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Ask HN: How do you focus at work?
72 points by parvatzar on July 16, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 79 comments
Ambient noise generators like mynoise and noisli have been a great help in getting dev and documentation work done amidst noisy workplaces. What about you? Is there anyone out there who doesnt need noise cancellation headphones or ambient noise generators to get focus intensive work done?

Addy. 5 mg. Every other day.

I know this will be down-voted, but I've been having issues focussing at work and completing projects for the last 10 years or so.

Visited a Psychiatrist (in Palo Alto). After listening to my situation, she followed it up with a detailed Q & A. She then prescribed 5 mg XR (extended release) of Adderall. Apparently "mild ADHD" is a thing with software engineers in their 30s and up...

The difference has been night and day. I'm completely focussed now, in the zone. I've even gotten side-projects that were languishing for many years, done and shipped over 2 weekends!

I take it only on days I need to focus and get something done. I also take weekends off and also take 1 week per month completely off. This keeps me from building tolerance. Also 5 mg Addy is like the LOWEST dose dispensed, so I feel ok with it.

Adderall works but I find Vyvanse to be less intrusive and allows for greater behavioral flexibility which is a must if youre doing any kind of teamwork

Its been around for a while but compared to dexmethylphenidate, or Adderall proper, it doesnt have as much of the euphoria that makes it difficult to objectively assess work output, what with the slower acting formulation (but this seems kind of a given, since its a prodrug after all), it doesnt completely change your personality and you can more effectively context switch

edit: i have a perscription, due to attention span of a drosophilia melanogaster

Thanks for sharing.

Do you get good sleep with Vyvanse? The only -ve side effect I'm feeling from 5 mg XR Addy is that I fall asleep somewhat late (like mid-night or later) and wake up a couple of times, and get only 7 hours of sleep. Don't have headaches though, but I would love to get a deep sleep while on it.

I've been supplementing with a lot of vitamins despite the evidence that suggests that absorption of supplements is not the same as the ingestion of, for example, fish products to get naturally synthesized omega 3 protein. I've found that a mix of good foods that you enjoy eating, as well as other dietary changes mentioned above, has been a huge boon. Furthermore, any kind of exercise is good but I have found positive mood related changes as a response to recently getting an electric bike which has helped to get regular bursts of exercise throughout the day when I get bored of being around my apartment.

Much like how interleaved learning is a key trick to use to deeply learn subject matter, I've found interleaving a diverse set of activities has been key to finding that physical "balance" - human body itself is more than sophisticated enough to handle the self regulation itself but without the right component inputs your jets aren't going to be running at peak performance

I take xenadrine + b12 sublingual w/ similar benefits...

I've tried other caffeine heavy weight loss supplements with greentea and stuff, but apparently the key is (i believe) Caffeine + l-theanine. Together that helps with focus, I generally feel better if I can keep my Vitamin D up as well, as that's linked to depression and I'm deficient because of weight loss surgery.

Note: I do not use Xenadrine as a weight loss supplement, only for the energy aspects and not on a regular basis, only when I feel I have 0 chance of focusing and really need that boost.

Our life style is full of distractions. It is really easy to mark everybody as ADHD.

Just do an experiment. Teach your grandfather or anyone from previous generation who used to be a hard-worker in his entire life. Teach him how to use an smartphone, social network, watching Netflix TV shows, reading online news anytime, and checking timeline of his friends and families..

After 3 months he will end up having same problems that you have. Distractions, feeling busy, demotivated, procrastination, eventually feeling super tired almost always.

It is not really ADHD, It is just life style in 99.9999999%. And trust me. The fact that you came here to ask this question means you don't have ADHD or anything similar.

We always hear and read most of the good advises. But they are so simple that we ignore them. And in general people are just lazy and try hard to not be self-disciplined. Instead they are looking for a pill, anything that help them effortlessly with quick results.

I have a few habits but you have to do it at least for a week to see the benefits.

- Write my goals and tasks. - Light exercise in the morning. - Pomodoro + Pair programming during the work when I need maximum performance. - Prepare my stuff before going to bed. Don't leave a lot of work left to prepare in the morning (what to wear, what to put in the backpack). The rule is to burn least amount of mental energy as possible in the morning. - Leave meetings at any point that I realize my presence is not useful for me or anyone else. - Running away from noise. - Don't read any news/social-network in the morning or in the evening. It will kill your day if you read news in the morning and it doesn't let you save energy if you read news on evening. News is just toxic. You don't realize how much mental overhead will add to your brain all these negative news around you. The only time I read news is after lunch, in the afternoon while my brain cares least about it. You can't believe how effective is this.

Woah. 5mg XR is an extremelyyy low dosage. For comparison I’ve been taking 20mg XR and 10mg IR daily since I was 16 I believe. I also try and take breaks as often as possible. Definitely keep your dosage low like you have if you continue taking it. If you feel like you need a booster pill in the afternoon don’t increase your XR dosage, just add a 2.5 IR pill to some of your afternoons.

