If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a bit you know that I’ve been on a bit of a journey with respect to my work focus. I’ve been struggling to put in consistent, focused work hours. I waffle between talking a big game about Deep Work, wasting time on Reddit, Facebook, and Instagram, taking coffee and food breaks while working at home, and being overwhelmed by too many tasks on the go at once. After that, I need to go out for a training session which invariably takes 2 hours.
And then one Google search for articles about Focus gave me a perspective switch that might just make the difference for me.
I landed on a Focus series of blog posts from The Art Of Manliness (maybe not perfect for this audience, but they have really great long-form pieces). In the post of ways to improve focus, they said: “Think of Your Mind as a Muscle“.
Of course, I’ve heard the phrase “Train your brain” a million times but somehow this statement helped me associate focus training much more closely with exercise and my triathlon training:
- I could treat it like training sessions and training intervals
- I could have rules associated with it
- Consistent practice would yield improvements
- I could schedule them just like I do my exercise sessions
- Just like a Couch to 5K program, I could start small
I realize that much of this is also outlined in Cal Newport’s Deep Work – an awesome book – but it never clicked on quite the same level.
Entrepreneurs are natural problem-solvers, which means that we always have ideas for new businesses popping into our heads. Having a lot of options is great, but sometimes it can be hard to focus on one when you are keen to move onto the next. — Richard Branson
Armed with this new-found perspective I stole one of my daughter’s notecards and wrote out the rules (see picture):
- 10 minutes
- notifications off (swipe up instructions)
- 1 browser tab
- no other programs running or raised
- ad-free music
- no food, drink OK
- no leaving the desk
- phone on do-not-disturb
- have a plan
The only other unstated rule here is that I was specifically NOT going to beat myself up about what I did outside of the mini focus blocks. This wasn’t going to be about becoming a shining star of productivity right away, rather it was going to be about creating an effective container (set of rules) to practice focus in.
So, I outfitted myself with a few helpful tools to make this happen. These are for the Mac but I know you can do all of this on your PC as well:
- Moved gmail from a browser tab to an app – Go for Gmail. This allows me to have gmail running (but minimized) but not in a browser tab.
- Downloaded a timer program – Be Focused. To start I just used it to start the 10-minute timer.
- I setup keyboard shortcuts to start the timer, toggle off/on desktop notifications, and to popup a Google Keep window to jot down any unrelated ideas that come up during a focus block
- I learned my Mac’s keyboard shortcuts to close/minimize/maximize windows, close tabs, etc. In the case of writing this blog post I used the shortcuts to have Google Chrome go full screen and for WordPress to enter distraction-free writing mode
- Figured out how to enable do-not-disturb on the iphone (I guess I never used this before). If you have trouble swiping up, search for resources on ‘iphone Zombie fingers’ – really, I’m not kidding 🙂
- I use my physical notepad to write down short phrase or two as the plan for a focus block, e.g. churn through emails, process podcast 85
- I use Amazon Prime Music (not the paid one, yet) for ad-free music. You may have Spotify or Pandora (the paid ones with no ads), or maybe you just have a whole bunch of old CD’s that you like to listen to. For those of you who don’t like lyrics while you are focused search for ‘Long Ambient‘ on youtube, including long ambients from Moby.
What about results?
It’s working! I’m now on to week two, I’ve increased the mini focus blocks to 20 minutes, and I’m pushing through more and more stuff.
But Brad, you are still surfing Reddit and Facebook a lot. Why don’t you fix that first?
Because that’s not the point. I’m practicing how to do a great job of focusing when I AM working. In a recent comment related to diet, exercise, and sleep Dr. Rhonda Patrick said …by making a few low-effort optimizations they might find themselves empowered to make other, greater changes later. That’s what this is about. When we choose to improve part of our lives it helps us cycle up in other parts 🙂
Next week I’ll move to 30 minute blocks – I may have to take the ‘mini’ out of the name and allow for short bio-breaks.
Here’s why I think this is working (other than the part where it feels very aligned with my exercise habits):
- It’s a digestable practice for longer focus blocks
- It creates good habits around creating a low-distraction space associated with work times
- I can still feed my bad habits but there are rules preventing them from damaging my focus blocks
- Unitasking FTW! This removes other real tasks that are also distractions. This one is big. I have a tendency to get overwhelmed when I stop and think about other things on the list.
- Forces me to “push through” some of the rough patches where I would normally have stopped my workflow and jumped onto social media
Are you going to try it? Let me know how it goes. Do you have any favorite work music or focus tips? Share them in the comments!