Overcoming Distractions as a Developer

12-08-21 Ricardo Fearing

Working with ADHD can be challenging, especially if you're a web developer. Learn how to work better by selecting the right tools, speed reading, scheduling work, and building a knowledge management system.

If you’re a person who has ADHD or is just easily distracted, programming—especially web development—has a number of traits that can benefit your brain’s working style. Take, for instance, the asynchronous nature of web work, which allows for work to be done in whatever way the developer finds most productive. Need shorter bursts throughout the day? You can do that! Need to use your ADHD brain’s superpower? Utilize a long hyper-focused session instead! Also, web development provides immediate feedback which provides continuous motivation to keep going.

Development, however, also comes with its own myriad of frustrations, as is the case with projects that require particular attention to detail, something a rapidly moving mind often struggles with. And the nature of your job means that you’re often glued to your computer and sometimes a smart device, which invites the most addictive of distractions. You’re also frequently tempted to work in a “doors always open” mode, especially with the rise of Slack and Microsoft Teams—which further splinters your already distracted attention.

Despite its name, ADHD is less about having a “deficit” of attention and more about the difficulty regulating it. Distractions are habit-forming and diminish our willpower, which is a crucial, yet finite resource. The need to control our focus and to choose our distractions wisely is important for anyone, but it’s paramount for any programmer that has trouble regulating attention. What I hope to accomplish is to provide a framework for anyone who suffers from distraction, through the lens of my ADHD brain.

Selecting Your Tools Wisely

Distraction may be habit-forming, but it is not something we can eliminate. Some of our day-to-day activities also distract us—Slack, for instance. I have found that creating “gatekeepers,” which all tools must go through before reaching you, can be beneficial. In other words, create in-depth criteria that a tool must meet to be used.

I argue that there are two main approaches to creating criteria for your gatekeeper, as found in Cal Newport’s book, “Deep Work”:

  1. The Any Benefit Approach: Justifies using a tool if you can identify any possible benefits or any opportunities that you may miss out on if you don’t use it.
  2. The Craftsman Approach: Identifies the core factors that determine success and happiness within your professional and personal life. This method encourages you to only adopt a tool if its positive impacts substantially outweigh the negatives.

Definitions are helpful, but allow me to explain by using an example. Let’s take “Facebook” as a tool. If your professional goal is a promotion, and your personal goal is to foster deep relationships, I argue that Facebook negatively affects both. You may argue that networking on Facebook can help you climb the company ladder and keep you informed about old friends and colleagues. And you’d be right: there are potentially some minor benefits that you’d be missing out on. However, Facebook relationships are notoriously shallow. Any strides that you’d make from networking pales in comparison to the gains you’d make by allocating that time towards more productive activities, like research.

Facebook may be too easy of a target, but I encourage you to apply this same critical approach to newsletters, articles, and conferences. You may find that you’re consuming data that is diminishing your focus and hindering you from reaching your goals.

Keeping Your Attention with Speed Reading

Now that you’ve minimized your input, it’s important for you to absorb what made it through the gatekeepers. While reading documentation, an article on a new technology, or anything for that matter, an ADHD mind may easily slip into a thousand other thoughts, making it hard to finish what you’re reading.

There are a number of ways to give our brains the extra motivation they need to finish any given task, including making something urgent using artificial deadlines, making something novel by gamifying your task, or making it more challenging.

Applying a simple method helps me to find the motivation I need to read content that keeps me up to date. I challenge myself to speed read articles, while still maintaining comprehension. In other words, I treat it like a game. There are many speed reading courses available, such as Learning Speed Reading by Paul Nowak and Learn Speed Reading & Boost Memory by SuperHuman Academy. No matter which course you choose, the following tips will help you to get the most value out of your lessons:

  1. Reduce Subvocalization. That’s the voice in your head as you read. After some training you can reduce the words you “say” in your head.
  2. Introduce a multiple reading process. Read the introduction, conclusion, headlines, and first sentence of each paragraph. This will paint a picture of the context and allow you to re-read more quickly.
  3. Chunk words together. Focus your eyes on a few words at a time instead of just one.
  4. Create a consistent pointer. Another helpful tool is dragging your finger across the page or your cursor across the screen to help keep your mind at a certain pace.
  5. Use a screen reader/speed reader extension. Simultaneously hearing and seeing text can help you maintain your focus. Some common extensions include Speechify and SwiftRead.

Scheduling Deep and Shallow Work

In his book “Deep Work,” Newport divides work into two categories: Deep Work and Shallow Work.

“Shallow work is generally work that does not require a lot of cognitive thought and can be done easily amidst distraction. Deep work is the cognitive, taxing work that requires your expert skill to complete”

Patrick Simpson, Deep Work on The Foundry

According to Newport, a key to having successful sessions of deep work is to keep your focus sessions free of internet usage and to conversely schedule yourself blocks of “allowed” internet time. Intentionally ignoring the internet at specific times may seem difficult for someone who makes their living online. However, I’ve found it particularly helpful to modify this rule by blacklisting distracting websites, or even better, whitelisting helpful ones.

For example, I could block sites like YouTube or Twitter and apps like Slack, but if I’m working on sparkbox.com, I could flip this to allow *sparkbox.com, *stackoverflow.com, and certain framework documentation sites.

You can schedule your “allowed” times as often as is necessary for your company’s culture around response times. For example, if email takes five minutes, you can schedule it at the end of a two-hour block. I’ve found that longer internet-free sessions are more useful for me.

My favorite tool to help me achieve productivity is Freedom. You can create profiles that you can easily switch between and schedule them to keep you focused. It also works across multiple devices to prevent you from pulling out your phone. A free, Mac-exclusive alternative is SelfControl, and a similar app is called Serene (though I have yet to try it).

Building a Personal Knowledge Management System

To make the most of your time, make sure you are absorbing the information you are inputting. This is not unique to ADHD. For example, have you ever read a book only to forget what you had read? Or watched a video with useful information, only to later ask yourself, “where did I see that again?” Soaking up pertinent information is a helpful bookend that I believe we can all benefit from when focusing on limiting distractions and absorbing the right information.

Recently, I’ve discovered the concept of “Building a Second Brain” from the Ali Abdaal YouTube channel. Building a Second Brain is essentially a methodology for saving and reminding yourself of your ideas by building connections between them. In other words, you put things into a note-taking system that you find interesting, linking together related topics so that they’re easier to retrieve in the future.

My learning experience has taught me that the best way to build your memory around what you’ve read or listened to is to create something tangible, like a summary in your own words, or a video explaining the concept. For instance, if I read an article from CSS-Tricks on animating height, I would not only take notes, I’d write a summary that would explain the idea in layperson’s terms, so non-technical readers could understand it. I would also link to any related notes—for example, one that I previously took on animation performance.

A ADHD Focused Developer

There are no cure-alls when it comes to regulating your attention, but there are things that can help. Putting simple steps in place like controlling your input, finding ways to make your input more engaging, and finding ways to retain the input you receive may help mitigate some of the struggles to stay focused while working in web development.

Do you have any tips for managing your ADHD? We’d love for you to share your suggestions with us. Also, be sure to check back later to let us know if our advice worked for you!

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