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BalanceMinimalismProductivityTools and Systems

The Now page and saying No

October 14, 2016 — by Matt

When you aren’t working toward something specific, it’s really hard to figure out what to do with your days, nights, and free time. Things float into your purview – some random event invite, a new Netflix show, some other lukewarm opportunity – and you just say yes; not because you’re really interested, or because it excites you, but because “why not”. You’re not in control of your own attention and energy.

I’m guilty of this. You probably are too.

That’s why I like this Derek Sivers’ “hell yeah or no” concept.

I also like the concept of a “now” page. It outlines the most important things you’re spending your time on. That way, when some opportunity comes up that doesn’t make you say “hell yeah!”, you can point to your “now” page and say “no thanks! I’m working on these things right now.”

I’ll have my now page soon, explaining why I’m saying no to all you beautiful people, and why I’ve been gone from this site for so long.

BalanceProductivityTools and Systems

Consistency

March 15, 2016 — by Matt

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Get ready for a bombshell…

There is no one secret to success.

Shocker, I know.

And even though we all intuitively know this, it still feels good to believe that there’s only one small change between our current situation and a slingshot to blissful achievement.

I’ve come to learn that it doesn’t work like that. There are, however, a few not-so-secret tenants you’ll often hear. You know the usual suspects – perseverance, focus, networking, execution, luck, a really eye-catching business card, strategic eyebrow waggling – and each (most) of them can certainly help contribute to success.

One of the most important is consistency. And for me (and I suspect many others), it’s importance is often overlooked.

Why is consistency important?

Consistency is incredibly important for making progress. The likelihood of one meeting, one business proposal, one article submission, or one afternoon of working on your passion translating to some big success is very slim. The likelihood of repeated, concerted effort producing small, consistent progress that adds up, however, is very high.

Consistency is also like practice – by building a consistent habit, we’re likely to learn more and improve faster. James Clear, one of my favorite writers on the topic of building habits, penned this article which includes a few great examples of how consistent effort increases your chances of reaching your targets.

Finally, doing something consistently can define you. If you want to be a writer, sit down and write… a lot. If you fancy yourself a musician, you had better be making music consistently. And it doesn’t just apply to productive habits. You might not want to admit it, but if you smoke every day, guess what – you’re a smoker. Batman said it in a really gravely voice – “It’s what you do that defines you” – but he wasn’t the first to realize that consistent habit makes you who you are. The ancient Greeks had it figured out ages ago.

We-Repeatedly-Do-Excellence
Consistency in fonts, apparently, not as important.

Our problem with consistency

Yes, staying consistent in our habits is super important and beneficial. But that shit is also HARD. Like, really hard.

First, starting a new habit is always difficult. Doing one thing once is really easy – doing it repeatedly isn’t.

Consistency also requires an acceptance of both failure and of non-perfect work. Doing something over and over is likely to produce varying results – if you write a new blog post every week, for example, you’re likely to have some duds. That’s OK – and in fact will make you better at your craft through repetition, learning, and adjustment. But we’re so petrified of failure that we forgo consistent output in favor of “perfectionism” – a codeword that often means being too scared to finish something, share it, and move onto the next thing.

perfectionism meme

Finally, consistency take patience. We all want instant results. It’s the reason why people go so hard on their new year’s resolutions and then give them up in frustration a few weeks later. Meaningful change happens in small doses over time. Most people either simply don’t have the patience, or they set their expectations for instant results so high that the frustration of not meeting them makes them give up.

fuck this

There is no such thing as “overnight success”

The fact is that we love overnight success stories, but in almost every case it’s a myth. This article includes some great examples, but one of my favorite examples concerns the cast of the FX show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”.

charlie day

If you follow the show, you’ve probably heard the story that the main cast of the show decided to write their own pilot, filmed it for $200, and then successfully pitched it to FX. It sounds so easy, anyone could do it – and in a bubble, it seems like an overnight success off of a single idea.

But all the members of the cast had been grinding for YEARS – working on their writing and acting, going to audition after audition, facing rejection and failure. It was their consistency, coupled with opportunity and a belief in themselves, that set the stage for their eventual success.


This is a long video, but just watch the last 45 seconds for some real gold. Charlie Day speaks to Rob McElhenney’s near-constant failure – failure that, without perseverance and consistency, might have caused him to quit before getting his big opportunity.

