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Posted on: Sunday, 23 May 2010 by Rajiv Popat

I'm heading to office. The phone rings. Someone, somewhere wants a stupid signature on his release letter. I tell him I'll be there in about thirty minutes. My DVD company just shipped the next DVD on my queue to my office and I'll get it the next day. My manager is calling to catch up on how things are going. My phone is losing charge already and so am I.

I am juggling with an iPod, a phone, a book and the bus playing a stupid radio channel - when all I should be focusing on is enjoying the long roads that pass me by. Or I should be reading the amazing book I grabbed last evening. I am doing, twenty other things.

Then I walk into office, hoping to get to the bug I spent my entire last night thinking about. I woke up with my mind still chirping at the problem and I found the answer when I was in the shower. It feels like first day at work. Knowing that I have the answer and experiencing the pleasure of putting the fix in place.

That's when I open my mailbox.

A dozen other funny problems await me. Someone is not being able to make it office because of a headache. Someone has a broken laptop and is whining about it in a mail trail. The support guy responsible for fixing his laptop is yelling back and using the caps lock key rather generously both in his written emails and verbal communications. Yet another client is raising stupid, irrelevant red flags.

My miserable little dreams of focusing on one thing that is important and blurring everything else out seem to be getting shattered like a house of cards. That's when the headphones come out.

If you read this blog, you probably know my preference of silence over any form of music when I am consumed in work, but headphones serve another important purpose. Ted Dziuba explains this behavior of using headphones rather articulately in his post titled - Break my concentration and I break your kneecaps. He explains:

I own a good set of headphones that fully enclose my ears. I am not an audiophile, I just don't like to hear other people talk at me.  When I am staring at my Emacs windows with headphones on, it generally isn't a physical cue that I am looking for conversation.

In fact, when I am that deep into thinking out a problem and I get interrupted, I think about the anti-workplace-violence clause in the employee handbook, and how a poorly lit parking lot probably doesn't qualify as "company property".

Interrupting a thinking programmer is a sucker punch to productivity's kidney. Of course it's still important to keep open communication channels, especially in a small team. I don't mind answering questions and helping out, so long as it's not an immediate context switch for me, i.e. I'll help you if I don't have to speak.

On any given day, there are a dozen tasks that I ignore. There are probably dozens of emails that I ignore as well. The underlying assumption is simple. If it's truly  important, someone, somewhere will remind me or someone somewhere will talk about it. If no-one reminds me that it is important, it probably isn't important. I can go back to putting my headphones on and working on things that I believe will eventually matter in the long term.

Then there are things which are pseudo-important, the false urgency alarms, the trivia of broken laptops, egoistic arguments, meetings and the discussions on the status of how things are going. Being a programmer isn't just about programming and chances are that on any given day, you are going to be bombarded by things which seem important but at the end of the day, your ability to ignore them is going to be much more important than your ability to get them done.

Slow down. Take a pause every now and then. Think about, what matters the most to you and spend most of your time on things that matter the most, because most other things that seem really important, hardly matter. Most things that you do on any given day are just random distractions.

Go, reflect on what is really important to you and then spend most of your day, doing those things.

I wish you good luck.