My Mind Keeps Wandering

My mind keeps wandering. I've got some bugs to fix and a new feature to implement, but I keep thinking about how to explain the disconnect between MyersBriggs and CarlJung and how to characterize the squirreliness that makes you good at the GameOfGo and how this relates to InformationTheory and CognitiveStyles? and what makes an argument persuasive and the limits of rigor and how to get some time off to pursue some neat book ideas and ...

I tried installing a drill sergeant in my head to yell at me whenever I procrastinated. But he only made me feel guilty. I didn't get more work done.

I only know of two really effective ways to get a wandering mind to focus on a different task than what it's wandering to. In order of decreasing effectiveness, they are:

  1. PairProgramming
  2. CodeUnitTestFirst

When you sit down to pair, there is a lot of social pressure to not waste your partner's time. Also, the conversation you have with your partner quickly drowns out the conversation going on in your head. (Public speaking also shakes out the cobwebs pretty quickly, for the same reasons, but I don't get to do that very often.)

And when you get into that cycle of testing and fixing and testing and fixing, the job itself keeps you on track, even if you're working alone. Your fingers hardly stop, so your attention can't wander.

Here are a couple other tricks, taken from or inspired by a nice book called Doing It Now by Edwin C. Bliss, ISBN 0553278754 . They aren't as good as the first two, but I've had success completing large projects with them:

  1. As soon as you get up, start working on the job you're supposed to do. Bliss's explanation of this technique is that whatever you get to first, you're sure to get to. But it also seeds your wandering with the job, and prevents seeding with something else, like some neat thought a friend told you in email. (Also, don't read email from discussion lists or that kind of friend in the morning.) This technique seems most effective if you're working at home, where you can go straight from bed to work without stopping to shower or eat. (Do those in an hour or two, when your mind is totally saturated with the work.)

  2. Pick a subtask that is so small, you can easily get it done in 15 minutes. Better yet, 2 minutes. Make a deal with yourself that you'll just get that one tiny thing done, and then you can go back to screwing around, only without guilt. What nearly always happens is that this 2-minute task seeds your wandering with the job you're supposed to do, and it becomes fun to keep going. At that point, you can dismiss the drill sergeant.

What other tricks have you found to corral a wandering mind?

Yeah, I know, I could quit reading Wiki.

-- BenKovitz

Good topic!

  1. I don't know if other have this pattern, but for me personally, GoodThinkingMusic (or actually, any kind of non-distracting music) keeps my mind from wandering.

  2. Somewhere on wiki, there is the tip to leave some simple task half-finished at the end of the day. When you come back the next day, you know exactly what to do for your first task, so you do it. Afterwards, you are in the flow for your work. StopWhenYouKnowWhatHappensNext -- KatieLucas

  3. Keeping a list of my todos for the project, and when I notice a new task, I push it onto that list. Because if I don't keep an explicit list, my mind will do it for me, and the list of todos in my head distracts me from the current problem. Until, after some time, my mind throws a StackOverflowException?.

-- FalkBruegmann

I don't think it's possible to stay focused for long periods of time. The mind will wander. The brain needs to play and recover some after focusing. Knowing this you can increase efficiency by establishing oscillations of focusing then recovering then focusing then recovering then focusing and so on. Thus it's ok to read wiki or play solitaire or whatever to be able to focus better.

I have the opposite problem - once I get involved in a programming task, it drives everything else out and I can go for hours and hours, which may be considered harmful. However, my mind wanders in normal situations. -- JamesWilson

I HaveThisPattern too, sometimes. When that happens, I just keep working while the groove is hot.

My mind is most prone to wander at four [no, five] times:

  1. When I get stuck and don't know what to do. WritersBlock.

  2. When I complete a milestone, even a minor one. I start celebrating and forget to keep working. EgoTrip.

  3. When I am reluctant to do what has to be done. TurningTheCrank.

  4. When I get interrupted by an external event. Sometimes I forget to come back.

  5. [new!] When it seems my goal is exploding in scope. PushDownGoalStack.

I've been able, on some rare occasions, to focus my attention remarkably, but whether I can keep it up seems to always be an open question. I did it for college; I wrote a non-deterministic PDA program in Java in twelve hours. Straight. No mind-wandering. It was the deadline; I turned it in only four seconds late and got full credit. Lately also I have been writing myself a Windows API Guide; I worked on it for three solid days before I realized what I had been doing. Whenever I can do that, I find that I didn't get stuck, that there were no celebratory milestones, that I had no reluctance, and that my work environment didn't interrupt me much. So if you can find kinds of work like that, and places to work like that, you'll never wander.

For the other kinds of work, which is practically all of them, it would be great if computer applications would help: if you fail to do any typing or editing in a document, for a configured time period, like thirty minutes, then a dialog box should rudely pop up and say, "Get back to work on [document name]!" Obviously, you would want this feature enabled on a maximum of one document at a time. If this feature didn't help, you could increase or decrease the time period, or turn it off. But I think it would help people like me. A lot. If you write any GUI applications, please add this feature! Thank you.

Uh-oh, a little dialog box just popped up, and I have to get back to work. -- EdwardKiser (who wrote the deleted comment also)

Edward, I can't help but feel that those dialog boxes would soon enough come to feel like junk mail (and somebody would figure out how to advertise in them, for sure). No, you can't make work important just by wishing it were. We are, at core, a nomadic species. So wander you must, even if it's only your mind and not your behind. -- WaldenMathews

If they feel like junk mail, turn them off. They would not be mandatory; you would only want one document to have this feature enabled at a time, so you would have to be able to turn it off in the other documents. Turn this feature on, if you know your mind is wandering away from what you think is important, and you need something to bring it back to the subject now and again.

Sometimes I think it is OK for my mind to wander. Sometimes I don't. In the latter case, such dialog boxes might be useful. -- Ed

(Years later I come back to this and I think my little dialog box idea is absurd. The question of whether your mind wanders -- is that a characteristic of your mind, or of the task which your mind is wandering from? Now I think it's the latter, and if so, dialog boxes won't help. You have to change the nature of the task, or perhaps you can change its apparent nature by looking at it from a different perspective.)

Isn't mind wandering a good thing?

Your mind isn't going to be wandering all the time, otherwise it wouldn't be wandering. So why not just let it wonder, take a break, read a magazine, listen to some music every once in a while and come back and do some really good work later.

I suppose that allowing this to happen is the first step to being up at very odd hours... but I also suppose that's worth it.

The powers that be often recommend holidays half way through a very complex or time / mind consuming project. Whilst you are on the holiday, one of two things can happen (both if you're lucky): At least that's what happens to me.

The other thing I do is take along (in my head, paper, or PalmPilot) some part of the issue and think about it over and over whilst doing something else like watching food cook or paint dry.

-- MatthewTheobalds

Use the
task in ant to remind you when a build is complete, so that you don't get distracted.
Maybe your work is boring you? I have a hard time recognizing when I'm bored, tired or depressed and tend to get distracted more when I'm in one of those states. -- BruceIde

Even when work is interesting the mind has a tendency to wander on it's own, dealing with other pressures and associations. One thing I've found helpful are MeditationTechniques a few minutes a day, especially just emptying the mind of all other thoughts. Now before you say this is just hocus pocus, the effect I've found is that it helps give control when you need it, i.e., when you do want to concentrate on work throughts. Like an excercise for the mind.

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