After reading several articles and a great book, Deep Work by Cal Newport, I’m sold: focus is tough, necessary, and at a premium. I’ve always found it very easy to…
- scroll endlessly on Twitter and Facebook
- spend hours on Reddit and Hacker News
- tend to pervasive updates, notifications, and subscriptions
- read endless surface-level blog posts and articles of dubious veracity
… and so many other things at the cost of getting important, satisfying, or at least required work done.
To that end, I tried out a digital detox and came away with clarity about the role the internet plays in my life. I’m not hopelessly addicted but every day is undermined in some way by access to endless channels of endless information.
My work as a software developer of the web variety means I can’t really unplug while I’m working. I also work from home with two kids so the opportunity for distraction and interrupt is constant. The struggle is real.
Over the last year, I’ve noticed that my billable hours have gone down and the amount of time I spend learning or building has gone down, but the total time in front of my computer has stayed about the same. In my mind, this represents a big problem; I’m wasting time in the worst way possible.
So, prompted by Cal Newport’s words, I’ve been on a month-long discovery process to find how to work more efficiently (in other words: less screen time with more output), produce better, and avoid depressive thoughts.
While I would recommend trying these out if your experience is similar to what I’ve described, I would highly suggest getting through Deep Work first as the motivation found there is what fueled my commitment.
One small bit of context… I’ve been trying for YEARS to wrap my head around a process like this for myself with basically zero success. Somehow, the things below have stuck and are actually working very well for me. Personal growth is a constant battle but I’ll say, at least right now, it’s worth it.
I keep hearing about a morning routine and have tried so many times to stretch and meditate and exercise and etc etc but nothing stuck. I got up, made coffee, and was ready to work. Or, as of late, I got up to my daughter yelling “daddy” from the other room after waking up 5 times for one kid or the other at 5:30 AM and was on-point for breakfast and crayons. After mom got up sometime later, it was time to get to work but I wasn’t really “in the zone” like I once was.
I figured out that what I needed was just a prompt that work time had started, family/reading/whatever time was over, and it was time to get down to business. There was a physical and environmental state that worked well in the beginning so I put together a list of 8 things that I walk through, in order, when I’m ready to get started.
- Stomach? Hungry. I’ve been trying out a form of intermittent fasting (IF) where I stop eating after dinner (probably a good idea in general) and start again around noon the next day. I struggle calling this IF since it’s really just skipping breakfast but the point is that you have a long period of fasting time, then a short period of eating and it’s supposed to have various benefits. I do it because I need to lose some weight and the feeling of hunger reminds me to get focused on something.
- Water? Drank. You’ve read a million different reasons why drinking water is important, I’m not going to rehash that. I will say, though, that a big glass of water first thing in the morning makes me feel better and more throughout the morning cuts down on hunger in a big way. Also tones down the caffeine spike I get with pour over coffee.
- Coffee? Black. I’ve been drinking homemade coffee black since I started brewing with a V60 last year. It turns out that great beans roasted well don’t benefit a lot from cream. It took about a month to get used to it but now I greatly prefer it (again, great beans brewed well). The simplicity of a mug of black coffee is also a reminder to stay focused and that I don’t need all of the “extras” that are available in life.
- Desk? Clean. I’m in my office at this point and the act of cleaning my workspace is a bit of a short meditation for me. I’m not chanting or anything, I’m just putting things where they need to be and thinking about why. I end up doing this a few times a day in a regular act that probably looks a lot like OCD but is just a constant reminder to stay focused. Even just having a bill or a charging cable in my line of site can cause my focus to break.
- Distractions? Off. The list at the top of the post is my time-killing suite of apps and sites, along with the worst of them all, email. I use an app called SelfControl on my Mac to block the main offenders and I make sure to turn that on right away when I reach my computer. Email is still a struggle but I have no notifications (haven’t for years), keep the tab/app closed, and leave my phone face-down somewhere that I don’t see it. I’m pre-making decisions that help me all day.