And that’s the other salient point – consistency is often difficult because it feels like we’re putting in tons of work but going nowhere. Even months after starting this blog, I don’t feel like I’m making any progress. But staying consistent not only keeps us moving forward, it also keeps us in a position to take advantage of opportunities that arise. If we’re consistently working on our passions, when something great does present itself, we’re ready to tackle it.

Here’s my plan

Consistency isn’t easy – so it’s best tackled one task or habit at a time. I’m going to start by getting more consistent about posting here.

If you’ve followed this blog, you may have noticed I post on a wildly inconsistent schedule. I’ve posted on every day of the week for no rhyme or reason. Sometimes I post twice a week, sometimes I completely miss a week. Sometimes I’m scrambling to finish an article, sometimes I have a couple backlogged. It’s a crapshoot.

So my habit, publicly stated here, is to post a new article on this blog every Tuesday – without fail. Here’s why I’m choosing this habit:

  • It’s public and I’ll be held accountable. If it doesn’t happen, you all will notice – and I hope you’ll call me out.
  • It’s results-oriented. It requires I actually produce something, so it’s very easy to judge success or failure. Just saying “write every day” could mean writing one word, or writing garbage, while making the habit a posting schedule means the work has to be meaningful.
  • It’s a keystone habit. Following this habit will force me to follow other habits – like writing consistently and managing my time well enough to ensure the writing gets done.

So look for an article every Tuesday (with the option for a “bonus” article on Fridays as I see fit). And if you don’t see one you can send a swarm of highly trained assassin sparrows to peck my eyes out.

What are you working on?

What’s the one habit you’re going to work on to build consistency? Let us know in the comments!

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My 2016 Goals (and the Impermanence of Plans)

January 13, 2016 — by Matt

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None of us know what’s in store for us.

I mean, we’re only two weeks into 2016 and I’ve already been hit with surprises that affect the goals I wrote down for this year a few weeks ago. I’ve had some wake-up calls about some of my approaches and some of my behavior. I’m even more sure not that I don’t really know anything – I’m just figuring it all out. We all are.

But of course the lack of knowledge shouldn’t stop us from taking action, trying things, and to some extent, leaping without looking. We try, we fail, we learn, we adjust, and we try again. It’s all we can do.

So when I was reviewing my 2016 goals prior to to writing this article, I thought it important to make clear both to you all and to especially to myself) that our plans our impermanent. We don’t know everything going into a year, or a new opportunity, or a new project, or an adventure. We should go in with a plan, with some goals in mind. But we should be aware that unexpected things happen – both good and bad. And to adhere to our original plans instead of adjusting course when these unexpected things occur is lunacy.

With all that said, I still believe in goals. They’re still important to have. And I still believe that working in a specific direction is infinitely better than working without aiming toward something bigger. I just know that being dogmatic and inflexible in those goals can be equally harmful. So I will work toward my short-term 2016 goals with an eye to make sure that larger, more important goals like smiling, and having fun, and experiencing love and connecting with people, don’t take a back seat. (In fact my next article will be my “non-goals” for 2016. More on that later).

My 2016 Goals

These aren’t the end-all and be-all of what I want to do in 2016. They’re not all-encompassing. They’re simply the things that I’d like to shoot for in the few areas I was thinking about when I took the time to think about them. I’m including them here for some sense of accountability and to keep myself and others energized in following their passion.

One other note – these are my personal goals. I’m a part of some groups that have separate group goals that I’m not including here. I also won’t go into too much detail on why each one is important to me as I expect to write more about many of these as the year goes on.

Writing

  • Publish at least 50 articles in 2016. This is about one week with a little fudge room, and potentially more if I meet my next goal.
  • Get published in at least three other online publications. I love writing here but in order to get a larger audience and get more feedback on my content, I want to expand my reach a bit.

