Dear Implied Reader:
You are working in many jobs - whether it’s paid or voluntary. And, you have other full-time responsibilities: Pets, kids, or something similar. You call yourself a knowledge worker because your work revolves around what you know and how you use it. And, you want to do something better - the book, the art, the work.
If this is you, being able to focus is one of the most important skills for you as a knowledge craftsman. Because focus makes you do the “real work”. The real work is not emails, admin stuff, or constant noise. It’s the work that matters. It’s the work that carries further. It’s the work that you care about.
I created this e-zine for people like us- people who care enough to create something. And it’s not a step-by-step guide. There are no guaranteed results. No recipes but models. Let me clarify.
I am a recovering economist. We work with models. Models simplify reality by focusing on a specific angle. This way, you can see and remember things better. Remember the lung sculpture in your doctor’s office? It doesn’t show all the details about it but it helps you get what you need to know.
This is what you find in this book: Models to start, maintain and improve your focus.
A word of caution: You, the implied reader, need to choose which applies to your current initiative. See, that’s the other thing with models. They are specific. You need to select the one that works in that case.
You see many models of the same house: HVAC, interior design, and insulation structure. If you try to use interior models for the HVAC system, you face problems. There’s no universal model to apply to all pursuits or understanding the world. Models help only when used in the right context. The key is to pick.
Design your environment to focus on the real work.
3 Pillars of Focus
Clyde Beatty was a professional lion tamer. He used to hold a chair in front of the lion’s face and the lion would try to focus all four legs of the chair at the same time. So the lion would get confused. With too many options ahead, the lion gets frozen and waits - no attack.
Today, we all feel like the lion - stuck on our chair, looking at a few screens - paralyzed. We either end up binge content consumption or doing “busy work” - the tasks that feel like work - all the time.
Whether you’re an athlete, artist, student or the founder of a large company, your ability to focus defines your future. At a make-it-or-break-it level. The good news is that it’s learnable.
Here’s what Haruki Murakami says (he runs the same marathon for 2 decades):
“If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus — the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value. Fortunately [sustaining focus for a long period of time] can be acquired and sharpened through training.”
All you need is to build 3 pillars:
Set a clear goal with priorities and limits Build capacity to complete the work: Internal triggers and solutions Deal with distractions effectively. - External triggers and solutions
1. Clear Goal
An eagle can lock on a small prey within the two miles range. With a sight that’s 8 times better than humans, it can quickly focus, and “zoom” in on their prey. They can see more color spectrum than us as well. Focus is survival for them. Without it, they can’t survive.
Having a clear goal has the same effect for work. It locks you in. A recent study found a more clear goal helps you focus better and get in the flow quicker.
1.1. Quitting Strategically
Your first step is to clear the desk in your head. Let’s set the stage. The real work, the impact you want to make requires your best effort. It can take time, courage and perseverance. These are all scarce resources. Your job is to allocate your resources wisely:
Quit from low value or high consuming pursuits, Invest that into something more meaningful and doable for you.
This is strategic quitting.
As a method, you can write 10 career goals. These are the things that you want to do in 1 quarter to a year or two. Now, note your limits.
As an example, your energy limits you. You can only do so much in a day. We already introduced the time constraint. But for example, your skillset and your financial resources define some borders, too. This is your “strategic budget”.
Now, it’s time to put all these in play and make some decisions. But we need to deal with our cognitive biases and other challenges when doing that.
Cognitive biases are systematic errors in our thinking which affect our judgment:
Emotional decision-making The “loudest thought in your room”,
Using a prioritization framework helps us get over these hurdles and make objective decisions.
1.2. VICI Score Prioritization Framework
Enter VICI. I modified the RICE framework. RICE is a prioritization framework. Intercom developed it and many software companies use it to choose their priorities.
VICI means Value, Impact, Certainty and Investment.
On the table below, write your goals to the left column.
Value - Your expected return on investment
In this section, you look for how much value you gain if you work on this goal. The value is subjective for you. It can be financial, intellectual, social, or emotional. But we need to quantify it so you can make an objective judgement.
VALUE SCORE SCALE
Let’s add a scale for your value scoring.
5 - Immense
4 - Good
3 - Ok
2 - Low
1 - Minimum
How much will you benefit from this goal in a given timeframe (1 quarter, 1 year etc)? Attach a number to it and move on to the next column: Impact.
There are two levels of impact you need to look at: Productivity and externalities - yes, economics -.
If you do this task, how will it affect your overall productivity? In other words, will it increase your output or income per hour?
Externalities are their effect on other priorities. Considering you do this project, will it affect your other projects positively or negatively?
