Move Past Distractions: Give Yourself an Ice Cream Cone

©2006 Dwayne Phillips

The following conversation between a requirements person and a user
occurred in my office recently.

Requirements person, "What is your number one requirement?"

User, "I need a new digital camera."

The Requirements person thinks to himself that a camera is a technology
or an implementation – a solution and not a requirement. So he asks again,
"That is interesting, but what is it that you require?"

User, "I need a new digital camera."

Requirements person, now growing frustrated tries a new tact,
"Well, what is it you are trying to do?"

User, "I am trying to take pictures with a new digital camera."

The user is fixated on a new digital camera.
The requirements person is at a loss.
So, he changes the subject completely.

He tries, "If a magic genie appeared and you could make three wishes,
what would they be?"

User, "I would wish for a new digital camera."

Requirements person, "What would your second wish be?"

User, "I don’t have one. If I had a new digital camera,
I wouldn’t need another wish."

The user is truly fixated on a new digital camera.
He thinks about it daily. Every time anyone asks him any question,
he answers it in terms of a new digital camera.

The new digital camera is blocking all thought.
The user cannot get on with his life until he
deals with the new digital camera.

This is where I come up with the phrase,
"Give the user an ice cream cone."

I think the best thing the requirements person can do is arrange
for the user to receive a new digital camera. Once that is in the
user’s hands, the user can think about something else like requirements.

I find this to be a special case of something general.
I sometimes become fixated on a thought.
Nothing happens in my life while this something is consuming me.

Jerry Weinberg spoke of this in a writer’s workshop I once attended.
He uses a "fieldstone" method.
One part of the method is that when an idea is buzzing around in my head,
I write it on a 3″x5″ card and set it aside.
The thought no longer buzzes around in my head.

An alternative? I could allow the idea to buzz around in my head.
Every time I try to write something that idea distracts me.
If the idea is,
"I hate it when I sit in meetings that have no purpose"
and I am trying to write a paper on how to arrange a picnic,
my hatred of wasteful meetings will keep surfacing in my
essay on picnics.

Johanna Rothman, a successful consultant and oft-published author,
once asked me to read and comment on an article she was writing.
The title of the article had the words
"Second-Class Citizens" in it.
Johanna kept putting the idea of testers being treated as second-class
citizens in the paper. This idea was in the title and it appeared here
and there in the article. The article, however, was about another subject,
and testers being treated as second-class citizens seemed out of place.

I suggested that Johanna write a paper about her experience with
developers and testers–the second-class citizens. Write that paper;
put that thought out of her mind. Then, write the paper she was trying
to write.

This suggestion worked. Johanna wrote about developers and testers
and then wrote the paper she wanted to write.

The point? Sometimes I have things that I have to do.
Sometimes I struggle with the "have to do" because something
else is running around in my mind. The "have to do" becomes
much easier if I can put away the other thing.

Consider that I need to cut the grass, but I’ve been thinking about
eating some ice cream. That one isn’t too hard. I take five minutes to
eat ice cream and then cut the grass.

Consider a harder case.
I am supposed to prepare a presentation for a meeting in one hour.
I am upset with the guy who works two cubicles over.
He did something that bothered me this morning,
and I am still seething over it. I cannot concentrate on my
upcoming presentation. What do I do?

Here are some things that have helped me:

  • A “to do” list – more than a list of things to do later. Sometimes
    I make a list and never go back to it. The act of making a list puts the
    distractions out of my head.

  • Fieldstones 3×5 cards with one note written on each card. I
    have a tall stack of these.

  • A journal. A nice notebook where I record my thoughts.

More than anything else, what has helped me is that now I recognize
the ice cream cones in my head for what they are distractions.
Once I recognize them, I choose to do something.

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