Chris Behan

Focusing in an Unfocused World

The current generation is characterized by a lack of focus. Gone are the days of engrossing ourselves in the task at hand. Instead, we engage in a constant cycle of context-switching and cheap dopamine hits. We start out the day by mindlessly scrolling our social media feeds. Next up, skim read a few articles from our go-to news source. If an article looks worthy of more than a skim-read, we bookmark it for later, adding it to the backlog of 40 other articles we plan to read soon. We habitually check the tickers of $GME and bitcoin, as if their price fluctuates from minute to minute (oh wait....). We're bombarded with notifications and reminders from a plethora of applications that have become integrated into our daily routine. The modern environment doesn't just facilitate a lack of focus, it encourages it.

Focus inhibitors like Slack and Microsoft Teams have made their way into the workplace under the guise of communication and productivity enhancers. What these applications really do, is add to the already saturated pool of things fighting for our attention. Our environment has conditioned us to seek constant stimulus while reducing our attention-span to mere minutes. Many of us can no longer bear to devote our full attention to the task at hand without some sort of stimulus to ease the pain. A great example of this is listening to music while working. Music is a form of stimulus used to evade boredom and avoid the mental effort required for focusing. Most of us can agree with this statement, especially in the context of work. However, some claim that music helps them focus, to which I present the following scenario:

Imagine you're on a game show where you'll be asked a question that requires mental arithmetic. You'll have 2 minutes to come up with an answer, and if you're correct, you win $1 Million. Would you listen to music during the 2 minutes to help you "focus" or would you contemplate the question in dead-silence? Surely you would choose dead-silence, thus solidifying my point that music does not help you focus, but rather provides auditory stimulus to evade boredom. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with listening to music, I listen to ~2 hours of music a day, but I do so leisurely, not to help me focus while working. The problem is that we've become accustomed to constant distractions and stimulus, making it impossible to attain a state of focus, and consequently inhibiting our productivity.

So what's the solution? How can one attain focus in an environment that encourages anything but? Should we just concede, sell all of our belongings and move to a remote cabin in the woods? That's one solution, however, I believe there's a less drastic compromise.

Here are 5 habits I've developed to help me focus in an unfocused world:

1. Get rid of your damn phone

First things first, get rid of your damn phone. Put it in a different room, or better yet, a different building. Prior to Covid, when I still went to the office for work every day, I used to just leave my phone at home. Man oh man was this ever great for productivity. I didn't give myself the option to check my phone and splurge on some cheap-dopamine. Unfortunately, in the WFH era, I can't easily leave my phone in another building. But I can do the next best thing, leave it in a separate room, behind closed doors. I've found that even having my phone in sight makes entering a state of focus more difficult. A 2017 study from the University of Texas at Austin supports this claim. Environment is underrated, ruthlessly remove distractions and temptations from your office space, keep your phone in a different room while working.

2. Brown Noise

This is a simple habit I've been practicing for a few years now, and I can't recommend it enough. Every day at work, when not in a call, I listen to brown noise on a continuous loop. It helps to eliminate auditory distractions and focus on the task at hand. I think I've also subconsciously associated the sound of brown noise with work and entering into a productive state. So when I start the brown noise, my mind knows it's time to buckle down and get to work. Here's the specific track I listen to: Soft Brown Noise

3. Must-complete list

Focus is best accompanied by intent. I start my day by writing down a list of 1-3 tasks that I must complete for the day. I write the tasks down in the past-tense, as if they are already done, to further emphasize to myself that their completion is non-negotiable. I will not end my day until every task on the list is complete. This practice has helped me to eliminate shallow "busy work" where I would constantly context-switch between my text-editor, emails, Slack, meetings, and design documents. If your goal is to give yourself the illusion of productivity, constant context-switching is great! However, Real productivity is the result of clearly defined tasks that you see through to completion. If you find yourself mindlessly switching through applications with no clear goal in mind, take a step back and write down a list of clearly defined tasks. If you're still wandering despite having a task list, you probably made the tasks too general. Try breaking them down into fine-grained deliverables. For example:

"Add cart functionality" might be broken down into:

  • Implement GET method for /Cart endpoint to retrieve items in the customer's cart.
  • Implement POST method for /Cart endpoint to add items to the customer's cart.
  • Write integration tests for /Cart endpoint.
  • Consume /Cart endpoint from front-end.

It's incredible how much more effective you can be by simply breaking down tasks into digestible components. Another bonus of the "must-complete list" is that you can use it to give clear and concise stand-up updates.

4. Exercise + Cold

Focus is a finite resource that diminishes over time. Fortunately, it can also be replenished through breaks, and certain breaks increase how much it's replenished. Nothing revitalizes focus and obliterates that 2 O'clock feeling like some hard exercise followed by a cold shower. Plus, now that your working from home, it's easy to allocate 45 minutes every day to implement this practice. My go-to is a hard 35 minutes on the spin bike followed by an ice-cold shower. I usually do this when I start to notice my focus is diminishing. Shortly after I feel refreshed and ready to put in some deep work.

5. Coffee

I'm a huge advocate of coffee, both for the taste and the mental effects. And contrary to popular belief, coffee is good for you, especially black coffee. I like to start my day with a large cup of black coffee and re-up every 2 hours until about 2 pm. Sometimes I feel a little too relaxed after my exercise + cold, at which point I'll down another cup of Joe to offset the fatigue. Everyone's different, but I drink between 4-6 cups of coffee a day and feel great.

Have a habit that helps you focus? I'd love to hear about it! Shoot me an email at behan at hey dot com.


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