What kinds of distractions are good for your focus?

An exploration of why you might not want to check Facebook or email during a pomodoro break.

While reading Mark Lesser’s book Less, I found myself searching for a way to understand the different kinds of distractions and the effects they have on our mental state and therefore our ability to be intentional. Since “multitasking” tends to be counterproductive, and working intently for hours on end is hard to do consistently, it can make sense that we might want to find healthy ways to distract ourselves in between rounds of working.

The pomodoro technique

I, like millions of other people, use the pomodoro technique for a lot of my work. It has several components, the most central being its focus on having a dedicated focused-work period followed by a mandatory break period (typically 25 and 5 minutes, respectively). The break period is important, because it allows you to keep your mind fresh so that you don’t find yourself feeling compelled to take an unscheduled break later on. That said, it can feel a bit unnatural at first to insert a break when you’re feeling most in flow.

With an unstructured work-break schedule, it can be easy to take a break when the going gets toughest. With a pomodoro, you push at it until either you break through, or you get a structured break. Then, the question becomes:  what’s the best way to spend that structured break?

Divergent distractions

What a lot of people will do during their breaks is whatever was attracting them before they settled down to work—facebook, perhaps, or their email inbox. Reading blog posts that you had to put aside to start the pomodoro. And, while this can be a relief from your work, especially if the work is challenging, these kinds of distractions can also be problematic.

Because they’re divergent. They make your attention spread out.

Everyone knows that facebook is designed so that it’s not easy to just quickly check something, or to just spend 5 minutes and easily pull yourself away. Your email inbox isn’t necessarily explicitly optimized for such a purpose, but it provides pretty extensive dopamine hits as well, and is very good at tangling your mind in the many threads of conversation that are present there.

Honestly, almost the entire internet has this property. One of the best ways to understand what I mean by divergent is the concept of a “tab explosion”. Commonly experienced on Wikipedia, LessWrong, and media-analysis-site-that-shall-not-be-named, this is when you open one article, and while reading that article, you see several more that look interesting, so you control-click to open them in new tabs, and then when you’ve finished the first, you go to the second, but it also prompts you to open a few more.

There is no escape. The best thing to do is get  OneTab, collapse them all, and intend to get around to them later, while knowing you probably won’t and that that’s probably okay since you really didn’t need to be reading the Wikipedia article on… the Euler-Mascheroni constant anyway. (I have no idea what that is, but when I searched my web history for “wikipedia”, it was there.)

Now, something being divergent is far from being a bad thing. The best conversations tend to be the most divergent, because you find each topic yielding three more that you’d also be excited to talk about. Again, there’s probably no way to every talk about it all, but the experience is enjoyable and so it’s worth trying!

But, you probably don’t want to get into a hyper-interesting conversation if you’re on a 5-minute work break. Unless the other person is also doing pomos? …but even still.

Centering distractions

So what kinds of distractions do work well during a 5-10 minute work break? Intuitively, I think we have a pretty good sense of some things that work well:

  • meditating
  • getting a glass of water
  • eating a small snack mindfully
  • going for a walk outside or around your office
  • stretching

Some that might be less obvious:

  • dancing
  • doing a mini-workout
  • free association (just letting your mind wander)
  • napping (better for a slightly longer break, but I want it in the list)
  • cleaning your room/desk

There might be some other ones that work well for you individually. I’ve really enjoyed playing a single song on my guitar, or doing a bit of juggling or devilstick-spinning. Practicing physical skills intensely for 5-minute chunks can be a cool way to see rapid improvement when you’re almost a complete beginner.

Anyway, like I said, you basically know this. I did too. What was more of an aha moment was learning to call these distractions. Because they are. They’re a drawing of the mind away from what it was previously doing. This drawing away is valuable for allowing your brain to do some offline processing of the stuff you’ve just been working on. However, unlike the divergent distractions, these centering distractions don’t draw your mind away too far. By contrast, I sometimes find that after a few minutes of doing them, that my mind tends to naturally drift back towards the work that I’m in the middle of.

Creating contexts for sustained focus

What I realized when I noticed this distinction between these two kinds of distraction was that I would be way more intentional if I gave myself several consecutive hours of only indulging in centering distractions. Checking facebook or email in the middle of trying to write or code does two things: it makes me less likely to start work again once my pomodoro break ends, and even if I do pull myself away and go back to work, it means that I’m going to have a harder time staying focused on the work that I’m doing.

So I encourage you to decide on a trigger that will prompt you to turn on focus-mode, ie “no divergent distractions”. This could be a certain time of day (eg while I was doing software development at Twitter, I used to do this between lunch and supper) or it could be a certain task (like the writing I’m doing right now). If you have a browser extension that blocks stuff, make it block stuff. If you don’t need the internet, turn it off altogether. Put your phone on silent and airplane mode. Tell your coworkers that you’re going heads-down.

Then experience a much more relaxing experience of focus.

You can also be really intentional about the kinds of things you do on your break. For instance, I’d been meaning to start a meditation habit for years and I finally got it working when I decided that I would always do a 4-6 minute mindfulness practice during my first pomo break of the day. Now I meditate almost every day.

There’s an additional benefit, which is physiological It’s really easy to alternate back and forth between “work” and “break” without ever standing up, for hours. This isn’t good for you. Sitting in general isn’t, but you can probably mitigate most of that if you’re moving around briefly every half hour. While most divergent distractions involve staying at your computer / desk, most of the centering distractions involve getting up and using your muscles at least gently.

For suggestions on how to create a focused container first thing in the morning, check out this article: How to start on the most important thing every day

Want to experience it yourself?

10 minutes from now you could be taking more meaningful actions!

Help me achieve my goals