Creating an environment for focus

Let’s talk focus. Sometimes, you really just have to get something done and you’re really just not in the head space to sit down and do it. For me, that was yesterday afternoon. I had to get prepared for a meeting coming up. I blocked off my entire afternoon after 3PM, figuring I’d be done and off enjoying the fabulous weather by 6PM latest.

First, a meeting ran twenty minutes late. Then, I started actively avoiding getting started. “I’ll just do all these little things that piled up while I was busy all day, then I won’t be distracted while I’m focusing.” Every five minutes I’d click snooze on my calendar reminder.

An hour later, I had to face up to the fact that I wasn’t getting any further on the task I’d explicitly blocked off all this time for. I called in the cavalry: the friend I play online board games with. “Are you doing anything? Because I’ve got to get this done, and if I can reward myself by making a move in our game after I check off part of the task, it really helps.”

On the face of it this sounds like just another distraction. And it’s true that it requires discipline to not just start playing the game instead of working (although I could have asked my friend to leave a minimum of ten minutes between moves). But giving myself tiny rewards for ten minutes of focus really gets me through the worst troughs of “I’ll never get this done” when I desperately need it.

Probably your rewards are very different from mine – a piece of chocolate, getting up and dancing to your favorite music, a minute of checking social media, or a move in your Sudoku game. If it works, it works.

What else creates an environment allowing for deep focus?

Remove your usual distractions: put your phone out of reach, close your work chat program, close your emails, turn off notifications. I struggle hard with this when I really need to do it, because usually I can dip in and out of a state of flow while still checking emails and Slack messages as they come in. When I can’t, I have to close Slack completely – even the tiny red dot on the icon in the taskbar will lead to me hovering the mouse over it every few seconds wondering what’s going on.

Get your auditory environment set up. Do you work best with music? Silence? Something in between? Test some stuff out. If in this situation you get distracted by music with lyrics, try jazz or classical (video game themes are great!).

When there was construction outside, a soundtrack of "random office noises" was my savior; the construction had been super distracting because it was quiet for a while, then BANG, then some drilling, but all completely unpredictable. The random office noises (keyboard, fax machine, etc.) smoothed out the unpredictability by sounding similar enough to the construction that those noises weren't surprising anymore.

The reward method, but with breaks: Try the pomodoro method. You focus on work for twenty minutes, then take a five minute break, repeat. There are lots of browser extensions for this; some will even block social media websites until the timer goes off. If this works for you in general, you can adjust the timing if twenty minutes is too short.

Find someone who’s also trying to get work done at the same time: agree to quietly work together and hold each other accountable. There are even websites offering this, which matches you up with random people for silent video sessions of working in tandem. You say hi and state your goal, turn off your mic and work for an agreed amount of time, then check in and hang up. They charge a fee, so maybe start by asking your coworkers.

I worked a couple hours late yesterday, but I got it done – along with a couple rounds of Codenames Duet.

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