I'm trying out a new practice at work. I'm calling it tangent time. One afternoon a week, I push my main project aside, shut my door, and quit all my communication applications. I spend my time on something sort of related to the testing I'm doing the rest of the week, but not directly. It's some tangent that caught my eye while I was busy doing the "real" work.
My manager and I came up with this during a recent one-on-one. (You do have those with your manager and/or reports, right?) I felt like I wasn't getting much done, due to lots of interruptions and a general burn-out sort of feeling. I also felt like there was a lot I could be learning that I just wasn't getting time for--knowledge and skills that would make me more productive in the long run. Even though, in the short run, my main project is way overdue and just needs. to. ship. already.
I picked Thursday afternoons. I don't have any regular meetings that day, and it's not Chaos Monday or Brain-Dead Friday or Apple Announcement Tuesday. Right after lunch, I double-check that my email didn't explode, and then quit Mail and iChat and Gmail and Twitter. I shut my door, though it's glass, so people can still see I'm there if they really need me. I get a nice solid 3 hour block. I stop at 4:30 so that people who leave at 5 can still get my attention before the end of the day.
Something tangentially related to work. I'm intentionally not being more specific than that, because part of the point is not to feel so obligated, so trapped.
The first week, I watched videos. Merlin Mann's talk at Twitter about Boring Meetings. I've sat through a few boring meetings this year, and if Apple stops throwing OS updates and app stores at us, I might get to lead some meetings in a few months. I'd rather they not suck. The second video was Steve Jobs announcing the Mac app store, Lion, and the MacBook Air. I was AFI (away from internet) during the event, and wanted to catch up on what everyone at work was buzzing about.
The second week, I worked through a bunch of Ruby koans. I mostly worked through them as intended, implementing each snippet of code in sequence to make the tests pass. But I did take a detour to hack the test framework so that it wouldn't give me quite as many hints by default.
The primary goal was to refresh my attitudes towards work. It's still early, but I think this is working. I used to follow some of these tangents as a way to procrastinate from my main work, and feel guilty. Now I am supposed to follow these tangents. It seems to give me a renewed interest in the both the tangent and official work.
Additionally, the tangents may not be as tangential as I thought. When I did the koans, within an hour, I had picked up 2 other tricks/recipes that weren't part of the official learning. But they solved real problems I'd been tripping over writing my testing robots recently.
For extra bonus points, I see some evidence that it's helping me concentrate a little better and not be so interrupt-driven, even when I'm not in tangent time.