- To-Dos? In order. I use Trello to keep my work and personal tasks ordered in a sane and manageable way. I have 3 main lists: Right Now (the one task I’m working on right now), On Deck (all the tasks that are waiting on me), and Next (a bunch of stuff that’s not urgent but I’d like to get to). Once distractions are off, I spend a few minutes making sure that tasks are ordered correctly, labelled properly, and my first task is picked.
- Journal? Open. I’m writing the first draft of this in Day One, a journaling app I’ve been using for a couple of years. Writing my thoughts, major life events, worries, goals, etc all in one place on a regular basis has been an enormously positive activity for me. It’s also replaced social media entirely as a record of my life. Instead of taking a photo, crafting it lovingly, and adding something funny/profound/mundane in Instagram, I take the shot and write more honestly about it in Day One. I find just getting my thoughts out to be very helpful.
- Music? On. Last step: turn on Spotify or Brain.fm, pop in headphones, and the day begins.
Two things about this list …
- The order is important. This is a list of things you’re doing to get your mind in a particular place. Part of that is the routine. I tried a few different orders and this is what works for me.
- Cut ruthlessly and add consciously. I don’t have anything on that list that I don’t do on work days. Having something that you don’t do erodes the process. Take the list seriously and write it in pencil first.
As a reminder to myself to actually make this all happen, I made a graphic to post on my wall (with Canva, which is a lot of fun). Feel free to use/print/share (links to a PDF).
Having a single task to focus on at that the time that you have set aside to focus has been, somewhat embarrassingly, transformative for my work. This seems so, so simple and I’ve found that it’s the one thing that needs near-constant monitoring.
Here’s how it works for me:
- After picking my one task for the short term (part of the startup routine above), I write it down on a Post-It note and put it on my monitor. It includes the task and what I’m going to complete (either finish it if I can or spend, say, 5 hours on it).
- I turn everything off on my computer that I won’t be using for that task – Finder windows, applications, documents, etc.
- I start a timer, whether it’s billed or not, to keep track of where my day is going.
- I tell myself I’m going to do the best I’m capable of doing for the duration of that goal. Period.
And then I start. And then I struggle.
The worst offender for me these days is semi-productive tasks that take me away from what’s right in front of me. This could be:
- Some bill I need to pay
- An email I need to write
- Cleaning out my Downloads folder
- Phone call or text
- That book I wanted to read
- What was the name of that rug style?
… it could be anything. It distracts me in the moment, takes me away from the task I’m working on, and then takes away however much time it does. This might happen 5, 10, 20 times in a day and make everything take longer.
That said, with the changes above, I’m getting much better at making this work. A few other tricks:
- I’ve been keeping track of how much time I have to work and how much time I spend on non-billable stuff. This adds a level of accountability I’ve never held myself to before.
- I leave a post-it and pen right next to me to gather all the nonsense tasks that might need to be done but not right now. Get it out of my head so I can move forward.
- I keep telling myself “do your best work.” That precludes distractions and anything else that isn’t what’s right in front of me.
Again, this has been tough but I am getting better, hour by hour, day by day. It’s worth the effort.
I made another graphic for this as well.
I’ve been on a minimalism track for a few years now but I’m looking at it with a different perspective now. I’ve found that simplicity in so many areas of life can have a very calming effect on me so I’m trying to leverage that as best as I can without getting too weird or thinking too much about it.
I’ve found simplicity helpful in a few specific areas:
I am not a music lover in the sense that I see shows or pay a lot of attention to creators. I love to listen to music and I’m particular about what I like but I wouldn’t defend my selections to the death.
Lately, I’ve found that a solid playlist on repeat is all I need to get things done. Spotify helps me with that by always having something to listen to. I don’t want to think about it too much, I don’t want to manage it, I just want to pick a mood and listen to something.
I’m taking an even bigger step in this direction with Brain.fm. You can try it out for yourself but it’s basically just background music, nothing special. It works well to fill up the cognitive gaps in my focus and keep me on track.
I talk about my phone a lot in this. My phone is, unfortunately, still a big part of my life. Everyday I’m amazed by what you can accomplish with this expensive, connected little bar of soap.
But that comes at the cost of focus when it’s time to not accomplishing anything. So I’ve made a few changes to how I use my phone (I’m on iOS, for some of the specifics below):
- Phone, SMS, and calendar notifications ONLY. No app badges, no pop-ups, nothing. Literally nothing else needs to distract me (and I’ll put the phone in airplane mode now and then to turn the rest off too).