I learned to do the exact same thing and use it in the exact same way, except that I'm on 15mg XR. (The perils of being a programmer AND a gamer...)

20mg XR caused me to have long term memory loss due to REM sleep disturbance, which caused both work issues AND personal relationship issues, so I had to downgrade. Sadly those 30lbs I lost while on 20, came right back...

Doesn't it leave you shaky? I had similar results but the comedown and the tolerance were deal-breakers. I am completely absent minded but when I take those stimulants it allows me to focus which, I feel, finally puts me on a level playing field with everyone else. It sucks that the drugs have side-effects.

> Doesn't it leave you shaky

The 5 mg IR (Instant Release) did leave my a little shaky, and I also felt 'high' as opposed to feeling focused. I also felt the 'come down' you mention.

You should try the Adderall XR (Extended Release). Shire, the company that made the original Adderall IR, sold it's IR forumula and now in many ADD forums, people are complaining about the efficacy, salt concentrations etc. The Adderall IR are now manufactured in India, and the Pharma has standing FDA complains against it w.r.t. Quality Control, salt composition and concentration etc.

Shire makes the XR version now. You should try it if your doc can prescribe it for you. My Psychiatrist had me try the IR and then the XR in the lowest possible dose i.e. 5 mg, and it works for me.

Like I said, if you do end up on the Addy XR, do take complete breaks every few weeks. This helps with not developing tolerance, and staying with the lowest does, which will, in turn, keep side effects and long term changes (if any) to an acceptable level :)

It really does depress me how quickly and easily people in the US get diagnosed with adhd.

Here in the UK it takes about 6 months, has to be an adhd specialist, they go through every piece of medical history you have, school reports, cognitive tests, parent interview's.

This sounds like a silly trick, but I literally put a post-it on my monitor with the name of the task I'm currently working on.

It's very easy to get distracted by things in my environment and on my screen, and just seeing a sign in my line of vision that says something like "making redlines for mobile screens" helps me re-focus.


Edited to add: the task needs to be something specific, not an abstract like "doing UX work." I take advantage of Asana's sub-tasks to try and break down all my work into the most robot-like steps possible. That keeps me focused on the task itself, instead of figuring out what my next step is.

It's not silly at all; it's a good trick. It's one that the Pomodoro technique uses, and at least one piece of productivity software (Vitamin-R) that I know of. Having a clear immediate-term goal is very valuable for getting stuff done. Just defining it is a good start; having it in front of your face can't hurt either.

That’s a great hack! It prevents the “doorway effect” that happens often at work


I listen to a lot of music and try to make myself work at late hours, when nobody else is around. ADHD medication helped me over the years as well, and allows me to function well every day.

The best way I've ever been able to explain my thought process is as a branching tree, in which the trunk is the primary focus and the branches are the wandering paths that I think of along the way. Unmedicated I cannot help but only suggest where to think, but when medicated I can choose.

Luckily I can make my own hours or else I can't really manage much social interaction without needing to leave.

Get a Bose QC 35, it will change your life and also your future flights.

Unfortunately headphones and noise cancellation don't help with the fight vs. flight reflex that gets automatically triggered by foot traffic near your desk or especially behind your back. This is why reaching a state of flow and getting really productive is just totally impossible in an open-plan office setting period. The most basic requirement for being able to focus is privacy. Quiet is also important, but not nearly as important as privacy.

Many people also find the physical feeling of anything covering / touching / inside their ear to be too uncomfortable to focus, ruling out all possibilities of headphones, earbuds or earplugs from consideration. And even more, lots of people have sensitivity to music that distracts them or makes them feel tired very quickly. And in severe enough cases, someone can have full-blown misophonia, and truly need the ability to completely customize their workspace in order to totally control all sounds during periods when they need to focus.

I know your advice might help some people, but I really wish there was a way en masse that developers could communicate that headphones absolutely do not solve the problems created by open-plan office layouts (one of the main destroyers of focus). It's sad that as a collection of workers, we've allowed ourselves to be put into this position by not demanding private offices and turning down jobs that won't provide such a cost-effective tool.

Open plan offices for any kind of knowledge work should be made illegal since they are a health hazard. Private offices should be the norm.

This would benefit everyone as open plans destroy productivity. The "free market" (oligopoly) has obviously failed here so the state needs to step in.

I know most people here would find this drastic, but I agree with you. We already have things like OSHA to regulate workplace safety procedures. We legislate things about break times, overtime, etc.

I think creating a specification that office workers must be given a certain measurable protection against general workplace noise and a certain minimum of private floorspace in which to work, would be quite reasonable.

I wonder if a change.org petition or something would be worthwhile.

