Reclaiming attention at work

As I wrote in a previous note, attention seems to be the scarcest resource an individual can have, as without it even time seems to be worthless. Everything that matters requires our attention. In particular one would think that it is in your employer's best interest if you are focused at work. But then, sadly, getting ahead is about sales and not about smarts, and suddenly your inbox starts filling up with useless meetings or you begin wasting your time on reports that take up almost as much time as solving problems would, if you had the time. Or you just had half an hour and immersed yourself in a problem and somebody comes knocking on the door or worse, calls you on the telephone.

To be fair, management has some excuse, as Paul Graham points out, since people in management roles have different jobs than people like programmers, administrators and scientists, whose jobs need some serious thinking.

If you are on a payroll, then you have the option of not caring about it, as it is not your money being burnt. Nice play asshole, why did you apply for that job anyway? If you are working for yourself or care about the work being done, things change. In this case, you must not allow compromise, as even the possibility of distraction can divert your attention and hence ruin your workday. So this is how I deal with distractions at work.

Instant messengers

Oh, everyone seems to hate them. With the notable exception of WhatsApp, what seems to be some kind of mandatory nowadays, I access every message service I use is accessed via bitlbee and irssi in a screen. This way I have two benefits: First, no notifications, anywhere, ever, unless I specifically choose so and utilize the terminal bell on hilights. Second, I do not have to restart all connections and communications from before, as I had to do with some graphical messengers in the past.

And of course it runs in the terminal, so it does not interrupt my normal text-driven workflow. In particular, it is quite easy to read, in contrast to most smartphone messengers, which always take up so much space for a little bit of text, that even reading a backlog of some hundred messages becomes an hellishly arduous task. Scale matters, in particular in communication.

So I really like instant messages. They are asynchronous in general, but still allow for synchronized communication, should the need arise.


Somehow half the internet seems to hate email. Inbox zero heroes spreading their gospel how email is killing productivity. And having seen some inboxes and just the sheer amount of email circulating in some companies, they probably have a point. However I like email. Not in the sense of I like email like I like steak. But I see and appreciate its merit. It just works.

For email I simply use mutt. Email is fetched via fetchmail and then processed with, you guess it, procmail. Filtering is done based on a few simple rules, for the standard stuff like mailing lists, bugtrackers, monitoring software, scanners. A few rules for individual people. And then the master rule, sorting HTML only mails straight to junk. I still watch the junk folder, but it is just a really nice working posteriorization of unimportant stuff. Sometimes I know something is going to land there, e.g. some automated emails, but most of the time it is either spam or people too stupid to properly use their or an email client. False positives are almost non existent.

So far for receiving email. As I said, I use mutt, simply because it allows me to use vim for composing email and does not get into my way. Again I run it in a screen, so there are no notifications to annoy me and I can resume my busywork in the email client at any time at any point I want.

Mobile phone

This is the real scourge of productivity. Clearly there is some merit to phone calls and sometimes it is just part of the job, say in system administration. But then you better have some arrangement with your coadmins in place, to protect some of your work time from phone calls. But most of the time, people calling you are expecting you to do work, for free, for them. Or they are going to tell you that they are late to an appointment, which is in a way again stealing your time and work. If you see the number of some acquaintance you have not seen in years flashing on your display, they either need some help with math or with their computer. Every single time.

So, how do I deal with this terror? By being really anal about whose calls I answer or even return, and whose not. So there are three groups of people:

  1. These people can expect that I answer or at least return their calls.
  2. Probably I do not answer or return their calls, unless I have specific reasons to expect something of value.
  3. Straight to mailbox.

Anybody starts out in category 1. But then people often make the classical mistakes, only calling me about trivial stuff, or when writing an email would make as much sense, or wanting me to do work for free. This lands you almost always in category 2. And then there a people landing in category 3. These are repeated offenders, i.e. they called me again and again and each time I answered the call, it was just a waste of time and or they calling frequency or timing is just too annoying.

But then there are of course exceptions. Some people near and dear to me will probably always stay in category 1, although they sometime might just call because they want to talk or something like that. And then there are paying clients. Of course, I bill them for their calls or at least for the work resulting from these, so hearing their voice is the buzzing sound of money. But moreover I found out that people willing to pay for quality work are often also more pleasant to be around than people wanting to mooch off of you. Who would have expected that. And then there are phone based messaging protocols, which I handle similar to calls or are simple entertainment without any notifications.

Office phone and people knocking

Closing the door and putting on headphones seems to do the trick most of the time. Running away is also an option, as I seldom do work which requires me to be at a certain point in space and time, but requires me to be in a quiet place and state of mind. In the case that somebody actually gets a foot in the door, one can sometimes at least make an appointment for some other time. However this is not so much of a problem as it takes actual work on parts of the other person, in contrast to just dialing a number. Luckily annoying people often are also too lazy to come directly to your office. Here also being early or late in office can give a few quiet hours for work to get done.

Logistics - availability = attention

So it boils down to this: Having good logistics in place so that you get all necessary information without being annoyed, and being as unavailable as possible, allows you to reclaim at least some part of your attention.