- I’m constantly deleting apps, both ones I use and ones I don’t. I find that some apps are just distracting by using them but many remind me of either an idea I had or another way to use my phone that I currently don’t. Like the Workflow app, for example. Imagine the cool shit I could do with it! What, exactly? I don’t know but I could distract myself for an hour or two trying to figure it out! No thanks. Delete.
- One that I’m trying out now is turning off color and setting a bunch of the accessibility features on to sort of “un-smooth” the UI in general. With links underlined, buttons outlined, and no beautiful colors, the phone feels very utilitarian. I’ll pick it up to check email and it just feels boring so I’ll put it down more often. Funny trick and it’s working fairly well so far. Try it out for a few days, then turn colors back on briefly (you can set it so a triple-click on the home button gives you the option) and you’ll be amazed the difference in your draw to the device. Even just checking the time with colors on after it’s been off makes you think “whoa, neat,” which is exactly what I’m trying to avoid.
I’m not going to get too deep into my relationship with food but, suffice to say, it’s complex. So I’m trying to simplify it a bit:
- More water, less everything else
- More oolong tea, less coffee
- Intermittent fasting in the form of no food from 8pm to 12pm the next day. I thought this would be really painful but it’s weirdly pleasant and very nice not to think about it in the morning.
- Always keeping around 3 different meals for lunch that are fast and enjoyable: sardines + soft boiled eggs + toast, protein shake (almond milk, powder, and MCT or coconut oil), and some kind of soup (currently Tasty Bite Madras Lentils with greek yogurt). No thinking, just make it and eat it
This is one I’m cribbing directly from Cal, the idea that your work stops at some point and you need to remind yourself of that ending.
At first, this might seem a little counter-intuitive. Why would you unplug if you’re trying to improve productivity? Because downtime is key to better uptime.
The point of working deeply is to produce as much of your best stuff as possible. My best stuff created with a computer or a pad and pen. It’s certainly not created with Medium or with Twitter but it’s also not created in my inbox or in Trello or in Pocket or in any number of other pseudo-productive places.
My best stuff is also created after a good night’s sleep and a cup of coffee. It’s not created after 4 – 8 hours of creating or while playing with kids or in front of a movie.
So, if I don’t have the tools for creating my best stuff in front of me and my mind is not in best stuff mode, then what’s a best stuff creator to do?
Shut it down.
Just like Best Stuff Mode needs a startup routine, No Stuff Mode needs a shutdown one. Similarly to my startup routine, I asked myself what would address everything that needed to get addressed and give me the ability to stop thinking about the to-do list.
Here’s what I came up with … again, in order of when I do them
- Decide to stop. I try not to let this be “the time at which I feel like falling over,” instead more like “pre-dinner play time” or “I feel like I got enough done today.” This could also be a specific time or the completion of everything slated for the day.
- Shut down the calendar. Review the next week of work and family obligations, make a note of anything to coordinate with my wife, close the tab and app.
- Shut down the Downloads folder. This is my general “where all new files go” and can get both unruly and a source of distraction. I’m definitely a Downloads Folder Zero kind of guy lately. Sort, upload, delete, close.
- Shut down Trello. Walk through the Up Next tasks, make sure they’re in order, move the one for tomorrow over to the Right Now list and write it on a post-it note, think for 10 seconds about the tasks I forgot, then close the tab and app. One thing to note about this: I have to be careful not to dwell in Trello for too long lest I stress myself out about everything that “needs” to get done.
- Shut down the inbox. Write or draft any responses needed, walk through existing drafts, think for 10 seconds about “that one email I forgot to send,” then close the tab and app.
- Shut down all software. Close everything down, blank slate for the morning.
- Shut down time tracking. Round out anything on the timesheet, write down the end-of-day time for tracking, check the daily timesheet for any discrepancies.
- Shut down the office. Heater off, lights off, grab tea cup, shut the door. I leave the desk a little messy so I have that to take care of in the morning.
And then the day is done.
