Minimize interrupting notifications to stay focused

annoying notifications

I work remotely, so I have to be communicated through chats, emails and service notifications. On my desk at all times are a laptop, a tablet, a phone and a smart watch (on my wrist). When a notification comes along, all four beep almost at the same time. Technology connects us more every year with more devices, wearables and social apps. But sometimes being too connected gets in the way of truly connecting, and specially, being productive.

As a software engineer, my work is more in the creative process than in the task oriented type of work. Many times when planning or designing software, I need absolute silence and long moments of full concentration to build the mind model of the software I’m working on. Notifications get in the way of full concentration. Even when you can dismiss them right away, it’s a “ding” that goes into your workflow and ends focus.

Programmer Interrupted

Considerations for interrupting

Here are some considerations to take in mind when communicating with others (or, what I would like others consider when communicating with me):

When sending someone a message, get to the point in one long sentence rather than several short ones. Never start with “hey” or “can I ask you a question?” or worse, send one word messages and trigger 10 notifications in 5 seconds. I can’t count the times I get a message, a one line that says “hey” and then I have to wait until the real message/question comes in before I get back to what I was doing. Just type in your message, even if it is one long message. Chat applications can handle long messages, only Twitter is still limited to 140 chars (and considering changing that). That will create less constant interruptions and straight forward communication.
Use chats for short conversations, email for long explanations. If your question, message, or the expected answer to it, is too long to explain in one single chat message (or paragraph) then consider using e-mail as your communication channel. E-mails are easier to track back and check the context of the conversation than scrolling back in a chat window. Some chat programs don’t even have a search function.
Only use chat programs when you need real-time conversation. A few years ago, messaging or chat applications were called “Instant Messaging” apps. I don’t know where they lost that classification, but not everything needs instant reply. Use forums, message board applications, e-mail or other types of communication instead.
Consider the time of your interruption. Avoid annoying people in chat windows with irrelevant questions. Don’t send chat messages extremely early in the morning or very late at night, unless an immediate attention at those times is required.

Tips to minimize distractions

Some tips to stop notification saturation:

If you’re like me with many gadgets in your desk, put all of them except for one in silence. This way you’ll avoid multiple beepings everywhere when a notification comes along. And believe me, you’ll feel less stressed or annoyed during the day. It has made a huge impact in my daily life.
Prefer vibration over sound. In my experience, sound creates an annoyance Palvlov response faster than vibration.
If you use Gmail, activate the “priority inbox”. Then in your apps, set the notifications to only trigger on emails marked as important.
Use web versions of mobile chat applications. Most mobile chat applications have a desktop or web equivalent version (WhatsApp web, Telegram, iChat, Skype, Hangouts). Having the chat in your computer will avoid the need to pull up your phone to read or reply back. It’s easier to just switch windows or browser tabs and faster to reply back with a physical keyboard.
Schedule notification downtimes. On Android devices you can set notification downtimes to avoid getting interrupted. I set them at night to sleep like a sane person and sometimes during the day when I need full concentration moments. If you already do this for night times, consider expanding the downtime to your first hour or two of the day. Enjoy your morning and start your day without beeps and inquiries.

Unless you’re a doctor or a sysadmin, emergencies are not life or death situations. If emergencies are constantly coming up in your life, you should analyze your environment because then the problem is much bigger than notifications.


5 Tips to Stop Procrastination

At the time of this writing I feel like the king of procrastination. I can’t imagine any way to get better at it. One of my most common ways to procrastinate is doing tasks. Yeah, you might ask yourself how is doing tasks procrastination, but it is. For example, instead of brainstorming ideas for a new project or business, I do the dishes, reorganize my drawers, untangle my home media cables, and so forth. Other times, when I want to start programming a project idea, I instead dive into my Emacs configuration file and try to “polish” my tools with the pretext of having better tools to code. Then, by the end of the day, I try to figure out other tasks or chores I need to do to excuse myself from not doing the more meaningful things. It has gotten so bad, that I can’t tell apart the meaningful things to do from the procrastinating chores anymore.

  • If I want to stop procrastinating, I read a book or web articles about procrastination instead of actually doing something.
  • If I want to organize my tasks, I read about Org mode instead of writing down things and figure out their order or priorities later.
  • If I want to prioritize items, I start thinking that maybe I should think about possible business ideas.
  • If I want to work on business ideas I browse for inspiring conference videos instead of doing something that can inspire others (and be me the one in those talks).

The story changes in details but the big picture is always the same. At the end of the day, I end up with nothing done but very inspired and well informed.

That said, now what’s the cure? Well, not all tips apply to everyone. As I procrastinated writing this blog post, I searched for “tips to stop procrastinating” and ended up with a lot of info that didn’t work for me, but got me started thinking on what does work for me.

So here’s what works for me:

  1. Make a to-do list

    Having a list to cross out is great for focusing. Of course you have to stop putting off making that list, but once you do it, you know what needs to be done. The book Getting Things Done recommends reserving one day to write down your list for the next week and review the past week’s progress.