Music

  • Release one instrumental/rework/remix project. The barriers to this should just be my own willpower and abandoning my perfectionism, as they don’t require coordinating any other artists. The one I’m working on now is pretty exciting too!
  • Get at least 5 beat placements. I’ve stopped sending artists beats in the last few years but I love working with artists and hearing what they come up with. I’ll ramp this back up this year.
  • DJ at least 6 events. I’m keeping the definition of “event” fairly loose right now.
  • Get a song played on Beat Haus radio. One of my favorite internet radio shows, I’d like to produce something of high enough quality to be featured on one of their episodes.
  • Record at least one complete song in a studio. I love the convenience of recording at home, but miss being in the studio. I’ll return there this year.
  • Get at least one paid DJ gig. Although I already technically have my first one lined up, it’s a group event and I won’t be paid directly.
  • Release at least 5 DJ mixes. I released 3 in 2015, and with the events I’ll be DJing, this should be a piece of cake.
  • Make some money from production. I don’t care if it’s $10, I’d like to experiment with charging for my production services.

Art and Other Creative Endeavors

  • Complete one video project. I love working in video even though I’m not particular skilled, and I have tons of ideas. I’ll make sure to bring at least one of them to life this year.
  • Complete at least three paintings.
  • Sell one painting. Are you seeing a theme here? I’d like to start making some money from my creative passions – mostly to prove to myself that I can.
  • Build a creative portfolio/CV site. It’s time to stop thinking of my creative pursuits as a “hobby” and start identifying myself as my ideal version of myself.

Financial

Note that I have some additional financial goals here but for whatever reason I’m not yet comfortable sharing the details on the internet. Here are the ones I am comfortable sharing.

  • Eliminate credit card debt.I made a great dent in this in 2015 and expect 2016 to land the knockout punch.
  • Sell my car. This will not only be a big win for my wallet, but also for my peace of mind.
  • Increase my savings safety net. I won’t put my specific figure here, but this is a big thrust in 2016 for me. I’ll write more about the systems I’ll use to help meet this goal.

Startup

I’d like to take a deeper dive into the world of startup and determine my appetite for it. These goals are a bit fluffier right now because I don’t know what to expect – but I’ll refine them as I learn more.

  • Attend at least 5 startup networking sessions. This will help me determine what I need to know or if this is even an avenue I want to pursue.
  • Detailed write-ups of top 3 ideas. This is my “just show up” step to get the ball rolling.
  • Run my ideas past a focus group. This is my “ask for help” step.

Travel

  • Travel to at least 5 countries. This one is pretty simple, but will force me to travel more this year. That said, I’ll try to prioritize meaningful travel to a few places rather than frantic, touristy travel to many.

Health, Wellbeing, and Growth

  • Make meditation a habit. Meditate at least twice per week in 2016.
  • Make exercise a habit (again). Go to the gym twice a week (to start). Adjust this to include other activities as the year goes on and the weather improves.
  • Attend one class or seminar on something that interests you. My post-collegiate education has been mostly self-directed, but I’d attend a class on something in which I’m interested.
  • Improve your handwriting. It’s abysmal. Like, the worst. I’m not sure what the actual target is here but it’s something I want to work on, so I’m including it.

Is that it?

Of course not. There are areas of my life that are equally or more important than what is listed above – my happiness, my relationships with my friends, family, and significant other, seeking adventure, exploring, deep connections, peace and presence, and so much more. In my next article I’ll talk about these larger concepts, and how making them a bigger part of my identity in 2016 could trump some of these more specific goals – or, how it might make them easier to accomplish.

So although there are bigger things at play and I, like you, have no idea how the year will shake out, this is my starting point for 2016 in these very specific areas. If some monumental shift occurs in a month or two, I won’t hesitate to adjust or abandon any goals that no longer make sense. That doesn’t mean these goals aren’t important to establish. It just means they’re directional, aiming toward them as I barrel through 2016, until the target is hit, it becomes less important, or a (truly) more important target presents itself.

BalanceExplorationProductivityTools and Systems

The Power of the Annual Review

December 29, 2015 — by Matt

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“It’s so difficult, isn’t it? To see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something? It’s only with hindsight we can see things for what they are.”
My day job is in computer software. At the end of a 2-week sprint (working period), right before we release a new version of our app, we hold a Retrospective. It’s a meeting with the whole team, and its purpose is to look back at the last 2 weeks and identify what went well, what didn’t, and what we can do better next time.
It can get lousy with complaints and gripes, but it can be cathartic to release frustration about the process or the roadblocks that were hit. It can also be very satisfying – at the end of a sprint, when everyone’s tired and stressed from trying to meet deadlines, identifying and celebrating the team’s victories is a nice reminder that some real good work was done. And finally, it’s prescriptive; if done right, the grievances from the start of the exercise turn into guidelines for how to improve next time.
This same concept can be used for our personal journeys – either for individual projects or for life in general. And what better time to conduct a retrospective than at the end of the year?