I will say that it’s been quite tough to leave everything shut off; I can always think of one reason to check my email on my phone once or twice.
I can get better at this, I’m sure of it, and I’m worlds better than I used to be.
And, once again, a graphic reminder:
OK so, yeah, this is a lot of stuff.
It’s amazing what you have to do to trick your mind into doing the right thing for yourself. Even more amazing is what a decade’s worth of distraction-seeking can do to you.
Hopefully the above was helpful to you, or at least interesting in the way that seeing how someone else’s mind operates is interesting. I found writing this, particularly creating and posting the graphics above, a nice way to double-commit to a process that I can already see is changing my work, and life in general, for the positive.
A few last things to think about that helped me:
- This is not about “doing the most amazing work in the world,” it’s “doing the best work you, personally, can do.” It doesn’t matter what you do, doing your best work will always feel better than doing your worst. Trust me: my part-time job is changing diapers and cleaning bathrooms.
- Tip for picking a single thing to work on … if it’s not immediately clear what thing to pick – nothing urgent or nothing really exciting – then close your eyes for a few minutes and just think about it. Don’t look at the list while you do it, look away. Think about other things, like what you want to do, where you want to go, big stuff. No structure, just daydreaming. Something will pop and when it does, START IMMEDIATELY.
- If you’re like me, this whole thing might feel really boring at first. Too much structure, not enough fun, FOMO, too ascetic, etc etc. That’s a tough hump to get over, I’m still working through it. The two things I try to keep in mind: 1) committing to a system that allows me to achieve things that are important to me will allow for less structure and more fun when it counts and 2) what am I really missing out on here? Creation brings me joy and helping people brings me joy. Consuming whatever shiny thing that’s in front of me does not.
There is a lot more going on here than just better output or more efficiency or anything related to what I do, I think it’s probably pretty easy to pick up on that. My “regular life” just happens to be tied very tightly for what I do professionally, for better or worse. If I’m not producing well or I’m having trouble focusing or I’m sapped of motivation, you can be sure that I’m also having trouble sleeping and not taking care of myself physically and having trouble staying positive.
Thank you for reading!
< 2021-05-11 >
I was recently asked for an update on how all this was going now. I was a little worried that maybe I had thrown everything out the window and was now back to being an unfocused mess. Turns out ... a global health crisis and young kids at home means you focus or you die trying. Here's what my focus life is like these days:
- The major change is a full-time job with a single company. When I wrote this I was doing freelance development for a number of clients so my days were often spent rushing from this half hour billable task to the next. I also did not enjoy what I was doing nearly as much as I do now. Loving what you do, what you actually spend your time each day doing, has no substitute.
- That said, 99% all of my professional communication happens in Slack, which is a beast to tame. I leave it off as much of the day as I can (open, reply or save for later, then close), use emojis in place of words as much as possible, and keep notifications off for the most part. It is not currently and will not ever be installed on my phone.
- I've quit (or quit using) all social networks (more on the latest one here) for various reasons. I end up on Hacker News more often than ever but that only takes up a few minutes for a few times each day. I do not miss any of them at all.
- I still have a morning routine but it changes regularly and I'm not extremely rigid. I try to meditate each morning for 10-20 minutes (I am less regular that I used to be), I focus on coffee/water/breakfast and keep my phone off for the first part of each day, and I make it a point to pick the ~2 main tasks that I expect to get done each day before I start.
- I keep Roam Research open to collect thoughts, notes, tasks throughout the day. Taking notes while working definitely improves my focus on the task at hand and has the added benefits of producing artifacts.
- I still listen to mostly-nameless music on Spotify and Brain.fm. If you ask me who my favorite artists are, you'll get a list from about a decade ago, none of which cross my ears regularly. Except Robotaki, who is both fantastic and relevant.
- No fasting but lots of water. Still no notifications but everything is back to color (such a waste to have such a beautiful display in black and white). A clean desk is still critical.
Overall, I'm just much better at noticing when I'm distracted, checking in with myself to see if it's systematic (need food, water, walk, break, nap, sun, etc.), trying again (turning everything off, turn on focus music, pick the task, and shut everything else down), and giving up when I know it's not worth it to push too hard.
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