Productivity + Externality / 2
For finding the impact, use the scale here for both productivity and externalities.
3 - massive
2 - high
1 - medium
0.5 - low
0.25 - minimum impact
Economics deals with decision-making under uncertainty. From a financial perspective, everything we do has a level of uncertainty in it. In this case, your career decisions. To have a clear picture, we look for how certain/ confident you are to get this done.
Based on your knowledge of the task and your assets such as your money, skills and network, how certain are you? Will it fly?
If you have data, or reliable experience on the matter then you can call it high confidence.
Effort - The time, money and skills you invest in
The effort is the negative coefficient because you have limited resources. When thinking of the effort, think about how much time, capital and network this goal requires.
If you need to learn a new skill, that means time.
If you need to find more money to fund it, yes, that means time.
And, finally, doing the actual thing requires time.
Since this is difficult to estimate, let’s use a different metric.
Use a scale from 1-10, 10 being the highest effort and 1 being the lowest.
Now finally you calculate the VICI SCORE. Here’s the formula:
2. Capacity Building: Internal Triggers and Solutions
Internal triggers are the core cause of distraction. Boredom, anxiety, uncertainty and procrastination are the main internal triggers. Because each distraction - internal or external - starts with internal triggers. For example, a 2020 study shows the no.1 reason for social media usage is to ease boredom. Many start to scroll because of financial stress and anxiety. The same is true for constant news-checking, binge-watching or eating.
There are two ways you can deal with these triggers: Fix the source or learn to cope with it.
And, you can do them at the same time. In this section, you find some strategies to develop the inner foundation for focus.
Do Progressive Cognitive Overload
2.1. Surf the Urge
Alan Marlatt, PhD, developed this technique for relapse prevention in substance use problems. It teaches you how to deal with habitual responses.
When we get bored, we take out the phone and open a certain app or a site. Almost automatically. This is an example of habitual response. Research shows that urge surfing may not only change the responses to an urge but also reduces the urges in time.
What exactly is an urge?
Thinking about urges like waves. They come in the form of thoughts. They rise in intensity, peak, and eventually crash. Often, you can feel these thoughts as physical sensations in the body. Our habitual response is to take almost automatic action after we feel the urge.
A Quick Guide to Urge Surfing
Stop for a moment and think about a time that you got distracted recently. As you think of, stay in touch with the sensations arising. Now you can use your breath to surf the urge. Your breath is your surfboard. Observe your breath as you ride out each wave. This is it!
Urges take 20-30 minutes, if not intervened. With urge surfing, this takes shorter. But it’s important to do this with curiosity, not contempt. You can feel the distraction as a threat ( ie ‘I can’t stand this, I need to go now’). This would strengthen the urge. Instead, use your curiosity to observe without judging.
How to Surf Urges ⭐
Pay attention to these when you are about to get distracted: What sensations do you have in your body? Is it pressure, tingling, warming or cooling? How much space do these sensations take up in this place of your body? If it’s a color, describe the color. Bring your attention to your breath.
Notice your breath for the next 1-2 minutes. Some people focus on an area where they feel the breath most (e.g., the abdomen). Others say phrases like ‘breathe in’ as they inhale and ‘breathe out’ when exhaled.
Move your attention to where you feel the urge
Observe what sensations arise. If it gets overwhelming, return back to the breathing. You can send your breath to the body parts feeling the urge (e.g. your shoulders).
Thank yourself at the end
After you ride out the distraction, take a moment to acknowledge your efforts. As you practice this more, you get more comfortable with it.
Watch the Follow-Along Video
If you prefer to follow through with a video, watch and apply to Dr. Padraic Dunne’s session, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences. video.
If you are not comfortable with following your breath, you can use writing. Simply follow along the steps by writing.
10-Minute Future Deal
When you face an urge to watch something or answer an email, make an agreement to do it 10 minutes later. If we still want to perform the action after ten minutes of urge surfing, we’re free to do it; but that’s rarely the case.
2.2. Get Back On Track: Micro Resilience
Work life is unpredictable. You may lose your business, or your job, or take a serious hit. This is our reality. But some of us manage to get back on track faster than others. Resilience is one of the key factors to do that - fast get-back on track. Resilience ‘is your capacity to cope effectively with past and present adversity.’ Researchers find 3 foundations for resilience: Feelings of security, positive emotions and purpose in life. For the purposes of this e-zine, we focus on the 3rd foundation: Your purpose. Remember why you do what you do.
Micro-resilience is improving your ability to get back to work after unexpected distractions. Unexpected distractions can be work or personal urgencies. You can't control them. They happen. Your micro-resilience skills help you punch the card for that day.