 

The Annual Review

The annual review is not a new idea – lots of people do it – but it’s not something I’ve ever formally done. I was turned onto the concept of a personal annual review a few years ago by an article by Chris Guillebeau. He explained and espoused the benefits of the annual review better than I ever could – so check out his first post on the subject here. (His 2015 multi-post annual review is also a good example of how deep you can get with the exercise, and I found it particularly inspiring).
Each part has value, but it will differ for each person. For example, I never have any trouble reminding myself of the ways I (think I) fucked up, or missed opportunities, or didn’t work hard enough. But I don’t take enough tie to recognizes what I did get done, the barriers I did surmount, and all my victories. So for me, that part is one of the most important.
The last part, the “what can I do better” section, is equally important. No matter your stance on “New Years Resolutions” (I’m not the biggest fan in their most traditional sense) I think that if something (even a time of year) inspires you to make some changes for the better and build toward a life of fulfillment and happiness, then it’s useful – as long as the follow-through is there. And that’s the goal with this exercise; doing it is important, but what you do after going through the exercise is what really matters.

 

My Annual Review

I’ll be doing my very first year in review exercise this week. I’m excited for what I’ll discover and how the lessons of 2016 will impact my plan for 2016. I might even share it here. If you’re writing a year in review yourself, let me know – I’d love to share ideas, lessons, and get stronger as a community!

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The Power of Selective Apathy

October 19, 2015 — by Matt

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This article originally appeared on We Live Limitless at http://welivelimitless.com/power-selective-apathy/

Is it ignorance or apathy?
… Hey, I don’t know and I don’t care.
– Jimmy Buffett

The world is a fascinating, interconnected place. Technology allows us to tap into a level of information and communication that would have been impossible 20 years ago. We can now chat with anyone anytime the world over. Videos, articles, and Wikipedia can serve us more information than we can consume on any topic we find interesting. We can travel anywhere in the world with relative ease, and pursue opporunities not available to generations before us. We’re more aware than ever of the thoughts, feelings, and life events of our family, friends, and even complete strangers. And we can interact with anyone, start conversations, and work collaboratively toward a higher purpose with relative ease.

Oh, what a time to be alive!
WATTBA
The downside to having so much available to us is that… we have SO MUCH available to us. Without constraints, the abundance of information and the burden of choosing what to consume become overwhelming. When you’re inundated with event invites, listicles, friends’ social media timeline rants, personal projects, internet memes, socio-political causes, pleasure reading, and the latest Netflix original shows, it’s difficult to figure out what’s important to pay attention to, and what isn’t. Everything settles into the same tier becomes white noise. And our limited attention is so thinly spread over everything that nothing gets enough attention to make a difference.

If everything is important, than nothing is.
– Patrick Lencioni

If life is like a buffet, it’s our job to decide what goes on our plate. Choosing a little of everything will leave us with too little of each dish to enjoy it, and adding more food to an already-full plate will just result in a mess.

So we need to be picky with what we consume and what we’re exposed to. Of course, this is easier said than done – it’s not like we can just choose what we want to see and nothing else with bother us – most information is thrown at us from all directions. So to effectively bat away that which doesn’t serve us, let’s try a strategy of “selective apathy”.

“I don’t care”

Apathy is generally viewed as a bad thing. The phrase “I don’t care” is a rude phrase, something to be avoided in polite company. True enough, with all things considered. But selective apathy is a powerful strategy to decide what you just don’t care about in order to give more attention to what you do. By dismissing an input as “unimportant”, you clear away a big chunk of the noise around you to more clearly see your goals, ready to be attacked.

The concept of selective apathy is readily apparent in many existing success strategies. The Pareto principle (or the 80/20 rule) works by identifying the 20% of your activities that produce 80% of your results. By saying that you “don’t care” about the other 80% of activities, you’re narrowing your focus and improving your output. Environment design forces you to construct your surroundings in a way that is condusive to your task. Anything that isn’t is ignored. The importance of “saying no”? Just another way of identifying something you don’t have the bandwidth to care about right now. And minimalists will recognize selective apathy as just another method to clear your life of what isn’t necessary.

