How do I focus (sometimes)?
What you are about to read is a personal opinion. I’ve never written anything like this so please do enjoy my first. Even though this entire document is focusing on how I do things, it may give you good ideas. I am by no means an expert in any of this, just a random bloke with a focus problem. Enjoy ❤️
As I write this, it is the middle of summer in the year 2021. It’s hot, humid, and I am sitting at home without any Air Conditioning (I do live in Berlin, Germany - hence no ACs). You may say, this is your typical summer at home, right? Well, one thing that makes my (and maybe yours) summer different than (say) 30 years back is: Technology! 💻
Oh boy, technology! We all love it! It got us this thing I can use to watch funny videos while in the restroom. A tool that makes waffles! And even this exact device I am writing these words on. Technology is just great. But … Sometimes, it can work against us. It can prevent us from doing things we really want/need to do. Let me spend some of your time today while I elaborate this, and give you examples on how I “fight” this.
Ah attention. The thing that we lack at “important” meetings. The thing that we need in School and in the Military. I am no expert, but I can certainly claim that I can only have a limited amount of attention at any given moment. I can only be listening to one podcast, or I can just be paying attention to what I am currently writing, or maybe that call I had this morning has taken all my attention at the time, so even when my significant other brought me coffee, I did not even notice.
Things, events, screens, sounds, steal out attention away. At times that is good, but at other times that is, well, less than good. So what do we do in a world where we need to focus on a specific task but you are surrounded by screens, headphones, Twitter, Slack, Email, Chime, Twitch? Those things (maybe) are important, and they also need your attention - but not all at once. To achieve success in any of these, I need to be focusing on one at a time, I just cannot do it all at once. (Your mileage may vary).
Okay Darko, spill it out! How do you focus your attention to just one thing?!
There is no single answer for this, I will explain some of the tactics I use that have helped me (and are still helping me) throughout the years. Let’s begin with making it hard.
Making it hard for you
I make it hard for myself to use/check/read/listen those other things. For that time at least.
Okay? Making it hard for yourself? Is that, what, like locking your fridge or switching off your internet? Well no, I don’t go that far. But I do try to limit myself with technology, as I am blaming technology for my lack of attention. And I will fix this problem with technology. HA! 🤖
Let me give you a clear example of (one of) the biggest attention drain I have during any given day: YouTube. Yes, that wonderful place where you watch all those cat videos, videos on how to feed your pet scorpion, and spooky crime podcasts. YouTube has, for sure, taken so much time out of my day that I am afraid to even look (I hope Google does not provide us with lifetime statistics). It goes like this:
- I sit down to do some important works (eg. send emails. yes).
- One email is sent. And I think to myself: “Good job there buddy, reward yourself with one short YouTube video while you sip on your coffee”
- 3 hours later, 14 tarantula feeding videos in, and my day is gone.
I hate this, I am aware that this happens, but I hate this. And it truly just sneaks up on me (somehow). How did I solve this? How did I make it hard for me?
I don’t use my headphones from my computer.
Wow? Is that it? Just unplug the headphones? Well, no! I leave the headphones in the computer, but I just use a different pair. I know this sounds silly, but let me explain.
We all need to listen to music while we work, right? I mean, are there people who don’t listen to music while they work? (WHAT ARE YOU!?). So, to get my music needs, without using my laptop, I just get another piece of tech: The iPod!
I use this old rusty iPod Classic 4th Generation, that I picked up at a flea market for less than 7 Euros. I load up all my music (it has a whopping 32GB SD card in it), and it will serve me good for the entire day. Magical.
Now even when I see a YouTube video I am interested in, I have this additional hurdle of having to put on different headphones (yes I get to be that lazy), and that seems to stop me from watching random videos on 1960s era Soviet Television sets.
But, Darko, what about the Twitters, Slacks, Emails?
Let me get into that.
Focus, machine, focus!
Here is a thing I have (not) invented. A focus machine!
A what now? Hear me out: When I need to focus a specific task, I want a computer, a machine - that can only do that task. Let’s say I need to write this blog post. I can hop on my main gaming PC and open up my favorite text editor, write a few wor … Oh look, as squirrel! 🐿️ And now I’m playing Minecraft.
So many distractions. What I did, similar to my music playback choices, I have setup a computer that sits next to my main PC that has limited resources and can help me focus on specific tasks. Like writing this blog post for you all.
This PC is an old Lenovo X201 ThinkPad, that runs Linux. It’s great for what it is, and I got if from a friend of mine. But it struggles with running YouTube, or any games. Even running Slack here tends to eat up its resources. Not to mention running multiple Firefox Tabs with all the Social media bloat.
What I do here is just this. Write and code. I have my vim, my command line and (most of the time) that is all I need. Without any distraction from outside. Hey I can even open up my corporate email (via the web interface) and do some simple email work. On top all that, since it is summer, it makes perfect sense not to use the big gaming rig, as that thing tends to heat up my room quite fast.
Now, I don’t spend my entire work day on this “focus machine”, just when I need to focus on certain things that require the tools I have here. But a lot of time, this writing that I do is the perfect thing to do on such a setup. Even George R.R. Martin uses a very old text editor, so there must be something to it (not that I am comparing myself to this utter genius).
This is not for everyone, your work may involve a lot more than just typing on the terminal while listening to SNES soundtracks on your iPod. You may need to use some more advanced tools, but hey - make a machine for just that. There is a beauty knowing that there is only a set of things you can do on this computer, and nothing else.