I tried making a poll to gauge interest in the possibility of a petition or general support for disallowing open-plan offices, but it quickly dropped out of the first page of “new” posts...

< https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17558732 >

I own the Bose QC25 and have never really been happy with its capability to block human voices. Perhaps the QC35 are better. I also read that the Sony noise cancelling headphones (MDR-1000x and successors) have eclipsed the Bose ones in noise-cancelling quality. Anyhow, having to charge (or change batteries) for headphones every day is really annoying.

My current setup involves in-ear monitors (Massdrop x MEE Audio Pinnacle PX IEM) plus gigantic 3M Peltor X5A earmuffs on top of them [1].

I look ridiculous wearing the 3M Peltor X5A but it sends a strong message that I don't want to be disturbed, and they do a much better job than the Bose headphones at blocking human voices.

I have read that an alternative is to wear headphones on top of in-ear monitors, playing music on the IEMs and white noise on the headphones. This is the setup for Starcraft II professional gamers in tournament settings, for example.

[1] pic: https://pics.dllu.net/file/dllu-pics/20180716_151629.jpg

The QC25’s are on sale right now for $120 which I’ve heard is insanely cheap. Do you still not recommend them for that cheap of a price? I was just about to bite the bullet on it.

> for $120 which I’ve heard is insanely cheap

What? My earphones are $15. What do $120 headphones do to deserve being 8 times more expensive?

Active noise cancellation?

Why the downvotes? Is my surprise at seeing $120 headphones considered as cheap somehow inappropriate for the site?

downvotes for comparing headphones without active noise cancellation to headphones that have very good noise cancellation.

until you try them, you wouldn't understand.

and yes, that is cheap considering that NC headphones typically go for $299 and up

Many have said that noise cancellation does not work for coworkers' voices. Is that your experience or are these for another reason?

That depends on the distance -- it won't work for coworkers very close to you, but anyone more than a few meters (depending on volume) will be removed.

Though keep in mind that they remove noise, so things like fans are going to be gone, but they aren't made to shut everything out.

The QC's don't completely wash out background noise. If you listen to your music loud enough (which is probably too loud), you literally won't hear anything around you. But normal use, I find that it muffles outside voices enough not to get distracted, but not so much to the point where if someone says my name I can respond. An added plus, is people will bother you less if you're wearing them. Sometimes I like wearing them without listening to any music, just to create a quieter environment.

I do this too, sometimes I just don't want to listen to other people in the other.

On a plane I find that I can actually hear voices better, because the background of the plane is gone. I don’t believe people who say “noise canceling headphones”, because they just don’t work that way. You’d need both the headphones and music or something, and having to listen to music all day can be just as fatiguing.

I have been having this problem too

If you listen to music on normal volume while the noise cancellation is on, you can drown out anything.

I used to do that, and got tinnitus. Now, I try to keep the volume pretty low

Hm that sounds kind of worrying, but maybe we have different definitions of normal volume? I've been using noise cancelling headphones pretty much daily for 3 years and still no tinnitus in sight.

I also had some sinus issues that likely contributed. I really did have the headphones on for at least 8 hours a day. Then going home watching TV, not getting enough sleep. I'm guessing it all added up.

Sorry to hear that. Hope you're doing better now.

It depends on the distance from your co-workers, how loud they talk, and how much you are willing to damage your hearing to drown them out.

And also on your office's acoustics.

Agreed. And your office's arrangement/open-ness

Can also recommend the Sony WH1000XM2 cans for the exact same reason.

https://musicforprogramming.net/?two is something that my wife uses with success.

Can attest to musicforprogramming's effectivity, I literally only remember the first 5 minutes of every mix before I totally zone in.

Thank you for sharing that!

I normally queue up a station on Digitally Imported [0], but I do find myself getting distracted if I recognize a song I like, or when the ads come on. I'll give this a shot and see how I like it :)

0: http://www.di.fm/

I've had this on for most of the day now; definitely a good recommendation. Thanks for sharing!

Ozric Tentacles. Psychedelic Space Rock. Maybe two songs with lyrics in 30 years of albums.

Thanks for the suggestion. I've never heard them before, this is great focusing music.

At my current work my main distraction is in my peripheral vision as I can see every move made by co-workers either side of me. I'm seriously considering buying sunglasses with side shields or some type of goggle, similar to a race horse. In the spirit of Cato the Elder, Open Offices must be destroyed!

I have a pair of Julbo sunglasses I use for skiing - those would work great and they stay on your ears even during frenzied hacking sessions.

When I'm struggling to focus I just walk away from my desk. It doesn't matter where I go or what I do. I spend up to 10 minutes letting myself think about whatever my mind naturally brings to the table. Usually when I return to my desk the distractions I was struggling with no longer bother me.

I just don't focus and bounce around everywhere :D

But seriously, I try and psychotically keep Jira updated. It probably drives the PM crazy, but it's very satisfying to see your progress grow, and especially satisfying to close a ticket.