University of Queensland (2018) researchers found that when we want to focus on something, our brain works with us. It filters out distractions. It works the other way around, too. This study (2017) shows that if you increase your focus on something, you want it even more. So you are in the driver seat. When you get distracted, remind yourself why you do what you do. Use the environmental cues. Take a few deep breaths. And get back to work.
Instead of judging yourself or putting the blame on things that you can’t control, take a look at your end goal, the cue. What you do today adds a step towards the place you want to reach. Imagine you do this everyday and think about how your futureself feels.
There’s no one way to solve an issue. If the distraction at hand doesn’t go away with current strategies, try other things. Take shorter breaks, weave in high intensity workouts to breaks, drink more water.
2.3. Progressive Overload Principle
An athlete increases their work capacity, strength and conditioning in a systematic way by using the progressive overload principle. Progressive overload suggests progressively adding greater-than-normal demands on the body. This prompts the body to adapt to the new exercise. Without overload, there’s no adaptation.
On cognitive performance, a recent neuroscience study (2016) found that higher cognitive load increases focused-attention and decreases distractibility. Add challenging tasks to your work. It helps you drop, automate or delegate low-value tasks.
In other words, both in athletic and cognitive performance, challenging tasks increases focus. So here is the summary:
Improve your focus capacity by increasing the load systematically. Increase the time, solve harder problems, and read more complex texts.
How to do Progressive Cognitive Overload
1. Do deliberate practice ⭐
Naive practice is doing or playing something w/o a goal to improve. It's fun, natural and necessary. You accumulate experience. But deliberate practice is different. Deliberate practice happens when you want to change a specific aspect of your skill and work on it.
Since deliberate practice is challenging, it fosters you to focus.
Angela Duckworth explains deliberate practice as “a focused, typically planned training activity designed to improve some aspects of performance.” In other words,
First you measure where you are on a task. Then, deconstruct it into smaller skills. Dedicate your focused effort to improve a specific part of that skill by getting immediate feedback, You repeat the process until improving the challenging areas.
If you are an entrepreneur, the key is to identify something specific that you can actually improve. As an example, you make many presentations and proposals. The question is how you improve that. You invest time, workout the issues that might come up or questions that might be asked. And then you can make presentations in front of a video camera so you can make corrections on your presentation. As you improve that aspect, integrate it to your regular performance.
A Quick Guide to Deliberate Practice
Identify something that you can do better and then focus the training on improving that aspect with fast feedback, rinse and repeat and integrate , find the area to improve, work on it with full attention, receive and apply immediate feedback, rinse and repeat.
Watch How to do Deliberate Practice
Anders Ericsson, the researcher who coined the term “Deliberate Practice” explains how it works with an example in this one minute video. (and .)
2. Show your work for feedback
The fast feedback loop is a part of the deliberate practice but it deserves more attention. We care about social media because we get instant feedback. It's the likes, shares, and comments. It's the same for gaming. This time we get points, tools, and achievements. In summary, we engage more when we receive responses.
The key is to get relevant responses. The easy way to do this is to create something and share it with relevant people. If you write, send it to an editor - instead of your mom. That feedback works better as it is more targeted. If you shoot a video, you share it with your friend who is skilled at it. You can always try online platforms and your blog to get feedback. If you work in a solitary area like coding or math, the feedback is already built-in. When you make a mistake, it doesn’t work. Find a feedback loop and start working on it.
3. Measure and improve
Deadlines make decisions. Having deadlines is a recurring concept of this e-zine because it’s crucial to get the real work done. Deadlines keep you focused but also provide an objective evaluation of your performance. When you start out, record where you are. How long can you keep yourself focused? 15 minutes. Good. Next time aim for 20 mins and as you reach a substantial length, continue to improve the content. Start working on a bit more complex tasks and move on.
4. Play the intense focus game
Complexity and boredom are focus killers. Timed practices help you with that. If you have to do a boring task - cleaning etc - Ask yourself: “How can I do this insanely well?” First, it starts to feel like a game. Secondly, you use this as an opportunity to train yourself to focus in the face of adversity. And, finally, you experience how to get things done even if you don’t want to. This is critical. Because there are many “boring” tasks along the way through the dip.
5. Practice the intentional learning mindset
There’s not much formal learning after school years. But, this fast-changing world requires learning as a crucial skill. And, you can’t learn some skills by courses - you need to experience them. Fortunately, every day offers opportunities to learn them. But only if you intentionally treat them as learning opportunities. While intentional learners embrace their need to learn, for them learning is not a separate stream of work or an extra effort. Instead, learning is the mode and mindset in which you do things all the time. Although you live the same day as others, your day becomes your library. Each situation—every experience, conversation, meeting, and deliverable— is an opportunity to develop and grow. This is also true for students. Learners approaching challenges as a chance to improve their ability have higher resilience. They keep on getting higher grades. You can do it for work, too.
