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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

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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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