One man’s trash is another’s treasure

It’s important to understand that choosing to ignore something does not mean that it isn’t important in a universal sense. It’s simply putting concentrated focus on a few important things in order to make a real impact or actual progress. The researcher who dedicates her life to finding a cure for ALS is not doing so becuase she believes curing other diseases is unimportant; rather, she’s doing so because a concerted effort in her chosen area of focus will yield a more powerful result.

In addition, saying “I don’t care” should really mean “I don’t care about this right now”. It’s often beneficial to ignore an input while you’re focused on something else and then return to it when you have more bandwidth to give it its due consideration. Just don’t let it take your eye off the ball in the short term and pull your focus from your goals.

Don’t just say “I don’t care” to others

After extolling the virtues of selective apathy and using “I don’t care” to keep your attention focused on the important, I’m going to give you one final piece of advice – don’t actually say it.

Huh?

In most cases we’re telling ourselves not to care as a shield to to our attention. But when it comes to other peoples’ ideas or proposals, outright saying the phrase “I don’t care” comes off as rude, and for good reason – it’ll sound like you think their interest is unimportant and unworthy. But this isn’t the case – just because you choose not to focus on something yourself does not make it unimportant to someone else or in general.

So if you’re forced to decline others’ proposals or projects in order to focus on your own, do so with gratitude – they thought of you as a valuable contributer to the conversation. Let them know you think the cause or idea has real merit (as long as you really think so!) and share with them enthusiastically what you are focused on that requires your full attention. Passion recognizes passion, and not only will you leave the conversation with mutual respect for each others’ projects, but you’ll open the door for potential collaboration in the future.

There is more information and opportunity out available to us than there ever has been before. Taking a stance of selective apathy regarding everything that isn’t important to you right now will allow you to make a real impact on those things that are.

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Focus on Just Showing Up

September 23, 2015 — by Matt

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"Eighty percent of success is showing up." - Woody Allen

When I first left home to attend college, I took full advantage of the new-found autonomy that living at home and the rigid schedules of high school had never offered. Classes were “optional”? I could roll out of bed when I pleased, sleep in if I felt the need, and it was up to me to manage my own schedule? Freedom had never tasted so good.

My newfound responsibility quickly came back to bite me when, after my first 2 semesters, my GPA put me in danger of losing my scholarship and I was placed on academic probation. Because my school was prohibitively expensive, losing my scholarship meant I could no longer attend that institution. I had been a good student with pretty minimal effort in high school. Why was I faltering now?

When I returned for my third semester I made a small yet fundamental change to my approach that made all the difference; I simply decided to go to class. I didn’t focus more on homework or spend more time in studying for exams. In fact there was one 8AM class I must have fallen asleep in every single day. But I went – to that class and all the others.

The result? I was able to eek my GPA above the danger zone that semester and after prioritizing my attendance the next few years, I graduated with honors.

Why is “Showing Up” so important?

“Showing up” is probably the most important step to reach any goal. Whether it’s going to class, or actually sitting down to write, or opening your development environment, or simply going somewhere that inspires you, “showing up” makes every subsequent step of the process easier.

This isn’t because “showing up” is all that’s necessary to succeed – far from it. But without showing up, everything else is a whole lot harder.

Here’s an example: You need to do some design work for a creative project you’re spearheading. “Showing up” might simply involve sitting down, powering on your computer and opening Photoshop. Or better yet, you could “show up” by taking a sketchbook, your laptop, headphones, and some inspiring music to a local coffee shop. Just opening Photoshop or traveling to a coffee shop doesn’t guarantee your work gets done. But by showing up, you’re setting yourself up to make progress.

The benefits of “showing up”

The benefits of focusing your energy on “showing up” are too many to count, but the ones that have helped me the most are as follows:

It’s an easy win.

We’re often best motivated when we feel like we’re already making progress; it’s why checking an item off our to-do list gets us so amped to tackle the next item. Showing up starts that momentum with an easy win and sets the stage for you to really get in the zone.

You can use your environment as natural motivation.