  2. Divide and Conquer

    Break big projects into small tasks. You can’t build a mountain in one day.

  3. Don’t wait for the best conditions

    For almost all situations, there is no “best conditions” to wait for. The time is running and the time to get started is now.

  4. Information diet

    Avoid constantly checking social media sites, RSS feeds, Reddit, reading non-work related email or any other type of messaging system. Take a task on your list and don’t do anything else until it is done. Then you can reward yourself with some distraction…I mean, “inspiring content”.

  5. Peer pressure

    Put yourself accountable for the tasks at hand. Be it by publicly announcing what you will do, or only share it with a friend or colleague. Peer pressure and public “shame” are effective motivation tools.

If you wait for the perfect conditions, you'll never get anything done

Well, I don’t want to distract you from your chores any longer. I think sharing these 5 tips is enough for you to get started and for me to remember them anytime I read this post again while procrastinating.

If you have some time to spare, what works for you to stop procrastination?

Emacs GNU/Linux Free Software & Open Source

Quick note taking with Emacs and Org Capture

Taking notes has to be a taks that is fast, easy and must not get in the way of the things you’re doing. How many times do we forget something because we didn’t write it down right away? Or how many times you didn’t took a note of something because you don’t have a quick and simple way to easily write down that idea for later use?

Using Emacs for most of my daily workflow and Org mode as my organizing GTD system, having a quick way to take notes and store ideas or links quickly is a huge advantage. This is the fastest note taking system I’ve used so far and even if you’re not using Emacs or Org mode, this feature alone is worth spending a little time learning the tools.

Remember mode was the way to capture ideas fast and easy without getting in the way. Until Org mode version 6.36, you had to hook up remember mode to interact with Org to capture your notes. Now you don’t need to since there’s Org Capture. It is part of Org mode and it’s got all the functionality of remember mode with the advantage of being built-in with Org mode.

Setup org-capture with global keybindings so that no matter what you’re doing (within Emacs) you can quickly capture something with a fast shortcut. I like to bind it to C-c r

(setq org-default-notes-file (concat org-directory "/"))
;; Bind Org Capture to C-c r
(global-set-key "\C-cr" 'org-capture)

If you are using Emacs prelude setup a different shortcut because this one will conflict with prelude rename command. Since I’m already wired to use that shortcut and I barely use the prelude-rename command that often, I added this to my setup:

;; Unbind prelude rename command
(global-unset-key "\C-cr")

Like with remember mode, you can set up templates for your captured notes. If you’re already using Remember mode, you can import your old templates to the new org-capture templates. To convert your org-remember-templates, run the command:

M-x org-capture-import-remember-templates 

Here’s an example of two templates I always set up with org-capture:

;; Org Capture
(setq org-capture-templates
      '(("t" "Todo" entry (file+headline (concat org-directory "/") "Tasks")
         "* TODO %?\n %i\n")
        ("l" "Link" plain (file (concat org-directory "/"))
         "- %?\n %x\n")))

The first one will capture a TODO entry under the headline Tasks inside the file in my org directory. I’ll use this one whenever I want to add a todo task quickly. The second one will copy the contents of my clipboard and will paste it as a new entry in the file as a list item without any header and will have my cursor ready to type the item list description. This one I use it when I want to save a link url, typically a bookmark from the browser, in my file to consult it later.

To access each template, a key has been set for each. When org-capture is run, it will prompt you what you want to capture. Press ‘t’ for a Todo or press ‘l’ for a link. You can add more templates to suit your needs with the extensive template options described in the Org manual.

Using org-capture

Finish the capturing process by typing C-c C-c which runs org-capture-finalize and the capture buffer will disappear so you can continue what you were doing without interruption.

Note photo by [email protected] on Flickr

How NOT to kill an idea

Sometime ago, I came across this image on a blog, 8 ways to kill an idea.

These are all clever and very real ways to kill an idea on the work environment. But it made me think of way’s I’ve killed an idea, on a personal level, and I realized its missing a nine-nth one: Not writing it down.

Your brain is constantly storming with ideas and shifting thoughts every second (or even faster). Think of how you’re thinking of something, then that leads you to something else and then to even something else almost totally randomly.

Sometimes you might get a flash of inspiration or come up with a great business idea or problem solution while doing something else like riding the bus, eating sushi or watching TV. Your brain works so fast that is hard to keep up with it or keep track of every thought at every moment. This is why its very important to write down your ideas as soon as you get them. Have a small notebook or note-taking app in your phone ready for whenever the situation presents.

It is very important to write down all your ideas, even the bad ones. Remember that practice makes perfection. You can’t expect to come up with a good idea on the first attempt. Also, how would you differentiate between a good or bad idea if you can’t compare them side by side written down on a media? It will also help you track down ideas that you’ve already have, so you don’t end up repeating your bad ideas later on.

Some applications worth looking at for brainstorming and note taking are:

Emacs Org-mode