Creating Focus

(n.b.: this was originally posted at Medium, due to a server issue here)

I, perhaps like a lot of creatives, need to create “the right space” to get things done. I’m easily distracted when I’m not focussed. When I’m easily distracted, I’m not terribly productive.

I suppose I should point out that you might not call me a creative?—?I’m a developer, a programmer, an engineer if you so choose?—?although, to me, writing code has always been an amazingly free, creative process.

I try hard to work a short week (my aim is to actually work 30-40 hrs every week, which, as any entrepreneur or small-business-owner will tell you, is an ambitious goal. I fail more often than I succeed. But that’s my aim). Because of this, I cannot afford to waste my productive time. But inherently, I’m a procrastinator?—?I like to put things off, I like to tool around.

I’ve been running a consultancy for 11 years, so I feel like I’m starting to figure this all out now. While these may not work for you (you’re not me, after all), I thought I’d share some of the things I do when I’m having a hard time concentrating.

First: why do I need to create focus? Because I want to exist, permanently, in the zone. I want the outside world to fade away, leaving only what’s in my head. I need to easily remember the comment I logged on line 1823 of one file, while editing code in several others. If I’m tracing a bug, I need to hold every step in memory. When I write code, I often don’t commit it to screen until the entire function/object/whatnot is already written in my head. I wrote papers in university the same way: Wander around for days with a slowly forming paper, then, in 1 sitting, write out the paper and hand it in (I have a comparative French Literature degree so there were a lot of papers).


So! focus! to the point?—?here’s some of my tricks to fine the zone when it’s elusive. The first step is preparing to concentrate. Do any or all of these. I find it often takes me all 3.

  1. Find the perfect song. I play music when I’m producing. I pause it when I’m not. I can judge how much concentration-time I got in a day by how many minutes of music I listened to. But to start, I need to start it right. This used to be done with my own library, but these days I use Rdio. It doesn’t matter what this is. Depending on mood, this’ll be any number of genres. I know it when I hear it. I’ll admit that I’ll spend easily 15 minutes doing this. But the payoff is worth it. Because that one song is all it takes. You want a song that transports you, that lifts you, that effects that important chemical change within you. Do NOT work while listening to this one song. But work as soon as it’s done. This is your Ready! Set! song. The ending of the song is your Go!
  2. Meditate. Seriously. I cannot stress how great this is. Close your door, close your eyes, put your headphones on (no sound), and focus on your breathing for a few minutes. Whatever you can to not exactly empty your mind, but to quiet or direct your mind. Of note, I’ll purposefully not think of what I’m about to do, but rather an end goal of the task during this. But the important part for me is to create a singular thought?—?really no matter what that thought is.
  3. Walk. I will often leave the office, circle the block, come back. It takes 5 minutes. But I leave anxious, troubled, over-excited, etc and return ready.Walk with purpose. I don’t amble on this walk, I stride, with purpose. Don’t talk to someone. Don’t hang out by the water cooler on the way in or out. This isn’t a social opportunity. In may ways, this is an isolatingopportunity.

Now I’m ready to work?—?but often still not sure that I’m ready to focus. Particularly if I’m working on something I’m not too thrilled about, so I do a couple of warm ups.

  1. Pick a Quick Task & Do It. My rule is that this needs to be something I can complete in under 30 minutes. I will often set a timer to ensure?—?at 30 minutes I have to stop no matter what. This can be anything that you can accomplish solo: read & respond to a particular message. Write those comments you’ve been putting off. Explain a query. Review performance stats. Pick the smallest, easiest bug off the top of the list and squash it. Read commits. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even need to be related to what you’re about to spend serious time on?—?you just want something to be a quick win that required some amount of focus. these are your warm-up pitches.
  2. Write out a sentence describing your success. “I rewrote a query that shaved 75% off of execution”. “I created a user object extension to describe customers” whatever. I personally like to write these in the past tense. I tend to use Notes.app on my iPhone to do this, but it doesn’t matter, really. But project your success. My only rule is that this is what I’m going to accomplish when I do start work. So the ambitiousness of the statement needs to relate to the time available to me. Don’t write “I rewrote facebook” if you’ve only got 3 hours.
  3. Tell your team how long you’re ‘going under’ for. If you work alone, likely not as relevant. But tell your co-workers, wife, kids, etc, that you need X time to not be disturbed.
  4. Go Silent. Turn of notifications. Turn of distractions. I: close Twitter. Close Messages. Close Skype. Close Adium. Turn my phone to airplane mode. Turn of notifications. Close all “fun” browser tabs. If I could, I’d close Slack, but that’s the deal I’ve made?—?that’s my emergency beacon.

Get to it!

It took me a while to compile the series of things I do over and over again to create focus, but these do the trick. I don’t always do all of this. But even on the worst days, I find that stepping through these really helps me find that focus that I need to do my best work. Many days, all it takes is choosing a song and finding my first task, and then blam, suddenly its fours later and I’ve got a shit-tonne done. Other days it takes all steps, & several iterations. But what’s awesome is that at most, I’ve “lost” 30-45 minutes, but created so much opportunity for creation.

Reducing Aural & visual notification clutter

I, like many of us, am constantly bombarded by small interruptions that not only negatively affect my productivity, but often can affect my mood. From my phone, it’s notifications: iMessage, twitter, games, hockey scores, email. On my computer,it’s alerts: new email, Skype, iChat, file transfer, etc.

I usually keep my phone on silent mode, which by default makes it buzz for all of these updates – once for most notifications, twice for SMS. I decided recently to turn off the vibrate on silent. And you know what, it’s great. I don’t’ find the visual alert bothersome – most of the time my phone’s on my desk, or in a dock, so I can at a glance see if something’s important. But if I’m focussed on something else, I can ignore it completely. The notifications centre is always there to review what I’ve missed, on my schedule. But whenever my phone buzzed, that would distract me & I’d lose my concentration. I’ve felt so much better since turning off vibrate.

Likewise, on the computer, I’ve turned off all aural notifications – not beeps or rings on Skype, or iChat. Where possible, I’ve also made the visual clues more subtle: rather than bouncing the icon in the dock, just show an alert there – a star or a number, or whatever the app’s settings are. Again – this lets me know that there’s something there, but it’s not an aural, or even much of visual distraction. Particularly during my witching hour of the post-lunch sleepies from 1 – 3 pm, I find this change has in particular immensely helped my ability to stay focussed on my tasks at hand.

Of course, there’s some irony in that while working, I am usually listening to music – which I know a lot of people find distracting in and of itself. For me, however, music is sort of like a white-noise machine: It blocks out the other, less predictable noises of the traffic outside, my office neighbours’ phone conversations, my staff’s discussions. It even blocks out the pesky, critical voices in my own head a lot of the time, which is really great. Plus, music enables the sublime: that moment that you fix the bug right as the track reaches the crescendo, or you’re racing for a deadline and some great techno, whose bpm perfectly matches the speed of your fingers on the keyboard, or late in the day when you need a pick me up and some random, terribly catchy pop tunes comes on and you can sing along and get that important pick-me up.