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Kistaro Windrider, Reptillian Situation Assessor

Unfortunately, I Really Am That Nerdy

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kistaro
I've been employed for nearly two years now, and I'm still trying to figure out why I have so much more trouble focusing at work than I did at college, and what workflows work for me- and why.

The biggest problems I have are universally related to forgetting what I'm supposed to be working on. It's not just getting distracted- sleeping well tends to handle a lot of that- but forgetting what I'm supposed to do. It would be one thing if I just forgot what I needed to do later in the day or on future tasks, but I have developed the ability to forget what I am doing, and forget what I am supposed to be doing it, in the middle of doing it. In the case of programming, this can quite literally happen mid-line.

Being extremely aggressive about writing to-do lists for everything, including one with what I'm actively working on, no matter how brief or trivial, is starting to help. I'm just having trouble remembering to keep the list updated. In any case, it's a patch over a deeper problem; I've been trying to figure out why this wasn't happening to this degree in college but it certainly is here at work.

It certainly could be that I've cut down on the caffeine. I'm down to one cup of coffee per day, instead of the equivalent of three or four during college. A lot of what I'm describing- and a lot of my problems at work in general- are fairly consistent with ADHD as reflected in adults, and caffeine binds to many of the same receptors as Ritalin. I don't like that answer, though: it doesn't give me enough control. Yes, I do perform better on days where I give in and have a second cup, but that's not something I want to do on a regular basis.

I do have some thoughts, though. I also do better on days when I'm doing fundamentally creative work. Second best would be days where I'm listening to music. I can't help but wonder if a lot of these issues are related to my right brain being fundamentally bored by the sequential logic my left brain is doing and not having much to aim experimental, random, weakly-connected creativity at. (My personal opinion: left brain vs. right brain is, besides a few specific asymmetrical centers (most notably language vs. visual thinking), mostly a matter of depth-first vs. breadth-first logic. Note that our spoken language is quite sequential, while diagrams are much better for representing parallel concepts.)

I think I'm bad at paying attention to my right brain; I just haven't figured out the cues it's giving me. Now we're getting into my weird spiritual beliefs, but I conceptualize my brain as the supercomputer I have to assist my will and consciousness- a tool, yet not my "self". I'm realizing it would be better to conceptualize it as two separate (yet strongly-networked) computers, my left brain and my right brain, with significantly different specializations- and output. I think I've been listening to the speakers with the monitor off.

I wonder what I can do if I start more deliberately breaking up my tasks so part of them can be well-offloaded to my right brain? That's how I hit 20 on Brain Age Math, after all- scoring 23/25 in Number Memory was done largely by letting my right brain memorize shapes of numerical patterns on the board. I'm pretty sure my right brain has better short-term memory than my left brain, given my tendency to remember vs. forget things I'm doing and when it triggers.

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My mom has a link somewhere of a brain doctor of some flavor (psychiatrist maybe? Something) who had a stroke, and draws on that experience in a talk she gives about the brain. And depth vs breadth is apparently something she covers, and something that's a known left-vs-right thing. We hear about logical/mathematical/linguistic vs creative/visual/artistic all the time, but depth vs breadth is one of them dimensions of difference as well, it seems.

Which is a really interesting observation, in my opinion! My mom tries to tell her students about a practical application of it, in the form of how people study - that some people study better by drawing diagrams and charts and tables, and others do better with lists and outlines, which is both visual/linguistic and breadth/depth at the same time.

Maybe more diagrams and pictures would help. I know coding isn't exactly a visual thing to do, but if you have flowcharts or anything like that to help conceptualize what you're doing...

Also, I'm taking Adderall right now. It lasts in my system for 5 hours at most, and really does help me stay focused better. The only real side effect is that I get really talkative, and if I take more than my default dose, sometimes a bit of jittery "too much energy" feeling. But fiddling with the dose helps that, and since it's a very short duration, it's not hard to go "hmm, I'm going to be doing something unusual that needs a little more focus, I might want to take a little more to make sure I'm okay," and then still be able to sleep later.

