HomePostsDec 08, 2016

How I Focus Now

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…

… and so many other things at the cost of getting important, satisfying, or at least required work done.

Focus

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.


Startup Routine

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.

Go fig.

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.

Two things about this list …

  1. 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.
  2. 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).

Startup Routine

One Task

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:

  1. 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).
  2. I turn everything off on my computer that I won’t be using for that task – Finder windows, applications, documents, etc.
  3. I start a timer, whether it’s billed or not, to keep track of where my day is going.
  4. 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:

… 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:

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.

Process

Simplicity

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:

music

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.

devices

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):

food

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:

Shutdown Routine

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

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:

Shutdown routine

fin

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:

Focus desk

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:

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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