Focusing for 5 minutes

Creating Breathe is part of my personal journey to increase focus and attention. My success or failure at work depend on my ability to keep structures of code in my head as I try to solve problems and create solutions. Focus is a key factor in the depth and breadth of my code, and the usefulness and lasting quality of my work.

But I can’t stay focused on something for longer than 5 minutes at a time. That’s bad. I’ve had moments when I’ve had longer focus. But those are infrequent occasions, when my energy and mood is high, and the code I’m working on is challenging but not impossible or frustratingly illusive.

I believe it’s because I’m anxious all the time. There is a set of conversations rambling in my mind, which include:

  • You better not waste your time
  • Something isn’t right
  • …Am I forgetting something?

Maybe you have a similar set of thoughts. Or different sets, but equally anxiety causing. How many thoughts do you have? How often are you thinking them? Are you aware that you’re thinking them?

The anxiety from these thoughts pull me both away from what I’m working on, or too deep into it. Because I might be forgetting something, I try to go deep into all the things that can possibly go wrong. This quickly leads me away from what I should be working on, like a game of That Makes Me Think Of (TMMTO). And while my code is compiling I make sure that I’m not missing anything on Gmail, Slack, Facebook, xkcd, Dr. McNinja, etc. I shouldn’t just sit here and stare blankly into nothing as my code compiles, right? Or maybe I should go get something to drink.

Breathe

At first the idea of an app for breathing was OK, not my cup-of-tea. But I really wanted to do something with random reminders. I have had this idea for an app in the back of my mind for over a year now and Breathe was basically the same thing, but simpler and way better. And I liked the person who was proposing the idea to me, he also had a willing partner for design. All I would have to do was code the thing? I jumped on board without really thinking about it.

While developing Breathe I would use it daily myself. I would use the reminders as a moment to take a step back from what I was doing and relax. This included both body and mind relaxation.

I remember odd forays into meditation groups with a good friend of mine. Buddhist centers in the middle of mountains, Zen centers in a remodeled house, or finding a hairless spot to do some “sitting” with my friend in his studio and his three cats. I would spend the first 10 minutes trying to not think. It’s like trying to balance a pen on its pointy end. And then the rest of the 50 minutes battling all the different pains showing up in my body.

I liked it so much that I thought I would make a habit out of it. That was sarcasm, but I heard about all the benefits and I wanted some of that no-mind stuff that turned Tom Cruise into a Kendo master in one season in The Last Samurai. I tried various things like including it into my daily Muslim prayers, then just 10 minutes a day, then nothing. Like all good habits, they die young.

The Breathe reminders though, they’re like a tap on the shoulder. I sometimes just take one deep breath if I’m really busy. Usually I try to relax my face. That physical act does wonders and triggers my mind to quickly fall into a state of relaxation. Where the body follows, so does the mind. I set it to 10 Breathers between 10 AM and 9PM. When I’m in the middle of coding, I take a breath, relax my face, and continue. While talking to someone I just breathe deeply. If In meeting, I am usually already deep in some Tibetan-monks-meditating-in-the-snow shit.

It may seem contradictory, but the added interruptions from Breathe is helping my life, instead of burdening it.

The Apple Watch

My work is like cooking, but just stretched over a span of 8 hours. Usually I have 2-3 simultaneous tasks that I’m trying to accomplish while making a delicious yet nutritious meal for myself. There would even be a smattering of some miscellaneous tasks like chopping up an extra onion for later, or putting something interesting on TV while I cook. I would neurotically jump between stirring the pot, cleaning the dishes I’ve been using, and frying the side vegetables.

These tasks are always too small and too ever-changing to waste time trying to schedule it with TimedTrainer ahead of time and treat it like a workout.

Recently though I’ve decided to purchase an Apple Watch. What attributed to me spending money on something like the Watch (because I wouldn’t normally) was Apple sending me an email. It said that I’ll get special expedited treatment because I have the Breathe app, which has a Watch Extension, on my account. And they also said that I will be the first one to walk into work with a fancy shiny Apple Watch and all my co-workers will bow down at my feet and kiss it (I think I added that part, and it didn’t happen, someone got it before I did). Writing this now I realize just how powerful something like special treatment was for a stingy person like me, while costing Apple next to nothing extra to do it. Steve Jobs would be proud.

So I had the watch and I wanted to try an experiment. Whenever I could, I would set a reminder before moving onto a different task. I would tell Siri to schedule a 2 minute timer before I would have to stir the pot again. Then while I clean up the counter, I only focus on cleaning, not anxiously worry about the when I need to stir the pot.

The experiment was largely a success. The food turned out delicious and those worry free 2 minutes were bliss to me. Moments that were truly mine, not some mindless action driven by worry of the future or regret of the past. 2 minutes that I remain in the now, given to me by a piece of simple and reliable technology. Again Steve Jobs would be proud.

Conclusions?

Using these two technologies, I am trying out new ways to get back into reality. So long it’s been the other way around. Radio and TV took children out of nature and play. Computers now keep us from having to be in the same room with anybody else. Mobile phones keep us from having to look around as we travel through this world.

I welcome a change where I can get one or two minutes of reality. I like getting a gentle tap on my shoulder reminding me to breathe. But it’s all in the experimentation phase, I’m still on my journey. I don’t even know what it is that I’m seeking. Does more focus mean going from 5 minutes to 10 minutes without interrupting myself or going off tangents? Or does it mean that the same 5 minutes are full of quality. And my co-workers would slowly come to hate me if they hear “Hey Siri, timer two minutes 30 seconds” every 10 minutes at work. So I can’t run these experiments in the real world just yet. Maybe I can make an app for that though…

I’m interested in knowing about your challenges and some hacks you’ve thought up that might help me gain focus in my life too. Please leave a comment below with some ideas or stories of your successes or failures. And you should really try Breathe out for yourself and let us know how you like it.

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