Granted, I also drink quite a bit of soda throughout the day, and the last time I tried to reduce my soda intake it upset my balance... my med balance actually leans on having some caffeine intake as well. But still, there might be an ADD stimulant med that works for you, that's got a short enough half-life that you feel like you have control over it. It might be worth looking into.

*shrug* I have pictures of my brain that say "you're ADD enough to benefit from meds for it, and you could really benefit from some other meds." It kind of made me feel less like the meds are a crutch, and more like they're just rebalancing some out-of-whack chemistry that I can't do anything about. Obviously meds aren't the answer for everyone... but if it's affecting your work, it might be worth considering.

*hug* Sorry I wrote a book. :P

Just as a side bit of curiousity, I wonder if the brain doctor you're referring to is the one that wrote this book. -> http://www.amazon.com/My-Stroke-Insight-Scientists-Personal/dp/0452295548/ref=wl_it_dp?ie=UTF8&coliid=IS7YOGBW8QED7&colid=2WQ544A3F677B

I've been pondering buying the book, so your description just struck me as familiar. :)

Could be. That does sound familiar, and Googling a bit brings up this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyyjU8fzEYU

I suspect that might be the talk my mom was referring to, because she said it was about 20 minutes. :) Might be worth listening to if you're considering the book!

Thanks for the link. I'll check it out. :)

I don't really think my ADHD symptoms are severe enough to be worth the cost, inconvenience, and allergy problems (gelatin-based caplets when my digestion is in any way upset result in vomiting to the point of dry heaves) of treatment. Maybe I just don't want them to be. It wasn't this severe during college; why now?

I don't think it's a matter of producing diagrams so much as deliberately letting visual thinking play more of a role, and deliberately set half my mind to breadth-first style solution analysis while I code the components I've already designed all the way- that's to say, deeply, left-brainedly. I've just realized that maybe this is why I find myself enjoying chess- visual thinking serves me very well for analyzing the board and figuring out where to look, but linear deep thinking is required to plan ahead. Both halves get to go full tilt.

I wonder if it's worth noting that I lose game after game of chess for, despite active searching, failing to see severe attacks that should be incredibly obvious. I can actively look for things covering a square and fail to realize that it is, indeed, in danger, and I should not put my Queen there. Maybe I just don't use my right brain enough and it needs to work more.

The Adderall I'm taking is dry tablets, not gelatin. It's a generic, and I think tablets are cheaper. ;) It might still contain something you react to, but at the same time, I suspect there's enough options in the stimulant med family that you can probably find something.

That is interesting, though, that chess is so good for you. I tend to prefer things like Set, or many puzzle-type Flash games that have much simpler mechanics (think Puzzle Pirates). I can look ahead a couple of moves, in chess, but I don't think I'll ever be really good at it. (And I tend to do better with a real board, or a good representation in believable 3D, than with something flatter and symbolic.)

*shrug* Your life, your choices. I wouldn't have guessed that I have enough ADD-like symptoms to really affect my life, but my stress level has dropped since I started taking Adderall. (Quite noticeably - my hair has grown a couple of inches in the last few years, which can only really be chalked up to lowering stress, since I haven't changed my diet, and it's been at "as long as I can get it" since middle school.) The theory my doctor has is that I'm just distractable enough to get frustrated with myself - "I should be able to do this but I can't focus on it enough" - and that just simmered constantly, and sparked easily for stupid reasons. And with the evidence of my own observations, I think it was probably a factor. I do feel weird and irritable when I can't focus, when I'm hopping from one thing to another every half-hour because I'm easily bored, and I notice it now because it's a change.

...ack, I wrote another book. Sorry. :P I'm going to sleep now; no more books from me tonight!

This is just a brief sleepy "I need to go to bed in 45 minutes" aside, but I find it interesting just how many of the programmers I know (see this entire comment group) have similar-to-identical experiences. Then again, caffeine abuse is rampant among the programmer community.