Video: What Paganini Knew - Deliberate Practice
Anders Ericsson was always taught that if he worked hard enough, he could become anything. His father told him the story of Paganini, a master violinist, and the surprising twist on how he achieved the seemingly impossible
3. Ability to Deal with Distraction: External Triggers and Solutions
Mary Sommerville was a Scottish scientist, writer and polymath. She was the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society with Caroline Herschel. She accomplished many milestones in physics, math and science. And at the same time, she was raising kids and working as a maths tutor.
You can imagine the level of distraction with a household to run, and doing science as a woman in the late 1700’s. She was very good at focusing and refocusing.
Mary Somerville can be an outlier but there are lessons to learn from her. We have the capacity to focus on things even in short bursts. We can design our work environment to help us. Duke University researchers find that the brain can form links between environmental cues, and rapid focus.
In the following, you will find strategies to increase your focus in the face of distractions.
3.1. Recalibrate your workspace
Where, when and how you work matters. The physical space affects the mental state and vice versa. By redesigning your environment, you can get in the flow faster and maintain it longer.
Strategies to environment design
1. Work in a dedicated place
This doesn’t have to be a room. Some of us don’t have that option. It can be a corner of a room. That may not be possible either. If that’s the case, you switch the time you work to a late night or an early morning. If possible,book a room in your local library or go to a coffee shop.The key is having a one place/ time specific for real work.
2. Noise is no friend
You may read elsewhere that you work with chatter or white noise around you. It’s an exception. But for the rest of us, noise doesn't work. Research shows that noise drains our attention.even if you can focus, the noise drains it gradually. So it’s weaker and shorter. If you have no choice, try to keep it as low as possible.
3. Set Boundaries
By setting limits to your access and access to yourself, you can ease your way to focus.
Close the door, put on your headphones (no-music if possible) Move away from distractions - ie kitchen,phone, tv, arcade rooms etc- as much as possible. Keep all the required tools in reach and charge them beforehand- if applicable. Prepare your coffee, water and snacks in place if needed. This is also part of the ritual. Have an open space - if applicable- so you can exercise in breaks.
Close all unrelated to browsers, emails, notifications and apps.And open up 3 things:
Online timer - This gives you a realistic perspective on how much you really work. Only start when you start the actual work - not the prep part. Also, pause it whenever you leave the task and restart when you come back. Calendar - Keep your calendar handy and track where you are with what you actually planned for. This way you can make the adjustments. All necessary files - Keep all needed files and tools handy so you don’t need to go online or elsewhere.
Rituals help you get in the mood. If you have an established routine, you can attach your real work sessions to it. For example, if you drink coffee and read, then you can attach your writing afterward. Even for a short period of time. If you meditate and write, you can probably add your research work after this. One rule of thumb is you need to keep it simple. If your ritual is too demanding.
Perhaps you don’t have a routine or enough time afterward, you can create nudges.
Enter the nudge ⭐
Nudge, coined by , means a small feature in the environment that gets your attention and alters your behavior. You can design and structure your environment in ways that make it easier for you to focus more and make the right choices and reach long term goals.
How to add nudges
Researchers suggest 4 ways of self-nudging tools
Use reminders and prompts
Cues can trigger a constructive thinking process. People carry religious and romantic garments for thousands of years. The more you see it is the more it becomes a part of your reality. Instead add reminders like notes, symbols, wallpapers, and little garments to remind you why you do what you do. Whenever you are distracted, this environmental cue helps you get back on track.
Choose a different framing
If the choices are jogging and not jogging, change it to health and sickness at older ages. Use the same thing for work. If the choices are focus or distractions, change it to sustainable success or constant stress.
Make choosing the bad choices harder
Before you start to work, close all unrelated browsers, put your phone out of sight and out of touch. Delete the apps from your phone and log out from all devices before the real work sessions so it becomes less convenient.
Use social pressure to increase accountability
Make a public commitment or get into a friendly competition based on deadlines or other measurements.
Video: Watch how nudges can work for you
If you need a video intro, .
And if you want to dig deep on how to take risks, .
3.2. Start Timeboxing
Like your environment, you can design your time, too. In this section, you find strategies on how to optimize your time.
