3 Learning Techniques to Improve Productivity
3 techniques that can help software engineers improve day-to-day productivity and problem solving ability.
Writing software is hard. Solving difficult problems with deadlines, moving targets and disruptive working environments is a tricky business to be in.
The following 3 learning techniques can be slotted into our daily toolbox of habits to improve productivity:
- Beating Procrastination
- Thinking Patterns for Difficult Problems
- Recharging your Brain
Procrastination is defined as:
The action of delaying or postponing something.
We know it’s bad, yet well all do it. Usually when there some difficult or boring task to be started. Instead of starting and making good progress we spend 30 minutes deciding which colour scheme and font size combination is best for our text editor.
But what triggers this? We procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable. The pain centres in our brains light up as if it’s real pain. Studies performed on mathphobes showed that the pain centres of their brains lit up even when thinking about having to do math work. How do we treat this type of pain? By seeking out instant gratification such as reading new tweets or watching videos of cats being stupid, of course.
The curious thing is, that it’s the anticipation of doing the work rather than the actual doing that triggers this pain.
The dread of doing a task uses up more time and energy than doing the task itself.
Procrastination can back us into a corner resulting in late-night code crams as deadlines loom or by creating stress as we juggle other day-to-day responsibilities. Worse, procrastination has an addictive quality by offering superficial relief to a boring reality.
We can experiment with the following techniques to counter procrastination:
The Pomodoro Technique is a tool for channelling focus for short periods of time. You set a timer for 25 minutes, block out all distractions and focus on the matter at hand until the time is up. Then you take a 5 minute break to refresh. Repeat.
Focus on the Process
There are variants of the pomodoro technique where objectives are set for each 25 minute slot. Care must be taken when doing so, since this is a form of deadline, deadlines can lead to stress and stress can trigger procrastination inducing pain!
Focusing on process, not product, is important in avoiding procrastination. Just by dedicating focused attention to something rather than meticulously planning what that “something” should be is a great technique to get out of the starting blocks.
Cultivate Good Habits
Procrastination is a habit that can be made or broken by identifying its main parts. The following 4 parts that comprise the bad habit that is procrastination are:
- Cue - The trigger of the habit. It could be when you log back onto your workstation after lunch or when you have to start off a task that you know is going to be difficult.
- Routine - The reaction to the trigger. Does your mouse all of a sudden fire up Twitter? Or do you get a sudden urge to go and grab a coffee?
- Anguish - Now we feel behind with our task and start to feel like we’re never going to get it done. Maybe we’re just not good enough to do it.
- Perpetuation - The bad feeling we have for procrastinating, creates another cue and the cycle continues.
Imagine we could re-train the previously described habit:
- Cue - you’ve just come out of a meeting and you have that really important bug to fix asap. You feel behind because the meeting was unplanned and you really needed to get this difficult problem fixed.
- Routine - you start a pomodoro timer and put in 25 minutes of focused attention on this problem.
- Award - by the end of the 25 minutes you haven’t fixed the issue, but you have an idea of where the problem lies. You reward yourself by grabbing a quick coffee.
- Belief - now that you have a better idea of the fix, you are motivated to jump straight back into another pomodoro to slay this bug.
Thinking Patterns for Difficult Problems
Now that we’ve nailed procrastination, we can just apply our zen-like focus to any difficult problem that comes our way. If a problem becomes difficult, we just throw more pomodoros at it, right? Not always!
If you are trying to understand or figure out something new, your best bet is to turn off your precision-focused thinking and turn on your “big picture” diffuse mode.
Diffuse mode thinking is the opposite to the focused style we touched upon. When in the focused mode we channel our thinking to a specific task or problem. This thinking takes place in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, located right behind your forehead. The diffuse mode is a less-focused style of thinking where different areas of the brain can link up to form a bigger picture view of a problem. This different mode of viewing a problem can help to unblock us if we are stuck with creative alternatives.
Have you ever been in the shower reflecting on the day or driving home from the office and had a solution to a problem that you weren’t thinking about spring into your mind? That’s diffuse-mode in action! Studies have shown that we often switch back and forth between the two modes during our day-to-day activities.
We must remind ourselves that it’s possible to work too hard on a problem:
Focused attention can sometimes create problems by blocking our ability to see new solutions.
After a period of time in focused mode, it may be time to switch into diffuse mode:
Once you are distracted from the problem at hand, the diffuse mode has access and can begin pinging about its big picture way to settle on a solution.
Some of histories most creative problem solvers were able to use these two modes of thinking. Thomas Edison was said to (perhaps apocryphally) relax after focused thinking by sitting in his chair grasping ball bearings. Once he began to snooze, his grip would relax and the ball bearings would crash to the floor. The sound would wake him up and would he return to the problem at hand and write down whatever was in this mind.
Our strategy is to try and lean on a particular mode of thinking when needed for best results.
Activate your Relaxed Mode
The next time you get stuck with a problem after a few pomodoros of focused thinking, it may be time to switch thinking modes.
You can activate your diffuse mode by dedicating roughly 20 minutes to:
- Sleeping - the ultimate activator but I’m not sure many companies I’ve worked with would like to find me asleep on the job, even if I claimed to be working “diffusely”. (Now we realise that the sleep pods seen in HQs such as Google are not there just for the cool-factor!)
- Exercise - it’s not always possible to go for a run in the middle of a working day, but a brisk walk is possible or if you are crazy enough try running up and down some stairs.
- Listening to music, especially without words - I have playlists setup in iTunes with only relaxing, instrumental music.
- Surfing the web - not as effective as the previous items in the list, but could be used in conjunction with reward for a completed pomodoro.
Start your Thinking Earlier in the Day
Take advantage of diffuse mode thinking by starting the process early in the day. Imagine a busy day at the office, as soon as you arrive a peer asks you for help solving a problem. You help. As you return to your work, a project manager pulls you into an impromptu conference call. You go. Then it’s lunch time. After lunch you try to get started with your work again but you receive a critical email about a system outage. You fix it. You finally get going and it’s 3pm.
What if you could have partially started your brain before all the distractions? By getting 2 or 3 pomodoros of focused thinking completed before any of the distractions, we could try to leverage our diffuse mode by having it tick away during these other tasks.
Re-charging your Brain
Just as we install software updates and upgrade hardware we must take care of our Brain. The best way that we can take care of our brain is to ensure we get enough sleep. Our excessive screen time combined with our love of coffee doesn’t always make for perfect sleep hygiene.
When we are awake, our active brain is filling up with toxic products and as we sleep, our brains self-cleanse to remove these toxins. Removal of these toxins can help unblock our minds for better focus and problem solving ability for the following day. Lack of good quality sleep can impede this cleaning cycle, blocking our neural pathways. We’re all familiar with the sensation of not being able to think clearly when we are tired. Think of it as garbage collection for the brain.
Good quality sleep can help to:
- Embed the current days’ information.
- Improve our chances of finding a solution to a problem by dreaming.
- Improve our ability to figure out problems.
Getting Better Sleep
Improve sleep hygiene by:
- Limiting caffeine intake after midday.
- Limiting screen-time after 6pm.
- Exercising (but not less than 2 hours before bedtime).
To encourage dreaming about new material, review it before going to sleep.
These techniques have served me well to-date, but I still re-read this article from time to time to refresh my self-discipline.
I wrote this article a few months ago as part of the free self-study course Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects from Coursera.org. It was an interesting course and can be easily reviewed during an office commute.