Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Pew Pews and Distractor Mice

I was talking to Jonathan the other day about distractions. Not originally, but that's how it turned out. I guess we both had work to do. Anyway two main forms came up: pew pew moments (my term) and distractor mouse mode (Edit: a term coined by Havi Brooks).

Pew pew moments are my most common form of distraction. You get back from lunch or a meeting and sit down in front of your computer with a specific task to do. Okay, you tell yourself it's time to focus and get this done. Focus. Like a laser. Man, lasers are cool. Each thought takes longer to arrive and is separated by a period of absolute mental tranquility.
"Pew! Pew!" You are startled from your reverie by some idiot making laser sound effects. A stern look left and right soon reveals that you are in fact the culprit, and it's been five minutes since you last touched the keyboard. Another look around, this one guilty, and you stare at your keyboard trying to remember what you were focused on. Focused. Like a laser. Man, lasers are cool.

Distractor mouse mode is a much more frantic means to the same confused end. Consider the process (taken verbatim from Jonathan's introduction to the whole conversation):
  1. I've just finished an important task. I wonder what I have to do next?
  2. I should look at my todo lists, they are pretty thorough
  3. But they are on my laptop, I should really have a way of getting them onto my mac usefully too
  4. I should use Remember the Milk, then I could get it onto my phone
  5. But my phone doesn't support RTM. I should really get an Android phone
  6. Hmm, Nexus One or HTC Desire read read read
  7. I should wait until I get paid again before I buy a new phone
  8. I've been waiting for that Kanex XD thing for a while, I wonder if it's still shipping in April
  9. Hmm, I see they've stopped saying April on their web page. Hmm.
  10. Maybe there's some gossip on twitter
  11. Ahh, no! #qanda trending. Run away
  12. What am I supposed to be doing?
In distractor mouse mode the cursor darts about the screen clicking on interesting links on its own, a potent force of distraction over which you exert no control. It jams extra trolleys on your train of thought and makes sure each one is fully explored.

Pew pew moments tend to come more from upcoming tasks which are simple but boring where the main barrier is summoning the motivation to get it done. Distractor mouse mode kicks in when there are an overwhelming number of upcoming tasks and your brain starts jumping at every little thing like it is time critical. Both are forms of subconscious procrastination, unlike the conscious "I'll do that in the next ad break" forms, and are all the more dangerous for not being deliberate. With conscious procrastination you can refuse to listen to your own excuses and just do the task, with subconscious procrastination extended periods of time can pass before you even realise that you're not doing what you should be, let alone do anything about it.

I have no advice on how to avoid these pitfalls, otherwise I wouldn't spend so much time imitating an X-Wing at work. There must be methods for recognising when you have fallen into one of these traps and getting back on track, but if I look for the answer on Wikipedia I will still be there in two hours reading up on how Gilgamesh discovered a technique for using black body radiation to measure the specific gravity of pangolins.


  1. The term "Distractor Mouse Mode" isn't mine, but rather comes from Havi Brooks, author of

    She has a lot of great thinking on states of mind, how to be aware of them and what to do about them. Unfortunately, it's bundled in a way that I find hard to unwrap.

  2. Follow up at


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