Dump the to-do list, move to calendar: Schedule everything with timeboxes
To-do lists have 4 major flaws:
We get overwhelmed with too many choices. We fall prey to doing simple tasks for the feeling of accomplishment. (Because we are hard-wired to choose the least resistant way- UCL London study) We don’t spare time for important-but-not-urgent tasks. We don’t include the scarcity into the process.
Calendars, on the other hand, revolve around our no.1 scarce resource, time. Thus, using a calendar helps you create a more realistic plan while prompting more strategic thinking.
Enter Time Boxing: Schedule everything ⭐
Research finds out the most effective productivity strategy is time-boxing among the 100. Timeboxing is allocating a fixed time period to each activity.
It helps you with 2 things:
Take control of your workday: You decide what to do and when to do it Improve your output: Block distraction for that period and get done.
Investors like Marc Andreseen use timeboxing. Yes, you schedule the downtime, too.
When we do important things, we struggle with two behavioral problems: Student Syndrome and Parkinson’s Law.
Student Syndrome: We tend not to start a task until the last possible moment before the deadline. This leaves no room for safety margins, creates extra pressure and stress.
Parkinson’s Law : This law says that your work expands to the fill the time until the deadline. In other words, even if the job can be done in 3 hours, if the allocated time is 5 hours, we finish it in 5 hours.
So even if you don’t have the Student Syndrome, and start the task as soon as you can, you still finish at the last minute. Timeboxing solves both problems.
How to do timeboxing
Give the task the shortest time possible: Try not to extend time even if the task is not complete. Stop when the time is up.
Each box has to work: For each time slot there’s a clear goal. Think of it as a challenge. No multitasking allowed. If the task is finishing emails of the day in 30 mins, inherently you can multitask for that particular slot.
Reflect on the work: Once the day is over check your milestones. Did you complete the task in that time slot? If not, How can you redesign that time slot to reach the goal?
Change your speed to experiment Again, approach this as a challenge and gamify it a bit more. Can you complete the task in 2 time slots instead of 4? Experiment and find your pace.
3.3. Tame your email
Adobe made a pre-pandemic survey. Even before the pandemic, we spend 5 hours checking email ( 3 hours for work, 2 hours for personal). Considering remote work increased email interaction, we spend even more than this now.
Now add this onto it: It takes 23 minutes to get back on track after being distracted, based on UCI Study. The cost is speed and stress. 5+hours of email - at least 50% distractions - and 23 minutes to get back on track. You do the math on how much time left to focus on what matters on a day (not just work day).
How to tame your email
Check your emails twice a day: One hour later you start to work and one hour before you stop working. Inform critical people that they can always reach you from your phone if you are needed.
No emails on weekends or after hours: Use autoresponders. Use weekends to create, have fun and explore things.
Delete email apps from your phone: Once the app is deleted, you make it harder to reach out.
Email is better than a call, A call is better than a meeting - Everyone’s time is valuable. Respect that and demand the same.
Create 3 folders: Action, Read and Sort. Get action and read emails to your workflow. Sort emails by project.
3.4. Build an Agile Schedule
If you aim for the perfect schedule, it gets frustrating. Most of us have no full control over our work schedule. There are calls we need to attend, or kids to care or else. So instead of building a perfect structure, aim for an agile one.
Set the focus sessions first
Focus session is 20 minutes to 2 hours timeblock. Set them first and then try to add other things around it. Use the dead hours if your day gets busy at certain hours. The important point for setting focus sessions, it shows the priority.
Chaos is what happens when you get an unexpected email, call, feeling or thought. It’s inevitable if you’re not living in a cabin. Plan for it. Schedule an hour or so to deal with chaos When done, get back to work. This alone, getting back to work skill, has immense value.
Welcome dynamic scheduling
Your daily schedule is a living thing- it’s not written in stone. When things happen, get back on it and reschedule the time left. We approach our schedules like a set-it-and-forget-it mechanism. But in reality, it’s more fluid. We have more control over it if we want to. Keep it handy and adjust it whenever possible.
Keep a simple measure
For each focus session, check the box. By the end of the day or the week, check back how you did. This gives you a realistic look of what you did in a tangible way. So you can revise it for the better. When measuring your own performance, honesty is the key. The more honest you get with yourself is the more you know where you actually are and how you can move forward.
Set Meeting Days
Again, you may not have full control over your schedule but when you have an option, try to get all the meetings in 1 or 2 days. You can also try to schedule them for afternoons. The de facto meeting time is 1 hour. But most meetings can be done in 30 mins. Aim for 30 mins with a specific agenda.
Great work! Now it’s time to get to work. This e-zine gives you everything you need to start. Keep it simple and start today:
Select 1 or 2 strategies to develop your inner capacity Choose 1 or 2 ways to deal with distraction.