And for people who are up for a challenge, go ahead and set-up for yourself an old machine. Something that is nice to type on, and where you can get some work done. It’s a fun weekend project for us tech nerds out there. Let me know if you do via Twitter: @darkosubotica
It’s all about the (time) limits
A colleague of mine once told me: “If you are lazy to do something, just make it super simple so it makes you feel like an idiot if you skip it” - or something like that. Like, how did I get into writing on this blog? How did I get into producing technical content for work every day? I made it super simple.
When I write to this blog, I limit myself to writing 100 words a day. Yes 100, no more no less (unless I feel really motivated, but more on that later). This makes it so, that even if I am lazy I can really just sit down and do 100 words. This post is the exception, as I had a lot of inspiration this fine evening.
When I need to work on a certain project, or create some content. I limit my time on how long can I do it. When you give yourself a countdown timer, there never seems to be enough time. So I use the pomodoro technique. I take a task, and give myself 30 minutes (or less) to focus on just that. Everything else is turned off, notifications disabled, calendar blocked off. (Sometimes it takes me longer to let everyone know that I am focusing, than doing it). And now, I can spend the next 30 minutes working on what needs to be done. And once those 30 minutes are up - time to take a walk, have some tea, maybe check some weird YouTube video.
I’ve found this to be a super useful way of focusing on some of my work. Now it does not work for everything, but for a lot of the things I do this is perfect.
And how does technology fit into it? Well you need to time yourself. Use a
countdown timer, a hourglass (thats technology too), ask
Assistant of choice here to set you a countdown timer for 30 minutes.
There is also a bunch of apps available for many devices and operating systems
that can help you with timning. I for one use a tool called
potato on Linux - it just works. When
doing things ouside of the scope of this laptop I actually use Amazon
Alexa for this, as she is the easiest
way for me to set this timer. But you must abide by the timer! If you ignore
it, and finish early or do something else while the timer is running it loses
So yeah, tomatoes and limiting the amount of things (and time) help when I need to focus on a single task. And that has helped me a lot.
Now, let’s talk about what makes me do this - motivation.
Yes, motivation sucks. And you should never, ever, depend on it. I’ve heard many people say this (or something similar), but I never really understood why they said so. I was always hoping that being motivated is the thing that will take me to the top. That it’s the thing that will make me do all those amazing things - Workout more, learn Rust, understand what REACT is.
But no, it did not.
Motivation tends to dry up, and leave you stranded with nothing to do but watch a bloke from the Island of Man disassemble cheap Chinese phone chargers on YouTube.
Okay - how do we go around motivation? How do we do anything that is worth doing if we don’t feel like it. Make it a habit. Yes! Just do that. Done? Can we go now?
Well, it takes some effort in turning something into a habit. It actually takes time to do that. According to some apps out there, it takes 66 days to make a thing into a habit. I am not sure on the numbers, but I would say that is sorta okay. Let me give you an example:
I’ve never read books. Like actual books you need to look at and decipher letters and numbers into words that appear in your head. I’ve, for the most part, just listened to books. With all the travel I did, I found it very practical to just sit back, relax, and listen to a nice audio book (especially if it is narrated by someone awesome like Ray Porter). But one thing that is really (at least for me) difficult to benefit from while listening, is technical books. I need to sit down and read those things from an actual book (or Kindle).
Okay, I need to read books - “But who has the tiiiime?!”. Well, I have - at least for a single chapter. A single chapter a day, before any other work is done. Seems simple enough, I am sure I can do it. And I did!
That was me in January of 2021. Since the 5th of January of that year, I have read a bit of a book every morning with my coffee. Not because I am motivated to do so - but because I am used to doing it. I cannot imagine my morning without reading just a little bit. It’s just wonderful. So far I have churned through 27 books in 2021.
Just like that, I have made it reading a book a habit. Now, this is rather a simple habit to have and it has helped me achieve some goals in my life, but what about the things that are hard to do? Things like, write every day, eat less, don’t react to every slack message immediately? Well, for that - simply you need to do the following things:
- Make the good thing easy to do
- Make the bad thing hard to do
- And reward yourself immediately when doing something good.
Simple huh? Well, it’s not, it takes time and effort. But that is one way I have found it to be good for me.
(tl;dr) Conclusion and some reading suggestions
Well that’s about it - some simple “Life Hacks” that help me focus on certain parts of my work. These are the things that work for me, and I hope that some of them work for you. But to recap:
We live in a world where everything around us wants our attention: email, slack, YouTube, porn, games, whatnot. But we can only give a certain amount of attention at a given time. This makes focusing on a single task quite hard. And I tend to blame technology for it (sorta).
To regain back some of my attention and keep doing what I should and love I do the following:
- Make it hard for myself to do things that take my attention away (use an old iPod for music)
- Have a “focus machine”: A computer/workstation that is limited to only certain tasks. In my case it’s an old computer where I can only code and write.
- Limit your time and victory conditions for a given task: Check out the pomodoro technique and do a thing for only X amount of minutes.
- Don’t rely on motivation - get a habit instead.
I wrote this little post mostly so I can sort it out in my head, but I have decided to share it with you all! And I wrote it all in one sitting, thanks to being able to super-focus on it. So do let me know what you think! ❤️
And now, for some 📚 (these are not affiliated links)
Thank you for your time in reading this post! ❤️