“Showing up” often involves going somewhere that’s more conducive to focusing on your goals. Even if your only aim is to take 3 steps into your gym and sign in, being in that environment will probably be enough to make actually working out a reality. Taking the effort to actually go to that drawing or photography meetup can be enough to spark your creative juices and dive into your art. Show up and use your environment to your advantage.

You’ll get information and experience you wouldn’t have otherwise.

One of my bucket list items was to do a stand-up comedy open mic night, a proposition which frankly terrified me. I went to the open mic three times before I actually stepped on stage and told some jokes, but in those first three nights I learned how the list worked, the types of jokes that worked, and got comfortable with the venue. Even showing up and doing nothing else was valuable, and without it I probably would never have checked that item off my list.

It gets you moving and avoids paralysis.

The biggest benefit to focusing on simply showing up is avoiding the “paralysis by analysis” so many of us go through when starting or continuing a project. You’re much less likely to get overwhelmed by the 50 steps required to finish the project when you can first focus all your energy on step 1 – just showing up. It keeps you present in the current moment and takes away a lot of our self-inflicted pressure to succeed.

So the next time you’re searching for motivation or unsure of how to proceed on a project or goal, figure out what it means to “show up” and just worry about doing that. Once you’ve showed up, the next steps become infinitely easier.

Want another take?

After I wrote this article I did a quick search to find some other takes on the importance of showing up – and found some great ones. Check them out here:

Step One is Showing Up” – via Scott H Young

The Single Biggest Thing You Can Do For Your Career: Show Up” – via Hanna Brooks Olsen


 

Leave a comment below with a time you just resolved to “show up” and how it helped you make progress!

ProductivityTools and Systems

How to minimize distractions when you just need to Focus

September 3, 2015 — by Matt

no_distractionsWe all get distracted. No matter what we’re working on, how exciting our current project is, or how in-tune it is with our passions, it’s very easy to get sidetracked or let the world around you pull your focus. Last week I wrote about my recent struggles with distractions and came to the empowering conclusion that our attention is our energy to spend, and we have the power to decide where it goes.

But just because our focus is under our control doesn’t mean that we have to battle distractions with willpower alone. A few effective techniques or systems can help make retaining our focus much, much easier.

Below are a few methods I use to help mute or muffle distractions when I’m in “work mode”.

Single-tasking – Do one thing at a time

For years, multitasking has been lauded as a critical skill in school, the workplace, and everyday life. I’ve even seen “effective multitasking” as a desired skill in job postings. In reality, however, multi-tasking makes you feel busy but does not lead efficient, effective output, and could even be damaging to your thought process.

We get the most focused, effective, and thoughtful work done when we concentrate on one task at a time. Single-tasking eliminates the time wasted when context switching and puts you in a better position to enter a state of “flow” (a topic I’ll be exploring in much more detail in future articles).

Set a single priority for the day

Whenever I compile an extensive to-do list, I either get overwhelmed by the number of tasks I need to get done, or I cherry-pick the easy tasks to the exclusion of the important ones. By identifying the single most important thing to do in a day, you’re less likely to do unimportant tasks first (they’re not on the list!) and more likely to get your important items done first (what else would you do?).

Setting your most important task(s) for the day is the backbone of many a daily journal or morning routines. I’ve also started using the Momentum extension for my new tab page in Chrome. The first time I open a new tab Momentum asks me what my focus for the day is, and every time I open a tab after that it reminds me where I should be prioritizing my focus. Plus, it has pretty pictures!

Momentum Screenshot

Single Tabbing

If my description of Momentum didn’t give me away, I’m a serial tab opener and often have a few windows each with multiple tabs for stuff I’ll “get to later”. I use “Controlled multi-tab browsing” to limit this bad habit but an even more extreme approach is that of single tabbing. By only allowing a single browser tab you force yourself to focus on one thing at a time until its done. I’ve never tried it (and honestly it terrifies me) but doing a week of single-tabbing may be my next focus experiment.

The rest of the suggestions in this article may help focusing on a single task easier.

Minimize Digital Distractions

In our ultra-connected lives, digital distractions are tough to avoid – especially when so many of us use the internet regularly for work and are constantly being pinged by our smartphones. I’ve tried a few methods to minimize the (seemingly constant) digital noise.

