Eyes, JAPAN Blog > Concentration and productivity.

Concentration and productivity.

Mola BogdanGeorgii

Introduction

      At the first glance topic that I will disclose in this article may not be related with IT. But modern trends show opposite state [try to find references]. There are many articles about approaches that helps to improve workflow and life, applications aimed to help with productivity, of course books and podcasts. Moreover, my proposition is the following: work  is doing something and trying to do it as good as possible, but it is important to take into consideration the way of doing work itself, working atmosphere, mental state and other factors. For short, “working on how work well” is main point of interest there.

      Speaking about productivity or concentration, these abilities are valuable in almost any types of activities especially in IT. That type of activity can be attributed to “sitting work”. Area of focus is limited. During life we could notice that holding attention in these limited area sometimes not so easy and different factors can be influential. One may think that it based on inborn abilities but it is not ultimate factor. You may hear such statement as “in IT you should learn constantly”. Learning is one of the most mental energy demanding process that just based on concentration.

Problem definition

      Almost any person in his or her life has seduction to do something exciting, interesting and sometimes (of course!) useful instead of real task. It can be simple activity substitution like walking with friends instead of preparing homework with upcoming deadline and it can be more tricky cases when desired activity is really useful but not essential or prioritized at the moment. Another example of issue can be encountered just during “correct” activity. Mental flow may be inconsistent, objects outside can distract and anything can catch attention. Society used to treat such things as laziness, lack of will and other negative definitions that is sometime true of course. However, if we could go deeper we will discover huge set of factors and mix of factors related with mechanisms that create our personality. Speaking the language of IT, It is hard to find Bug without taking into consideration full set of problem sources, condition and triggers. Before we move to possible solution let us consider some reasons.

Inside chaos

      Usually, mental specifics that cause problem are out of focus. People used to find explanation in mentioned before “classic” reasons. It is well known that almost every person has some psychological problems. But it does not meant you should seriously care about that because problems expressed in very weak form and person can never realize it or find solution by him/herself.

     One the most famous issue is GAD (General anxiety disorder). Sounds quite serious but can exist partly or/and temporary. In general, it is fear of fail that distract focus, decrease self-confidence. Other symptoms are lack of will, chronic tiredness, losing reasons for activities. All these things can combines in different forms of depression. I would name it “passive chaos”. There are can be tons of reasons for such problems and it is out of this article.

      In order to underline complexity, it worth to briefly touch processes that “behind the scene”. For example,  person can apply all his/her intelligence and logic to treat problems, but in most cases, it is useless against subsystem of our brain that represents “low-level” mechanisms. I am talking about reptilian brain. This subsystem has strong influence to us through Limbic brain (that control emotions). This process is separate science itself (most likely more than one). In general, we have bidirectional link between brains layers. And sometimes, due to some circumstances link become to be not equal. Limbic system get more control over layers that perform “rational things” – Neocortex. Then Intelligence begin to excuse almost impulses that come from low-level. It will be described later how to hack it.

 

      Among all problems, ADHD has special place, in my opinion. Definition is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. This problem has weak, middle and strong forms. Sometimes  parents miss it and child has troubles in future life. Sometimes it is weak and does not affect seriously or person just learn to compensate it. Lucky case. This issue has variety set of features but according to definition, first it is hyperactivity, usually on mental level (less on physical level). Mix of thoughts that occurs in mind of such person seems to be source of inspiration and high productivity. However, it is not true. Actually, it is beg deal to concentrate on one task when impulses and bright ideas (especially not related with current work) come.
     Switching between thoughts is attention deficit itself. As result person can begin bunch of tasks and fail most of tasks or even all. I would name it “active chaos”. According to official science, it is impossible to get rid of this problem totally. As specialists say, it is possible to “compensate” it and live normal life.

     More famous thing related with mentioned above problems or possible outcome is so called procrastination. Wikipedia says: “It is habitual/intentional delay of starting or finishing a task despite its negative consequences”. Probably most people face this thing. It is not necessary related with psychological problems, sometime it occurs independently. I have read different articles about it. Moreover there are tons of books and opinions about it. Unusual thing here that I read about positive sides that sounds strange, but let’s have a look.

  1. There are no time to do something extra and unnecessary. Sometimes we can begin pursuit perfectness and spent more efforts.
  2. “Let the dust settle”. It is suitable for moments when several tasks performed and it is important to understand that it is better to delay incoming task because it can lose its relevance when other tasks will be finished. Also you can have some time to gather more information.
  3. “Bad ideas goes away with time”. Let’s say some task does not worth efforts in your opinion. Delaying of such task has possibility that your teammates reveal the same and remove it. Of course it necessary to negotiate opinions.

Again this cases has limited application. Negative side of procrastination are obvious. Especially in team work. But why this occurs?

  1. Feeling that task is hard. Situation produce negative emotions. Our brain does not like it and produce kind of defense mechanism. Primitive and ineffective). We hope that we will understand solution later but understanding does not come. It leads to despair that again bring you to procrastination.
  2. You don’t want it. Yes, sounds terrible. Lack of motivation or boring task can bring it.
  3. Fear of fail.

      All listed above things are just brightest examples that I you can meet during reading about concentration, productivity and related things. All this issues are “psycho” problems and probably it sounds terrible. But I would like to underline that in most cases it expressed in weak form and it is possible do something. I have favorite example. His name John Nash. One of the greatest mathematician of our time. He suffered from paranoid schizophrenia that is really complex and sometimes dangerous disease. After many years of problems, he learn how to fight serious illness without pills. So when you feel that you can not handle bad mood, procrastination or lack of motivation just try to think about this man.

