I got motivated to “do one thing at a time” by that unpleasant feeling of scattered focus: of being pulled in lots of directions at once, trying to do them all at once, and getting nowhere on any of them. Maybe if I did one thing at a time, I would return to that pleasant and productive state of focus that I love so much.
Practically every time I sat down, I would find myself doing multiple things: reading stuff in a web browser, writing email, writing a program, writing a different program, etc., hopping between them every few seconds. This gets really unpleasant really fast, and of course it doesn’t get much work done.
Here are some things I did, to get myself working on one thing at a time. They all worked:
- Close all the windows on my computer (or reboot!). Now open just one window, for the one thing I want to do. Ahhh, so much better.
- Pair programming. The need to constantly coordinate with another person forces you to define one tiny task at a time, or you’ll get too far out of sync. Pair programming leads fairly effortlessly into that methodical, slow-and-steady-wins-the-race style of work. Two hares become one tortoise when they pair.
- One-hour check-ins. I and a friend call each other once an hour. We spend a few minutes helping each other brainstorm for a tiny goal to complete by the next hour. I usually pick a goal that I can finish in 5 minutes. Sometimes 30 seconds. That short bit of focus, combined with the rule that I can guiltlessly goof off for the other 55 minutes, is usually enough to give me momentum to have a productive, focused hour.
Despite these successes, I am marking this goal Not Worth It.
I would not have chosen this goal if I naturally worked methodically and did things step by step. The above techniques really worked, but after a while, I found myself in an even more-frazzled state than before. I found myself unable to think, desperately needing some “down time” or “vege-out time”. This new frazzlement felt horrible, like some weird coma where my mind can no longer even control my thoughts, like my mind was eclipsed by this retarded, goal-churning idiot.
Lesson learned I am not a methodical person. Looking back on times when I was happily focused, I was working on “one thing”, but it also involved lots of hopping around. For example, I wrote programs by working simultaneously on many little pieces, adding little bits here and there, keeping many mental threads alive simultaneously. I also wrote papers and manuals (and a book) this way: not by chugging through a list systematically, but by having a phrase or sentence pop into mind, a vague idea, and writing the whole piece out of sequence, adding little bits here and there, occasionally getting inspired and blasting out a huge bunch of text. But not in sequence, and not in neat little work units.
My style is to work in an “organic” way: to weave many things together simultaneously so they form a whole. While I can usefully oppose it in short bursts, I think I’m much wiser to work all-out in my natural style and just accept the problems it creates (mostly due to its unpredictability). I had even worse problems with schedule and punctuality when I was being disciplined and organized than when I was working “organically”.