Kudos for keeping JIRA up to date. As I PM I am fine with that. If devs just kept JIRA a little up to date then it saves me and them the hassle of checking in on the status of things, I can just look it up.

Pomodoro timer.

I work for 25 minutes at a time then take 5 minute breaks. This is more to help me start getting into flow. I know I don't do it right, but I'll start the pomodoro and that's my minimum. If I'm really into what I'm working on I'll see my time is up and commit to an additional work cycle or two.

It also helps me track what I'm working on and how long each task takes me. And gives me set breaks in which I get to write comments on HN, like this one :-)

Active noise cancelling headphones. Monitors set up to block rest of the office including peripheral vision. Wall behind my back.

Slack notifications and all in browser notifications off.

Communicate with your team a physical signal for what is focus time and when you're open to "office hours." The simplest example could be "if I have headphones on" or you can have some sort of trinket on your desk that shows when you're free or when you need to focus.

That combined with proper away messaging on Slack/IM, you should be able to get focused chunks of time

1) A bit of Adderall 15mg XR on the days I need it

2) An excellent automatic-time-tracker app, the transparency into your own habits is life-changing: https://www.rescuetime.com/

3) NC headphones: Sony WH1000XM2 https://smile.amazon.com/gp/product/B074KDJVS2/ref=oh_aui_se... ORRRR apple's AirPods

Every trick helps, but when you actually get to work and into the flow, the room might be noisy or you might be hungry and you don't even notice. So I try to achieve that state more frequently. Its hard..

I hope that this isn't the culprit for you, but I was having a lot of trouble focusing. I kept finding lifestyle reasons for it (a life of attention issues plus a newborn baby were near the top of the list), but then my health went to hell.

Turns out that my blood pressure was through the roof. I fixed that and I can focus again.

I genuinely hope that your blood pressure is fine, but seriously, if this is a new thing, it might be a good idea to see a doctor for a checkup. From experience, it's far better to catch blood pressure early than when you end up in a cardiac unit...

As someone who grew up next to a highway in a place with constantly-on TVs, i don't notice most kinds of noise, so i can't offer any advice on that front.

What was a distraction in my case was internet browsing. This got solved by having a dedicated tablet for all sorts of non-essential browsing, and the work computers never having anything but work-related links.

You'd think that's not going to matter, but the little bit of friction that created was enough.

By work being more interesting than being bored out of my mind. If the work's boring though, an album or two from my collection; C418's One is pretty great.

For me, I have found it hard to focus mostly only when I have another externality in my life on my mind or something outside of work causing stress (mentally).

I also like to listen to video game music via rainwave.cc (OCRemix Radio basically), Bandcamp, or (this may be strange) the classic Retronauts podcasts (still available on Archive.org, not the new ones).

- Disabled notifications. - I take long walks, frequently. - Cancel noising headphones

I found this post on HN (and ensuing comments) maybe the most ironic of all time.

Oh, yes, ambient/white noise has changed my life. I even use white noise for sleeping (via sleep headband), much better than ear plugs

Have kids at home.

Currently I get my best work done in a cafe. Usually, without using headphones. There is the usual cafe background noises.

I find it hard to work from my small apartment, whether family is around or not, music or no music.

I forget the term but I think it has to do with the fact that I use this same room to watch TV, play video games, sleep, and eat meals. My desk and bed are only inches apart.

I try not to read/post on HN.

Classical music or alpha waves, with a pair of decent Sennheiser over-the-ear headphones.

Goa trance

Wow, surprised to see this genre here, I listed to Goa Trance/Psy Trance music when trying to focus at work.

I'd also add techno and albums/mixes of any genre which I have listened to a lot previously.

i use self control app and https://www.noisli.com/

not reading hacker news lol

Playing London Calling, on repeat. Turning the volume up to 9, not 11.

Meta: Curious how a dup of this comment is downvoted into oblivion under a different account and this is at the top.

We detached this comment from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17545540 and marked it off-topic.

The OP makes it sound like inability to focus is a normal thing, but it's not.

I've never used white noise or headphones to improve focus, and it's rare that co-workers ever use headphones.

So maybe investigate whether the problem is you or the office. Or if you really understand what you're being paid to do - I can write documentation and diagrams effortlessly.

> The OP makes it sound like inability to focus is a normal thing, but it's not.

But it is normal. When there are noises and distractions all around your desk, of course it's hard to focus.

It's also normal to be able to drown all those things out, and completely zone it out and focus on work.

It's also normal to thrive on activity, getting your best work done in a busy environment.

It really depends on the kind of work you are doing, and the kind of person you are. There is a wide spectrum of what is "normal".

There is a simple reason that libraries/exam rooms/lecture halls are not full of distraction. People focus better without distraction.

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