“I can’t get any work done because I’m always distracted by something”
“I can’t focus for more than 10 minutes”
“I keep procrastinating on everything”
These are the most common problems I hear when I’m trying to help someone out.
I wasn’t the most productive guy a few years ago. I’d start a task and get interrupted every few minutes by something: Skype, Aim, or something on my phone. After I finished a task I would automatically head over to Facebook and Digg as a reward. If you looked around my desk there were empty cans of coke and receipts laying around. Sometimes it’d be 2pm in the afternoon and I didn’t have a single thing done.
I didn’t think I had any issues though because I was making a lot of money in spite of these bad habits.
It wasn’t until I installed a tracker that I actually saw the truth (RescueTime) and it sucked. I was on the computer for maybe 16 hours a day, but in reality I was only doing work half of that time. Go ahead and install it and see for yourself. Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t.
The ADD Generation and Dopamine
Our attention spans are getting shorter. Just look around the next time you’re having dinner and notice all the couples that rather play with their phones than talk to each other. People in offices everywhere are working in one tab with Facebook in another one. Wasn’t technology suppose to make us more productive?
This has been going on for almost a decade now and I blame it on the rise of social media and smarter phones.
There’s actually something going on biologically that explains why it’s so easy for us to be distracted. It’s because of dopamine – a chemical in our brain that associated with reward and motivation. The biggest takeaway about dopamine is that we’re actually addicted to the anticipation of the reward, rather than the reward itself.
When we hear a DING on our cell phone, we really wanna check it because we don’t know what it’s from, or who it’s from. Dopamine makes us seek the information, we get rewarded for seeking which makes us seek even more. Our scumbag brain gives you pleasure when you do these low value activities.
Now you have an idea of what’s going on, what can we do to beat it?
I’ve collected some strategies over the years that have really helped me.
One of the key concepts to understand is that focus takes time and practice to improve. If you can only focus for 15 minutes, then slowly build your way up to 17 minutes next time. The goal is progress, not perfection.
Caffeine is useful in moderation; just don’t be one of those guys that needs 10 cups of coffee to function. If you need that much caffeine to function then your body’s sleep deprived. I prefer green tea over coffee these days – much more health benefits, less calories, less caffeine, and it releases the caffeine steadily so I don’t experience crashes. I drink a cup in the morning with my breakfast.
I like to get myself a little pumped up before I start working. I listen to some rap music, review my goals, visualize a better future, watch some motivational videos on youtube, read a passage from a book, etc.
Start the Morning Off Right
How you start off you day sets the tone for the rest of the day so it’s important to have a strong and consistent morning routine.
Here’s my current one:
- Wake up / drink water
- Restroom / shower / brush teeth
- Look over the tasks / goals of the day
- Begin Work
I have a really simple rule I called the 2 by 12. My goal each morning is to finish my morning routine, and to complete 3 hours of work by 12pm. This requires me to wake up early around 7am each morning.I always meditate in the morning before I start working. I’ve been doing this daily for about half a year now and I’ve noticed huge increases in my level of concentration. It’s weightlifting for your mind basically. I’m not into that woo-woo shit, meditation is backed by science. (Evidence builds that meditation strengthens the brain)
Clear to Neutral
This means having a clean work environment and desktop. There’s nothing on my desk except my work station and water. Your work environment reflects your state of mind. Michelin level chefs don’t cook in dirty kitchens; you shouldn’t work in a dirty environment. The same goes for your desktop
After your done working for the day, make it a habit to spend a few minutes clean up.
It’s also good to really make an effort to be paperless everything. Switch all your billings to electronic (Save some trees!). Whenever I get a business card or document I’ll take a picture and save it to Evernote.
Block External Distractions
Put your phone in another room with the vibrate on. Don’t let your focus get ruined because you heard a text message come in. It’s not that important.
Co-workers can be distracting too. If you have an office, close the door when you’re working. Stuck in a cubicle? Put on some headphones and get Wired in.
Invest in some sound isolation headphones too. If there’s construction nearby or if your neighbor’s playing house music, then these are lifesavers. I use Bose QuietComforts
Block Computer Distractions
1) Exit any programs that aren’t relevant. Close down all non-work tabs in your browser.
2) Enable a website blocker. I use Self-Control for Mac. Alternatives are Leechblock for firefox, and StayFocused for Chrome. Block distracting websites: facebook, twitter, reddit, forums, porn, whatever.
3) Turn on invisible mode on your instant messaging programs, or just log off them
I really like the fullscreen feature that most programs on Mac have these days. When I’m writing or programming, having the apps take up the entire screen lets me focus on just the task at hand.
I like listening to something in the background while I work – just make sure there’s not any lyrics to distract you.
I suggest starting off with the same song everyday so that it acts as a mental trigger. When I hit play on The Social Network soundtrack, I know it’s time to get to work.