Finally, let us consider technics and methods that can help to improve concentration and productivity.

      Despite to different nature there are some general approaches. The most basic is control over distraction factors. Surrounding environment has millions distraction factors. Smartphone notifications, email, websites with interesting news (let’s be honest just cute and funny kitties). In case of deficit of attention, source of distraction is in mind. Funny isn’t it? Just sudden irresistible idea or question and you did not notice that you reading about jet engine structure instead of homework… Turning off notifications do the trick. But it is just tip of iceberg. Also it is nice to support “working” atmosphere and avoid mess. Avoiding mess in one hand create order that is rather less distractible and in other hand order will keep all tools and necessary things on its place that will save your time and mental resources when you will need them.

      Another approach is planning. Sounds simple at first glance. It is important to plan tasks. It is also important to decompose big tasks. Performing plan makes work more conscious. Every finished step (even small) will bring you satisfaction. It is strong emotion. Therefore, you manually influence your brain and train it. It is kind of hack that should help to deal with limbic system. Planning itself has many positive outcomes. I want to describe it in the following context: productivity related with decision-making. Every decision requires such resource as mental energy. Less mental energy – less will –less effectiveness. Moreover, we  need mental energy for retaining activity and initiation of activity. Any resource is limited. Planning can help you to get rid of some decisions. Some people follow this idea with passion. I heard that Mark Zuckerberg has set of the same clothes for everyday life. It should help to keep mental energy free from choosing what to wear.

      Another approach is pomodoro method. Inventor of this method took inspiration from cooking timer that has tomato shape. Concept is quite simple. In order to save mental energy we work intensively using 25 minutes “sprints”. Then we have short rest and again. After, let’s say 3 sprints we have large rest. The mental hack here is in constant feeling that time is ticking and we have atmosphere of challenge. It  important to keep in mind that every person has different temperament. In simple words it is dynamic of neurons. Some person can spent 20 minutes to reach maximum working state (so in this case 90 minutes will be appropriate), other need less. So, 25 minutes is only example. User should adjust periods and find right combination.

      Speaking about books, I can mention one of the most popular. It is “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. It is big topic, but main idea is keeping mind free from all information that can distract from current task. It is also describe methods for prioritization of tasks. It is rather advanced planning way. Another worth to mention book is “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. Book consider another sides of productivity and concentration. Underline importance of ability to concentrate and brings many examples.
      Coming back to mental energy, due to inborn specifics every person has different
periods of better mental activity – so called biorhythms. For short, time of day can affect your productivity.

      Short breaks proposed by pomodoro method not the only way that helps avoid stress and restore part of mental energy. Outdoor activity, sport or just walking helps to restore mental energy dramatically. Moreover, according to book “Think like mathematician” by Barbara Oakley, when we perform some mental work we use so called “focused attention”. Walking or jogging can help to change mode of mental work. It is so called “distracted attention”. Yes, distracted! That is how we can utilize weaknesses of our mind. In this mode task go to background mode and there is chance that idea possibly come after changing activity type. After some rest you may look at your task with “fresh sight” and reach solution with less stress.

Sleep

      The key method to restore energy is sleeping. It is just physiological need and any
tricks are useless if you will not let you sleep. Sometimes we feel sleepy during day time. Solution is napping. But key thing is timing. Basically sleep consist of phases and it is important to set timer for correct phase. For napping you can take 15 minutes as reference start point and adjust it after several experiments. It worth to note positive effect of meditation. It is not so scientific, but it is possible to meet more and more mentions that there was some researches and positive effect approved. One very basic application example: just 3 minutes of meditation in the morning time or before big task can help to calm down brain and prepare for mindful actions.

Other tricks

      Speaking about tricks. There are many helpers and tools. Some of them well-
known some not. First of all music. Many researches approved that music can increase productivity. It can help to create peaceful mood. In Eyes Japan we have already tested positive effect of music in office. The main thing here is loudness. It should be not very calm. Otherwise, we will make effort to hear anything and then getting distraction. It should be not too loud. Otherwise, music will distract you. Usually you can read that ambient, lounge, trip-hop genres are most popular as working background music. Again, everything is very individual and depends on mood, some persons would rather prefer listen to metal or other “active” genres. The most modern flow in “sounding surround” is special environmental  sounds. Actually, there are many application and websites offering such service. During several years, I was using “Noisili”. This service has web site, Chrome browser extension and application. It is set of noise generation sources and you can mix them in order to adjust your own atmosphere.

Nutrition

      Nutrition has effect as well. Too big lunch can overload your stomach and body will have to bring more blood to it to support efficient work. Who will get less blood? Brain. Result is sleepy mind and no productivity. Healthy food in general case supports nice mental work. It is not playing key role but it nice for good feeling and health in general.

Flow

    If inefficiency and lack of concentration exist there is should opposite thing! Nature has balance, usually. It is possible to reach very strong concentration when person does not notice what happens around and persons mind totally exist inside activity. That condition has light euphoria. Person in this state trying to use all possible skills. This state of mind is usual thing for programmers, artist and some other professions. Of course it was subject of research. Inventor of this definition is Mihaly  Csikszentmihalyi. Some other activities can support ability to reach flow state. For example, meditation and martial arts.

Conclusion

As you may noticed this topic include big variety of aspects and there are more of them. The main advice here: if you experience some issues or want to improve your habits never give up if one approach does not work. Every person has his/her own specifics that can bring some difficulties in finding best practices but at the same time will help learn about yourself that is positive experience itself.

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