Sometimes It's Better to Just Sit and Stare

By Deane Barker on November 11, 2005

I don’t want to talk about personal productivity too much, because there are other sites who do it better (warning: shameless inter-FM network plug). However, I’ve found a simple thing that helps keeps me from getting distracted —

Your computer is full of distractions. Windows for your RSS feeds, your email, the news, etc. are just a click away. You can easily click over and read the news for 40 meaningful seconds and then do something else. Your computer is just dying to switch you to something else – it sits there all day trying to seduce you into doing something else for 30, 60, 90 seconds.

But when I do this, I find that I forget to go back to what I was doing in the first place. It happens all the time.

It usually goes like this: I’m working in Visual Studio, and I need to debug. I hit the “play” button, and the project has to compile, then start up – a process of about 60 seconds.

While this happens, I’ll usually click over to my email or something else to pass the time. Five minutes later I’ll be in the midst of cleaning out my inbox and I’ll suddenly think, “Hey, wasn’t I doing something...” and there Visual Studio will be, waiting patiently at my breakpoint.

(I once found the window at the end of the day – about three hours later – when I was getting ready to leave. I meant to take my mind off the task for 45 seconds, and I never went back.)

To combat this, I force myself to sit and watch the screen. If I’m compiling something, FTPing something, opening a big file – anything that’s going to take up to about 90 seconds – I’ll just sit there and watch it happen. I’ll stare at the screen as if it was the most interesting thing in the world.

There’s a strong temptation to do something else for that minute-and-a-half, and my computer is only so happy to give me something else to do. However, switching tasks for that short an amount of time breaks the groove and gets me thinking about something else.

It’s not worth it. Sometimes it’s better to just sit and stare for a minute or two. Make a habit of it. It helps.

Comments (13)

Dave says:

In the OS 9 days, when you printed something or there was some task going on, you didn’t have much choice; you had to wait because with no multitasking ability the ‘puter wouldn’t let you do anything else. In the graphics world, where a print job might easily take 5-10 minutes to clear the screen after you hit print, it was called “hands on head” time, because that’s the position most people assumed while they waited.

With OS X and multitasking, you don’t have to wait. The print job goes in the background and you’re free to do other stuff. At least I find myself doing what you do; checking e-mail, checking for anything new on this site or that site, etc... Generally allowing myself to get distracted.

It’s funny because the other people in my department who are pretty new to OS X still go into hands on head mode when they hit print, and just watching the progress box until it clears. I know I’ve mentioned to them that they don’t have to do that, but I guess old habits are hard to break. I’m finding my new habit is hard to break as well.

matt says:

Deane I can absolutely relate to this post. I find myself doing this all the time. Thanks for the good advice.

(Note: this comment was edited to remove reference to a prior comment which was deleted.)

iii says:

time to write an app: it checks every 60 seconds to see what the foreground process is, and if it’s not on the approved productive list, it puts up an alert reminding you to get back to work.

after all, there’s nothing wrong with checking your email for 60 seconds, especially if there’s nothing else to do. you just don’t want to do it for 5 minutes, or hours...

Deane says:

All – I deleted one comment and edited another in this thread as we were drifting into a platform flame war.

Joe says:

There’s a tremendous irony in the fact that I read this post while waiting for eZ Publish to clear it’s cache in another window, and wrote this comment while doing it a second time. :-)

Jason Ruona says:

Your computer is not the only thing on your desk that has unfinished business. While you are waiting to for the project to compile, process some items in your (physical) inbox or do something you know you won’t want to do for longer than a minute.

aesop says:

If you could run a script when you went into hands-on-head mode which would make exposé just “F9” the once and back again every 3 minutes or whatever, it would remind you what you were waiting on.

Mike says:

Amen to that . Somedays I have to declare a moratorium on the web and email just to make any progress at all. It seems especially worse when I am tired.

random dude says:

Jason has good advice: if you want to do something while waiting for your computer (other than stitting and staring of course), just process some physical items (go through your inbox, put away a couple file folders, open 1-2 letters). Leave your computer focused on what you’re waiting for so you can keep an eye on it while you process the physical items.

It’s much easier to stop the physical process and return to your computer task.

Also, if you go off to another computer task, you run the risk of having to wait again, and therefore going off to some OTHER task, and really getting lost. “Never interrupt an interruption”.

Isn’t it funny how computers, supposedly so “fast”, make us wait all the time?

Matthew Cornell says:

Great post; I came across this the other day, with the same solution. Well said. In my case, while waiting for a CVS check-in I switched (without thinking) to my email program, then to my browser. BAM: five mintues gone before I even realized.

gnutgnut says:

But time doing displacement activity may not be wasted after all. Our brains are somewhat parallel in nature. I often grok a gnarly problem, feel like doing something else for a while, then find I suddenly know how to solve the first one. Or is it just me?

dave says:

Good point, gnutgnut. A little mental downtime can be just the thing to solve an issue that we can’t get through when its staring us in the face. That’s one of the things I like about my job; my duties are varied enough that if I run into a snag on something I can usually put it aside for a while and go to something else. And often while doing that something else, a solution to that first problem comes to mind.

But that brings up another problem – remembering to do something with that solution, as I may or may not be able to act on it that very moment.

blaser51 says:

This reminded me of a poem i was writin – - How can you write about the future when time has alreadey passed you by- You can’t be in the present tense unless you keep repeating yourself. This is called finding “spaced out”. Can you figure it out!-? you oxxxxxxymoron