Planning and attention

Whatever work you’re doing, it’s generally a good idea to have spent a little time beforehand asking yourself questions like:

  • What exactly am I trying to accomplish?
  • What will be the benefits of doing this work?
  • How will I know when I’m done?

Asking those questions will help you to focus your efforts on what matters. But most people most of the time would rather dive straight into the work rather than plan out the parameters of that work. Why is this?

In jobs that where I’ve been both writing code and doing a degree of project management, sometimes someone would wander over to my desk while I was deep in some coding problem and ask me how the project as a whole was going. And it would take a me a ridiculously long time to get my head out of the specific problem so that I could answer the question at all sensibly.

There’s a problem of attention here. Shifting attention when there’s something that’s grabbing your attention is very difficult. You can see this in meditation: you set an intention to focus on your breath and within 30 seconds you’ve gone down a rabbit hole of thoughts. And when I’m coding I might set out just to list the problems and give a quick bit of thought to how long it might take to fix them, but then I find that I’ve started trying to actually fix a bug rather than just defining it.

The sort of planning that it’s good to do before starting work invites engaging with the details of the work. It’s very difficult then to keep your attention on the planning that you set out to do rather than going into the attention-grabbing details. Doing so requires a degree of meta-cognitive awareness that it’s hard to achieve.