Tactics to help you focus and avoid distractions

Introduction

Deep work

The term deep work comes from the book of the same name from Cal Newport.

The idea behind deep work is to understand how your brain works when you are engaged in long, focused work sessions.

Research has shown that it takes on average 20 minutes for your brain to find a state of concentration. This is why interruptions are so damaging when in the flow.

Given that work in the 21st century is driven by collaboration while, the number of distractions has grown exponentially. Added to that the increasing amount of content one can consume online through various social media sites and you get a recipe for disaster.

The objective is therefore to fight back. Whenever you are concentrating, you need to do whatever possible to stay in this state of mind, referred to as being in the flow.

Many tactics have been covered, from turning off your phone or putting it in airplane mode, to turning off all notifications, blocking access to distracting websites, all the way to telling everybody you work with that you are away if that is what it takes for you to get a full day's worth of concentration.

Also remember that you have a finite amount of energy throughout the day and that you should use that energy for deep work. If you have the habit of checking emails, Twitter, LinkedIn first thing in the morning, stop!

Decide what you want to accomplish today and get to work first thing in the morning if you can. I can assure you that you will feel like a hero once you start ticking off checkboxes. And the rest of the day will look like it is full of opportunities.

Likewise, many busy people check their emails every 30 minutes or so. Whenever they come back to their desk, they unlock their computer and check their emails. This is a destructive behavior. If you are addicted to this, try to enforce some rules (with or without the help of applications/extensions) in order to check emails only once or twice a day.

Pomodoro technique

A technique which has proved useful and is particularly loved by people who need to jump from one topic to the next while staying focused.

It all starts with a list of tasks that you want to complete during the day.

The Pomodoro technique tells you to select the first task and to set a timer to 25 minutes.

Once set, you must work on the task without interruption until the time is up. Then take a 5-minute break to recharge and repeat the process.

This method is effective because the duration to stay focused is short. Knowing that it will only last 25 minutes, your brain is better equipped to foresee the roadblocks and therefore come up with a plan to achieve as much as possible in that timeframe.

Pareto principle

The Pomodoro technique described above is so effective because it forces you to act fast. If the item you are working on is quite big and will not fit in the 25-minute time frame, you will be forced to do a first pass to define the contours of the solution.

This is exactly what the Pareto rule, also known as the 80/20 rule all about.

This methodology is absolutely crucial when dealing with large items. The best approach is often to divide and conquer, which is to split a large item into smaller tasks.

For the same reason as explained earlier, it helps the brain frame the problem and imagine a solution more easily while foreseeing the end, which boosts motivation.

For example, if you had to prepare a presentation, start by defining the story you want to tell by writing down the title of every slide along with the key points to emphasize. During another session of deep work, you could do another pass and dive deeper, refining every piece with more details.

Work center

Most people have several tabs open in the browser.

Some of those tabs contain content that you want to consume later while some are services that you use on a regular basis and which you need to access often and quickly.

Such services usually include your email client, your calendar, maybe your project management tool and very likely your chat services, both personal (WhatsApp, Telegram etc.) and professional (Slack etc.).

The issue with having such services in your browser is that, whenever you use your browser to work, your attention is automatically drawn toward such services. The urge to check if something new has happened, if your help is needed etc. is just too strong to resist.

One tactic consists in aggregating all such services in a browser-like tool that lives far away from your browser, for instance in another workspace of your desktop computer.

By centralizing the communication channels and the services that generate a lot of notifications in a single tool, you are less likely to stumble upon those, get distracted and lose focus.