Reduce Notifications

rethink-notifications-2

Almost every app you install on your phone comes with some type of notification, but keeping those notifications on is giving your phone the authority to dictate when you check it. I’ve turned off notifications for email and facebook and turned most other notifications to silent so that I decide when I need to check my updates, not my phone.

Airplane Mode/Silent/Do Not Disturb

Airplane mode and silent mode are two of my best friends when I’m deep in a creative project and can’t be disturbed. For bonus points, stick your phone in a drawer or in another room when you go heads-down on your work. And if you’re worried about the unlikely case of an emergency call, make use of your phone’s “do not disturb” mode.

Freedom

Consider this “airplane mode” for your computer. Freedom is a fantastic app that allows you to set a period of time during which the entire Internet is shut off, effectively eliminating the distractions it generates. I find that after my 3rd or 4th attempt to check my email my brain gives up trying to distract itself and I fall much more easily into a flow state with whatever I’m doing – to the point that after my Freedom timer expires and I’m free to browse the web I have no desire to do so and I stay on track, lost in my work.

Because Freedom shuts down all network access it’s not a great solution for tasks that require the ‘net like research or networking – but for writing and making music it’s been invaluable. Their website indicates they now have versions for tablets and smartphones – so I’ll definitely be installing Freedom on my phone this week.

StayFocusd

Even when I’m not locked into “deep focus” mode or I can’t shut down the whole internet, I try to minimize my time on easily distracting websites like Facebook and Twitter. The StayFocusd Chrome extension helps by allowing you to set a time limit each day you for a set of websites, which, once expired, blocks access to those sites. I currently limit Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter to 15 minutes every day and although I sometime open up Firefox to cheat, it generally keeps me pretty honest.

WriteRoom and ZenWriter

WriteRoom and ZenWriter (for Mac and Windows, respectively) are writing programs that remove the distractions of other windows and your toolbar and give you a simple, full-screen, minimalist writing space. ZenWriter even plays soothing sounds while you write. If you find yourself trying to write but being tempted by other windows, give one of these a try.

Get Lost in your Headphones

I can get easily distracted by sound. Even conversations happening a few feet away while I try to read or write will completely screw up my focus (probably a sign of some undiagnosed attention issues). Blocking out my most overactive sense with something else helps immensely, but what specifically plays through your headphones is important.

Music

Music can be a valuable tool to block out the sound of the outside world and enhance flow, but it has to be the right kind of music. Some studies suggest that music you enjoy is the best medicine, while others point to ambient or classical music. Me? I like music with no lyrics, as the words tend to distract me when reading or writing.

miles-davisMy go-to is jazz standards (I have a playlist that I use), and I’ve also had luck with the “Deep Focus” playlist on Spotify. But find something that works for you, and get lost in it.

White Noise and Ambient Noise

Another route is to forgo music altogether and just go with noise. I like to use white or ambient noise sometimes when I’m writing and its effectiveness is completely dependent on my mood. But if music is still too distracting or doesn’t work for you, this might.

SimplyNoise is a simple white noise generator, while Noisli (my personal favorite) has a number of different calming and focusing noise options including rain, wind, thunder, and other environmental sounds.

Binaural Beats

Binaural Beats and Isochronic Tones work on the concept that sounds played at a certain frequency stimulate brainwaves at a similar frequency that promote brain functions like focus, learning, memorization, or creativity. Binaural beats proponents claim that these sounds help enhance the effects of psychedelic drugs, help people quit smoking, or aid in memorization.

Although I’m somewhat skeptical of the science behind binaural beats, I’ve used them effectively to improve my focus and block out outside sounds, whether it’s a placebo effect or not. Here’s one I’ve used before.

Change Your Environment

One of the most effective techniques I’ve used to improve my focus is to change my environment. In other words, I get out of the house.

There’s a few ways to find a new environment in which to work, and a few benefits you can expect. You can choose an environment that specifically helps your goals (open spaces for creativity, small spaces for task-specific focus). Or you an just pick somewhere new with fewer possibilities for distraction – a place with no TVs or where everyone around you is working hard on their creative projects can be incredibly motivating. You can even continually go to the same place to do a certain type of work, which will help solidify that place in your brain as the place for writing, or making music, or drawing, or coding, or whatever.