Before each work session, I always write out my objectives. Notice each one is very specific and starts off with an action verb.
“Order tickets from ATL to NYC from 8/12-8/15 at Delta.com”
“Write out 5 ads for xxxxx Campaign & translate them into Spanish at www.onehourtranslate.com”
Your brain wants simple instructions. If your objective is broad like “Build Bizopp Campaign” then you might have some analysis paralysis and start procrastinating.
Working in Timed Intervals
Work in either 50 minute sessions with 10 minute breaks, or work in 25 minute sessions with 5 minute breaks.
It wasn’t easy when I started using timers. After 10 minutes of working I was dying to check my phone or to refresh my stats. It’s years of bad habits built up that you gotta change. Just think of it like a muscle that you’re training. If you can go 10 minutes of fully concentrating before a break, then aim towards 15 minutes next time. Think of your ability of concentrate like a muscle. You can train it to be stronger.
Before I could only work for about 15 minutes before my mind starts wandering. Now I can work for hours at a time.
I personally use Pomodoro Desktop for the Mac. It sits on my menu bar for easy access & it integrates into my Calendar so I can track how many work sessions I’ve completed.
It’s healthy to take breaks, but make sure they’re productive breaks. We all know how easily a 5 minute Facebook / Reddit break can turn into 2 hours.
During my breaks I like go ahead and plan out what I’m doing the next session. I also use it as a chance to stretch a bit, use the restroom, grab a healthy snack, or get some water. For my longer breaks I’ll go outside and take a walk.
Blanking Your Mind
This is a technique I’ve been practicing. There’s so much internal dialogue in our minds and most of it doesn’t help your goals. When you’re on the treadmill, your mind is telling to go take a break. When you wanna start doing homework, it’s telling you that you can just work on it tomorrow.
That’s why when my brain’s telling me to slack off, I just kinda blank my mind. Shut up dude! I’ll close my eyes for a few seconds and take a deep breath. I don’t think. I just start working.
Action Creates Motivation
I think “motivation” as we know it is bullshit. Too many people don’t wanna work because they don’t “feel like it.” They sit around waiting for the day when they’re just going to wake up and get into the zone.
I crave achievement. My body is fucking addicted to the dopamine and positive feelings I get when I complete a task. So when I don’t feel like working, I just start working. Getting started is always the hardest part. Don’t tip toe your way into a cold pool, just jump into it.
Rewards & Punishment
If I don’t complete my tasks for the day, I don’t have a boss bitching at me. I knew so many guys that were straight A students in high school, but completely fell apart in college because they didn’t have to go to classes. The same thing happens to guys when they first become self-employed. Many people can’t handle this freedom.
One trick I use is a system of reward & punishment for myself. A bad week means I don’t go partying on the weekends, and I have to stay home on a Saturday night to make up for it. If I wanna go get a massage, I have to get some tasks done so I earn it. Rewards help motivation.
Sometimes you just can’t focus and don’t feel like working. We all have off days.
- Change your environment. I’ll just grab my laptop and head to a coffee shop for a few hours. Working at home everyday is tough because we’re social creatures. Make sure to bring a pair of noise canceling headphones. One time I couldn’t focus because the Cafe had Nickelback’s greatest hits on repeat.
- Physically recharge yourself. I take a 20 minute power nap everyday around 2pm to refresh myself. If I’m really distracted I’ll just go to the gym early or go for a run.
- Sometimes you just have too much stuff going through your mind. Take a 5 minute meditation break to clear your thoughts.
- Break the task down into the smallest component. Just tell yourself you’re going to write for just 5 minutes. After 5 minutes you’ll find that you wanna keep going.
My Checklist Before Working
- Did I Meditate?
- Is my work area clean?
- Are my tasks/goals for the day clearly defined?
- Am I “invisible” on my instant messengers?
- Is my phone in another room on vibrate?
- Are all distraction websites blocked on my laptop?
What is the goal of all this? Efficiency. Why work 8 hours on something when you can accomplish the same thing in half the time? Use that extra time to focus on what really matters to you. Go exercise, work on your passions, have an active social life, read, etc. Being able to focus hardcore and get work done is a huge competitive advantage.
There’s an internal battle going on inside of us at each moment; the lazy asshole that’s impulsive and always wants immediate gratification vs the worker that wants to fulfill your goals and ambitions.
With each decision you make, you’re empowering one side over the other. Always ask yourself, “What’s the right action?”
You know what motivates me these days. I ask myself where would I be if I procrastinated and had no motivation the past few years? I’d be in the rat race, looking forward to 2 weeks vacation a year, chilling in a cubicle for 10 hours a day, making my bosses rich, saving up so I can afford a BMW 3-series, etc. Each decision you make today directly impacts the future you have tomorrow.
Work hard and be worthy of the advantages you had in life.