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Posted on: Sunday, 25 April 2010 by Rajiv Popat

Quick! How many windows do you have open in the background right now as you read this? On a given day my desktop would have looked somewhat on the lines of this:

If you have more than ten parallel windows and you find yourself jumping from one window to another loosing complete track of what you were doing before you jumped to a different task, you might consider taking an online test for ADHD.

Michael Lopp describes this classic symptom of having way too many tasks on at your desktop in his post about Nerd ADD. He explains:

Stop reading right now and take a look at your desktop. How many things are you doing right now in addition to reading this column? Me, I’ve got a terminal session open to a chat room, I’m listening to music, I’ve got Safari open with three tabs open where I’m watching Blogshares, tinkering with a web site, and looking at weekend movie returns. Not done yet. I’ve got iChat open, ESPN.COM is downloading sports new trailers in the background, and I’ve got two notepads open where I’m capturing random thoughts for later integration into various to do lists. Oh yeah, I’m writing this column, as well.

Folks, this isn’t multi-tasking. This is advanced case of Nerd Attention Deficiency Disorder. I am unable to function at my desktop unless I’ve got, at least, five things going on at the same time. If your count came close, you’re probably afflicted, as well. Most excellent.

My mother first diagnosed me with NADD. It was the late 80s and she was bringing me dinner in my bedroom (nerd). I was merrily typing away to friends in some primitive chat room on my IBM XT (super nerd), listening to some music (probably Flock of Seagulls — nerd++), and watching Back to the Future with the sound off (neeeeerrrrrrrd). She commented, “How can you focus on anything with all this stuff going on?” I responded, “Mom, I can’t focus without all this noise.”

While ADD, ADDHD, NADD or extreme multitasking and restlessness, whatever you want to call it, has its own advantages, after a while it gets to you. For me the noise and parallel processing in my brain started becoming scary when every project that I undertook outside of work hardly ever ended.

It was time that I decided to take a few online tests and realized that I scored consistently high in all of them, every single one of them ending with a result which was nudging me to start doing something about it.

The first side of dealing with it was through fitness and exercise which train the brain to control attention.

The second aspect of it was setting a few circuit breakers in place.

For me a circuit breaker in this case would be anything that stops me from ALT+Tabbing my way to another task while I am working on one. If I am in the middle of composing an email and I am called to a meeting what I want to do, is get back to composing that email when I get back to my desk. Typically, I don't. I instinctively spawn either a new visual studio instance or an internet explorer instance.

If I am in the middle of writing code and I suddenly think of paying my cell phone bill online, I want to resist the temptation of hitting the Window button and typing iexplore to bring up internet explorer.

What I wanted was a circuit breaker that would stop me from hitting ALT+TAB or the window key, pause for a second and let me consciously decide if I wanted to perform a task-switch. 

In my search for finding applications that will lock down all other applications and let me run just one or two programs that I wanted to focus on at any given time, I hardly came up with any solutions or tools that would lock down everything except the one program that I wanted to run.

In the end, I ended up using a simple hack to help me focus on just one thing at a time. Let's assume that you want to focus on writing a blog-post for which you need to focus on Windows Live Writer and nothing else. Here is what you do to set up a circuit breaker for yourself:

  1. Close all other applications.
  2. Start Windows Live Writer.
  3. Go to Task Manager by hitting ALT+CTRL+DEL, Move to the Processes Tab and kill explorer.exe.

Now all you are left with is Windows Live Writer and your desktop. Even the desktop icons would have disappeared. Your window button is gone. There is nothing to ALT+TAB to. Just you and Live Writer:

Of course, you could start your explorer again by brining up Task Manager and Hitting The New Task Button.

But then hitting ALT+CTRL+DEL and invoking explorer often involves a couple of clicks and it often acts as a circuit breaker. The mere act of going through a few clicks helps you slow down and consciously decide if you want to brain up explorer and move to multitasking mode again.

Do you also find the idea of multitasking painful?

Do you use special programs, post-it notes or labels to remind yourself that you should be doing less of it?

What is your circuit breaker?

Discuss.