Bootcamp Mastery: Distraction Is the Enemy

Ruthlessly Simple Steps for Focusing on Your Work

I recently finished a coding intensive at Fullstack Academy in NYC. These articles are part of a series about how to get the most out of an immersive bootcamp experience. Check out my stories for more!

We live in a distracted age. Everything from open office plans to buzzing cell phones and pinging desktop notifications conspire to interrupt your focus. To fight distraction, you must pursue focus ruthlessly.

Constant distraction kills productivity. Worse than that, distraction makes it harder to learn something hard and new, like programming.

Worse still, your mind can become addicted to constant distraction. At certain times in my life I’ve found myself struggling to maintain long stretches of deep focus. The mind craves a moment of distraction, a quick hit of dopamine from that peek at Facebook or your Inbox.

But there’s good news. You can ween your mind off distraction. In the process, you’ll recover a lot of productivity and you’ll learn better.

The take-no-prisoners intensity of a coding bootcamp is a great time to get started.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Kill all notifications.

Yes, all of them. This includes Slack, email, Messenger, Spotify, any beeps or buzzers, and yes, the little notification icons that appear in the dock at the bottom of your Macbook.

Distraction is the enemy because your mind needs to be free to focus on your current task. A notification tells your brain, “Oh look, something important just happened. Remember it!”

Even if you think you’re turning your attention back to programming when your computer beeps, your subconscious still has taken note of the distraction. You won’t operate at full brain power.

“But what about…!” No. There are no exceptions.

When you are in focused mode, you must commit 100% to no distractions.

“But how will people get in touch with me?”

Take time throughout the day to deliberately check your communication devices (more on this soon). Make communicating with colleagues a conscious part of your workflow, not a noisy din behind your whole day.

2. Turn off your phone or put it on do not disturb.

You don’t want to hear or feel anything. We’re all such Pavlovian dogs for our cell phones that a vibration might as well be the loud ring of a phone. If you’re a real phone addict, you should put your phone somewhere where you can’t see it.

Pretend you’re on a date — ok, I know everyone has their phones out on dates (!) — but pretend you’re polite and old-fashioned! You wouldn’t leave your phone rudely on the table. So don’t do it when you’re working. Stash it in your backpack or purse so you don’t have any visual cues to check your phone.

3. Stay off Facebook during your day.

If possible, you might consider kicking your social media habit entirely. I deleted my Facebook almost 2 years ago and I can say unequivocally: my productivity (and my life in general) has been better since. Besides, every time you post or browse Facebook, you’re just working for Mark Zuckerberg.

Except you’re paying him with your time and energy. Do you want to be volunteer labor for a billionaire?

Some people balk at the idea of kicking social media. If you really don’t want to kick it, install tools that block it during working hours.

A conscious attitude towards communication and social media is just a part of being a professional.

I try to think of myself as a professional. A professional takes their work seriously. I try to imagine that my own work ethic should mirror a great musician or athlete.

Can you imagine Usain Bolt casually browsing Facebook while training? Do you think Michael Phelps tweets poolside between each lap? Do you think Segovia or Gershwin or Coltrane or Da Vinci would sit at the guitar/piano/saxophone/canvas and text message their buddies every 5 minutes? No way.

When I remind myself that to think like a professional, it becomes easy to stay away from social media during the work day. Otherwise, what sort of professional am I, really?

Fourth, use the Pomodoro method to pace your work. You can’t focus all day without breaks. Deep focus takes something out of you. Some evidence suggests that even pros who have mastered the art of deep focus, such as elite violinists, can focus deeply for only 3–5 hours per day.

Pomodoro really helps. Think of it as interval training for your work. Work intensely for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break. During your break, don’t think about work. Take a walk, get a cup of coffee. If you must, do something distracting like 5 minutes of Facebook.

Every three sessions, take a longer break for 15–20 minutes. You’ll soon find that you can rack up several hours of deep work each day. Your productivity (and your co-workers) will thank you.

Pomodoros also help you balance focus and communication with colleagues. You can check your phone at the end of a Pomodoro.

Remember, distraction is the enemy. Make it easy on yourself and follow these simple rules to get the most out of your work and your coding bootcamp.

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