30-ish Focusing Tips

What are obvious low hanging fruit for marginal gains on focus time

A friend of mine asked me, and I figured I might as well see how many points I could come up with and commit them to the public record.

Meta (Preliminary)

  • Different things work for different people. If something's not working, stop. On the other hand, one day of experimenting with a weird focusing trick will cost you at most one day's worth of work, and the potential upsides are huge.
  • Seriously: if you've got (say) 80,000 hours of career left, you should be willing to spend almost 8 hours on something with a 1% chance of making you 1% faster. And if you only have 40,000 hours left, well, only try for 4 hours.
  • The best way to get more focused working time is to notice what specifically is making it harder for you specifically to work, and fix it.
  • The general theme of a lot of this advice is 'find a thing you ordinarily have to think about while you work, and find a way to not have to think about it, probably by pushing the responsibility onto something external'. If you can see other places to apply this, do, and then tell me.

Time

  • My experience is, you aren't going to be able to work at your peak for more than about four hours on any given day, five if you're lucky. It's better to make sure those peak hours are really good than to get mad at yourself for not doing more peak work at other times.
  • Therefore, anything that doesn't require a lot of focus, save for off-peak time: organisation, emails, whatever. There's a lot you can do to make the peak hours better, and a lot you shouldn't waste peak hours on if you have better things to do. Like reading lists on how to focus better. It'll still be here later.
  • You also aren't going to be able to work with that much focus for more than about 25 minutes at a time without taking a break. If you haven't tried pomodoros, try pomodoros.
  • Even if you despise pomodoros, you should make sure that at least every half-hour you move your body, look at something far away, and drink some water. Set an alarm if you need to, or just do it whenever you see the time has ticked past a half hour.
  • It's really hard to guess how long it will take to do stuff. So, while it's good to schedule, and to keep a tight schedule, it's also worth putting some time in that schedule for finishing things that overran.
  • If you're really struggling to focus, take a break. Getting frustrated won't help you focus any time soon, but taking a break will.

Space

  • Nothing should be aching or sore. Get something you can sit comfortably on for a while, get your back straight, get your screen somewhere you're not craning your neck, and your keyboard somewhere you can rest your hands. Other people have written better and more thorough guides on ergonomics if you're curious, but some of this is really basic.
  • Anything you might need, that you'd otherwise get up to go get, you should put within arm's reach. Water, a notepad, whatever. If you go up to get something and it breaks your focus, notice, and make sure you don't have to go get it again.
  • If you keep getting distracted by your phone, consider getting a containment chamber that you can lock it in.
  • Your body has specific, predictable environment requirements. Temperature, CO2 level, hydration, blood sugar, these can all be regulated. So: wear a jumper, open a window, drink some water, and make sure you're not starving.
  • Something about being watched makes us more responsible. If you can find people that aren't going to distract you, working alongside them keeps you accountable. If it's over zoom you can mute them. In a pinch, placebo-ing yourself with a huge fake pair of eyes might also help.
  • They'll also notice if you're not getting up from your desk, or drinking water. Drink water and move sometimes, seriously.

Planning

  • Make a checklist of what you need to do. That way, when you finish a task, you don't have to think about what to do next, you just know. Also you get the raw thrill of ticking things off.
  • (Ideally, if you know what resources you'll need at each stage, put them in the checklist. Bullet points within bullet points...)
  • For 40 hours of work, 20 minutes is <1%, so if you think 20 minutes of planning will make you at least 1% better at the rest (which it probably will), then you should do it. And if it's 80 hours, you should be willing to spend twice as long planning for the same gain.
  • If you've got to do several things in parallel, or you're coordinating with a bunch of people, try a kanban. It's a very natural way of organising clusters of tasks that you expect will all move through different levels of completion at different times. I use notion and trello depending on what it's for.
  • Calendars are also great. Trying to remember what you said you'd do on a given day, where you need to be, who you're going to see, it's just not worth the hassle when you can write it down.
  • If you keep having to remember something, write it down. What to do next, the name of that one thing, what that one rule you have to follow is... just write it down.
  • Similarly, if you look something up more than once, ask yourself "am I going to look this up again any time soon?" and if the answer is yes, just write it down somewhere.

Computer

  • Learn to touch type. Better yet, learn Dvorak.
  • Better even yet, learn keyboard shortcuts. Better still, make your own keyboard shortcuts.
  • Try raising your mouse sensitivity. In general, try different settings: brightness, display size, colour temperature, whatever. You can always go back if you don't like them, but until you try them you don't know what you're missing.
  • If you keep having to flick between tabs, or you start squishing several windows onto the page, get an external monitor.
  • There's an optimum layout for easy reading: 2x line space, about 70 characters per line. Also, not too small. If you're going to read a whole bunch of stuff on a screen it's probably worth copying it into a text editor and changing the settings to something more appropriate.
  • Get yourself a tab manager. I use workona. Crucially, when I stop working, I can get rid of all those tabs and go goof off. When I'm done goofing off I can seamlessly jump back into the focusing tab. I can have a couple for different things too.
  • Organising files takes time now and saves time later. If you're going to have to search through something several times, consider organising it. Otherwise, don't bother. Same for bookshelves.

Lifestyle

  • Sometimes we try to solve specific problems because we don't want to acknowledge general problems. There's a bunch of basic lifestyle changes which will probably make your life better in many ways, which happen to include 'better focusing'.
  • Sleep a reasonable amount. Yes, you can bag an extra hour of work at 2am, but you're defecting against your future self. If you want to sleep at weird times then go for it, but do actually sleep. The exception here, sometimes, is creative work, where inspiration can be random, but even then it's not sustainable.
  • Go outside. Get some sun. Try vitamin D supplements, and if you're vegetarian or vegan, look into stuff like vitamin B12
  • If you think you might benefit from therapy, get therapy. It's ok to go to therapy.
  • Try sports. At the very least, get your heart rate up for a bit once a day. The absolute fallback is walking up and down a flight of stairs until you get out of breath.
  • Try meditation and yoga and going to the gym and all that stuff. Might not work, but if it does, it's worth a few hours to find out.

Further Reading

Meta (Concluding)

  • Consistent work always wins in the long run. Better to find something that works for you every day than something that'll burn you out.
  • Some days you just get less done. Sometimes something distracts you, or you had a rough night. Sometimes there isn't a reason. It's fine, it happens. The important thing is not to get so het up about not getting enough done today that you ruin tomorrow's work as well.
  • It doesn't matter how focused you are until you're focusing on the right thing. If you're struggling to motivate yourself, double check this is really what you ought to be doing
  • If you get stuck on a problem, ask for help with the problem. If you get stuck again and again in the same way, ask for help on how to not get stuck
  • Pareto rules in all domains: 80% of the results of your work will come from 20% of the work. You can game this a little bit, but not too much.
  • Don't do lots of gratuitous stuff to make yourself feel like you're focusing hard as a substitute for actually focusing and getting work done.
  • If you think I've missed something, let me know!

H/t Gavin, Neel, Evie, and Alex, for various advice and suggestions.

Show Comments