District Hall

One of my favorite places to go in Boston is District Hall, a civic creative workspace in the seaport district. Not only have I built an association with creative work there by going often, the environment is primed for it – whiteboard paint on the walls, free wi-fi, a cafe, and tables full of entrepreneurs, coders, and motivated young professionals. Find a workspace like this, and you’ll find yourself lost in your current project in no time.


So there you have it – the techniques I’ve used to some success to block out annoying distractions and get into a state of deep focus. Different techniques work for different people and there’s a ton of effective methods out there. What have you done to try to focus, clear your mind, or get work done effectively? Which of these techniques have you tried, and how have they worked for you? Leave a comment below!

MinimalismProductivity

The World Is Out To Distract You!

August 26, 2015 — by Matt

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(OR: YOU ARE THE MASTER OF YOUR FOCUS)

Last week I was on a flight for work – a few hours, nothing too draining. I thought it would be a great opportunity to make a dent in the book I was reading and fill a few pages writing in my notebook.

The flight had those in-headset TVs, so I held down the “lower brightness” button to turn the screen off (already an intentionally convoluted process designed to keep the TVs on) and opened my book. But within the first 15 minutes of the flight, the monitor sprung to life no less than thrice, requiring me to stop reading and turn it off each time. I started to wonder if I was fighting a losing battle. This TV obviously wanted my attention.

Seems kind of unfair, doesn’t it? We’re forced to spend our energy to fight off the distractions the world fires at us, scatter-shot. How dare the world try to tell us how to spend our time?

In reality, it’s not that targeted or vindictive. The world isn’t really out to get us or maliciously pull our focus. But the world also isn’t going to help you prioritize your attention, only serve you the information you need when you need it. There are just a lot of inputs into our lives nowadays, and a lot of loud, vibrant attention-seekers. The world is what it is, not inherently bad or good, just chock full or information and activity – and we have the power to decide how we interact with it. So it takes a little work to sweep aside the clutter in order to focus.

Your attention is still yours

The most powerful approach to your attention is that of ownership. Your attention and focus is yours, and you can give it to whatever you see fit.

Of course not everything is in your control. A construction crew jack-hammering the sidewalk outside of your apartment is going to make it pretty difficult to compose that sonata. If the wing had broken off the plane on my flight and the oxygen masks had dropped, I’ll bet that would have been enough for me to put down my book.

But some distractions are in your control to stifle – and they are the ones that require us to actually submit to the distraction. Realizing it’s our job to prioritize is both powerful and for me, a little nerve-wracking.

“I was going to finish writing that article, but Facebook distracted me.” No – you distracted yourself by giving something else your focus. That’s like saying “that shoe sale took all of my money!” No – you prioritized having shoes over having something else.

(This article beautifully outlines how distractions are often of our own construction and how our brain searches them out. It’s a great read.)

Think of your attention like a currency, and invest wisely.

I’m one of the worst offenders I know of this.

This isn’t me on a pulpit, preaching against the evils of losing focus or claiming it as a weakness. As someone with some pretty prominent attention issues and the (sometimes crippling) inability to stay on task, I’m basically the poster child for this behavior. But I’m finally recognizing that I’m in control of my own destiny here and relying on the world to tell me where to focus my attention is a recipe for disaster.

Here’s another complicating factor: a lot of focus-pullers are incredibly enriching. If you’ve ever been “distracted” by a beautiful sunset or a deep conversation with a stranger on the train, you know that a constant heads-down, hermit-mode, world-blocking focus is not a good thing.

(I’ll be writing much more on my struggle balancing between going out and experiencing the world, and going ass-to-chair to put in the required work.)

The point is to give an old-fashioned “talk to the hand” to distractions we know to be wasteful. By putting the intentional heisman on unhealthy distractions we leave room (a) for us to focus on our priorities and (b) for the possibility to experience some of the great things that happen around us.

Your attention is yours to spend, but there’s nothing wrong with putting in some cheats to make it easy to ignore unhealthy distractions. I have had some success with a few tools and systems that make it easier to block out the unhealthy distractions. In my next article I’ll outline a few that I’ve tried or plan to try. If you’ve been battling distractions or a lack of focus like I have recently, let’s start a conversation in the comments below!

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