listen with headphones so that you really immerse yourself in the sounds.

Thats the one thing I love about it: it really helps isolate yourself from the chaos around so that it feels like all that is present is you and the job you need to complete. Someone mentioned the Pomodoro technique as well and I agree that is another effective method to be more productive. Maybe try combining binaural beats and Pomodoro as well.

Hope this helps.

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If this is really interfering with your life, please consider seeing a mental health professional (I think a psychiatrist might be best) and see if you have a medical condition. Don't wait; a friend of mine had a similar problem in school just this year, and waited until the end of the semester to seek help. Her psychiatrist diagnosed her with moderate ADD, and she's starting treatment for that now. At this point, she had already almost flunked out of the honors track and developed clinical depression because of her academic failures. You may need more than just a Pomodoro timer to get past this.

I am not a mental health professional in any sense of the word, but your own description of "I can't focus for more than 10 minutes. I MUST get distracted by something." and hyper-focusing on stuff you like, but having a lot of trouble with stuff you don't like really sound a lot like my friend's description of her ADD.

Worse comes to worst, you can't lose much by spending an hour with a psychiatrist, right?

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I'm a software engineer, and I spend 90% of my time doing the boring documentation part. As far back as I can remember I've always watched TV while doing homework. It wasn't until I started programming that I would pause the TV and switch to music.
I take work more seriously than school, so I can stay focused for months without a problem, but eventually I need help with the boring tasks.
Help starts with music and escalates to things that provide more stimulation like podcasts or books on tape.
Calling this ADD or ADHD is wrong. Consider driving cross country. You could drive in silence, but you'll need more stops than if you were to listen to music. Same thing here.

You will need to match the task complexity with the level of stimulation on the fly.

My short example list of stimulation from lowest to highest:

Music i've heard before,

New music,

The news,

Educational podcasts about things I'm not interested in,

An audio book in a genre that isn't really my thing,

A slow paced audio book that I like,

Educational podcasts about things I like,

A fast paced audio book I like.

You can have these qued up and ready to switch between. Obviously these will generate ideas and questions, so keep a note pad open to quickly take a note and get back to your task.

Also, don't listen to anything live. You need to be able to pause and come back to it if it starts to be too distracting.

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