Driven To Distraction

Driven To Distraction

Last week I returned to work after the holidays. I find that breaks like that in my normal routine unsettle me and it has taken a week to get back to normal. The problem is that feeling off-balance makes me particularly susceptible to being distracted when I try to concentrate on the job in hand.

Little things such as the noise of the air conditioning and computer fans, people talking – however quietly – and especially interruptions just build up, one upon another, until my mind is a jittery mess and I can hardly think straight, let alone concentrate on technical matters. And as for achieving a state of flow, well that’s nigh impossible! I find myself frequently switching from one task to another and forgetting what I was doing only ten minutes ago. Needless to say my productivity is none too high.

All I can do is go for a little walk or sit somewhere quiet for a bit while I regain my focus and calm down. It just takes time to settle down into the familiar old routine again – about a week in this case – before I’m back to my old self and able to block out the various distractions. I no longer hear the AC fans, I don’t notice as people walk past my desk and I can enter flow with my old facility.

It is a simple matter of regaining my familiarity with my surroundings; of picking up the old behavioral habits. It seems strange that in only a week and a half away from the place I have suffered such disruption to my regular patterns of behavior, but the Christmas and New Year period is a challenging time to get through because changes affect almost every part of my daily life. Regular events such as the darts league are in recess, I see people out and about at unusual times of day because they are not at work either.

The relief I feel when life returns to normal, running along its rails according the the usual schedule, is immense. The predictability – knowing what to expect and when – literally takes a load off my mind. Not having to cope with random changes means I spend much more of my time near my ground state instead of being constantly excited into an energetic, exhausting state by all the irregular stimuli.

Distractions appear in many forms but they all take effort to handle. Above a certain rate of incidence this effort saps my energy to the point where I cannot cope with any further cognitive load: overload. It happened a few times over the past two weeks that I just had to take some time out to relax and rebuild my strength. So I am glad that the holiday season is past. Despite having some enjoyable times it is overall just too much like hard work.

Concentration Flow

Concentration Flow

Just realised it’s been three days now since I ate any lunch. It’s not deliberate – I just don’t think about it at the appropriate time. At least I’ve been having one meal a day thanks to my wife who puts a dinner in front of me when I get home from work – if it wasn’t for that I’d probably not eat regularly at all. What it is – I get so absorbed in what I’m doing that I lose track of everything else and don’t notice little things like the time of day, thirst, hunger, a full bladder…

That’s one problem with the level of concentration I can sustain when engaged in one of my special interests, programming in particular: the world could end around me and I wouldn’t notice. I’ve even failed to hear a fire alarm on a couple of occasions because I’m in the zone and blocking out everything else. (The fire bell is about twenty feet from where I sit with no obstructions between it and me – it’s LOUD.)

The positive side is that this focused mental state (also called flow) is especially productive. It’s like strapping a rocket to my intellect and lighting the fuse – I see systems and patterns with crystal clarity and solutions to problems just arrive in my mind without conscious effort. It’s an exhilarating, euphoric experience: my mind running perfectly, like an engine at full revs with no noise or vibration.

This sustained high level of concentration and attention – the hyperfocus on a particular object or task is not just an Aspie trait although it is reportedly common. It is something that can be learned – most top sportsmen and -women train hard to develop this kind of focus because it helps them attain their best performances. But for me at least it seems to be an innate ability.

Some things will scupper it. I can’t focus on something while I’m depressed or anxious although physical pain doesn’t seem to get in the way. Indeed I don’t notice pain while in flow. But being involuntarily brought out of flow – certain stimuli will do this, such as touching me or putting something in my line of sight – is a jarring experience. I find it can stress me; even anger me, to be taken out of that state unexpectedly and that can be a barrier to getting my flow back.