I think you're onto the best possible solution, for you. Both sides. Engage them both whenever you can. It really works well for me, and in fact is how I do parts of my job.

How I meditate, for example, is to do something like sort beads, or work chainmaille. Something to occupy the logical, mechanical side, the one that can't just sit still.

And your work environment not just neglects your creative brain, it vilifies it to some great extent.

Also, to help with your brain-balance, have you tried the classic tried-n-true "hacks"?

#1--go home a different route when its possible. Don't always go the same way. Don't have a pattern. Vary it spontaneously.

#2--do routine things with your non-dominant hand. (There is even a DS game for this--LeftBrain/RightBrain. I don't have it because from all the reviews I've read, I'm way, way, way beyond it. Been doing this one for decades...) Eat, mouse, brush teeth. Sort laundry. Eventually write, other fine motor control (I can use a chef knife equally well in either hand).

It's probably also that in college, you're encouraged to express the broader range of your brain. Now, at work, you're expressing just a subset. Outside interests that are deep into the other world might help. I suggest doing something you're not even that skilled at--I get great joy out of my forays into watercolor, and I'm basically about a 7-year-old's skill level. I just do it for fun!

Don't worry, you're not losing it. I can echo the same experiences as a dev for three years at my previous gig. I spent the better part of the last year figuring out how to cope.

As such, this is based on my experiences, and should come with a grain of salt.



On what you're already doing: todo lists and rigorous documentation are a good idea. Keep doing that.

If you're forgetting to write stuff down, I recommend at least one whiteboard somewhere you'll always run into. For me, that's right next to the door of my bedroom and right next to my desk at work.

Scribble stuff on the whiteboard first, and if it's up there for more than a few days, commit it to the hard todo list. I also have a list on my iPod Touch, should anything come up when I'm out walking.



On caffeine: That could be it, but it's probably not.

I'm a person that's very affected by sleep changes and caffeine; I'm not sure how you cope. In my experience, given the same amount of intake (two doses of tea per day), my mind was significantly more swiss-cheesed during dev than during school. When I went back for my second degree, I made a full recovery.

Of course, at my previous gig, I was under a tremendous amount of stress from working on four simultaneous and concurrent jobs (60+ work weeks). That could also be a factor.



On creativity and the right brain: There's something to that, and my research agrees.

The computer analogy isn't terribly far-fetched. It's actually the same one used by Andy Hunt in his book, "Pragmatic Thinking and Learning" (page 46, to be precise).

Yes, it helps to let your mind play with ideas. As stated (both here and in PT&L), it also helps to break them up into smaller pieces and fiddle with other aspects of the material -- be it aural, visual, or just scribbling cartoons.

In my case, I'm a dev, an artist, and a bookwyrm ('natch). When faced with a difficult problem, I draw, read, and otherwise let my creative side take over while I let things stew for a bit. That seems to help.

(Aside: I highly recommend picking up a copy of PT&L along with the original Pragmatic Programmer. The book's content is really good, and it's professional instead of preachy. Andy's also reachable by email, and an all-around awesome person.)



Summary:

That's my quick opinion. I think you have task serialization licked, baring a quick RAM upgrade. As for ROM, playing with the material really does help, along with writing out any documentation you can. In my case, the act of documentation is usually more important than the documents themselves.

And, good luck with the job. I still have a pretty steep climb just to get employed again, given the market my second degree put me in.

(Second book. Quite possibly tl;dr.)

Hmm. I get the opposite effect when I'm ON my Adderall; I am better able to monitor my parity on talking vs. listening, whereas when my Adderall isn't working (late luteal phase) or its run out, I am a motor-mouth. :) Just goes to show, brains are all uniquely wired...

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I have some of the same issues. Have you tried Hiveminder? It's great because I can start a task, and then if I forget what I am working on I just look back at the tab that Hiveminder is open in and go, "ah, that's right. I was writing documentation," or what have you.

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