Do you feel like everyone is just hitting you with productivity tips all the time?
Every day there’s some new application or technique out which supposedly wonders for someone. This is not necessarily bad, but the downside is that many people juggle between different productivity systems, and try to absorb as many new habits as possible.
After a while, they are confused because they just cluttered themselves with too much stuff.
At least that’s what happened to me. That’s why I decided I had to make a framework so that I can have a structure and a guideline to try and experiment with various ways to improve my focus.
Why would I want to increase my focus?
Because having a strong focus is key to not only better productivity but ultimately happiness and fulfillment. That statement is true for both long-term and short-term focus, but in this post, I’m going to talk about the short-term, cognitive focus.
So this is not a productivity system per se. Nor this is revolutionary idea either, the concepts here are familiar to all of us.
The framework consists of simple rules on how to approach your working hours and three sections which act as a foundation and support for your focus.
The sections are nutrition, habits, and systems.
The focus window
First, let us remind ourselves how people usually work. Whether you are self-employed or not, it doesn’t matter. Normally when you’re working, you may be multitasking, such as checking your E-mail every fifteen minutes during your work. Some people live under the delusion that this is what being productive is. You switch your tasks multiple times per day and trick yourself thinking that you get loads of work done.
Others recognize that their multitasking habit is somewhat slowing their productivity, but they don’t acknowledge the whole destructive effect of it.
Some people are in an office, where there are so many distractions that as much as they fully recognize the effect of not being able to focus, they don’t know how to escape the situation — the distractions are too many.
The problem is that we often have different tasks during the day, some of them are more important than others. Generally, we give little thought on how we do these tasks and in what order. We just tackle our to-do list aimlessly. On top of that, we check our email every fifteen minutes or worse yet, get notified of new email automatically.
Instead, you should find out what your most important tasks are, and allocate a separate time window for them, driving all of your effort and energy into this time window. Let’s call this time window your focus window.
How you prioritize work to your Focus window is up to you, but usually it’s best to use it for your most demanding work. If you have read Cal Newport’s Deep work, then you can view your focus window as a timeframe where you do deep work.
What tasks should you assign to your focus window?
The focus window is meant for the tasks that demand the most out from your abilities. So checking out your email does not usually meet this requirement. To identify the tasks that you should assign to your focus window, you may think of the following:
- Cognitively demanding tasks
- High in creation to consumption ratio
- Tasks that have the greatest return on investment
- Tasks that require your special knowledge (you can’t delegate them)
- Tasks high in the Eisenhower’s matrix
- Proactive tasks
- Tasks that progress your goals
So if you summarize this list, the tasks that you should really focus on are challenging creative tasks which are important to you because they progress your goals. You do these tasks proactively, and you are the only one who can do them.
The opposite could mean trivial urgent tasks that are not important and do not progress your goals. The only reason you must do them is because you are reacting to something, and they could be delegated.
So the catch is that you treat the important tasks differently from those you deem trivial. You allocate your limited willpower and focus capabilities so that those important tasks get the most out from your mental resources. This, in essence, means putting tasks to your focus window.
The enemies of focus window
The enemies of your focus window are many. One of the most common enemy you are going to find — which will often shatter your focus window completely — are distractions. There are a lot of distractions out there today, some of them are external, and others are internal. Removing external distractions is relatively easy, such as a blazing TV, other people, Facebook, etc.
You can minimize and remove those distractions by force if you have to.
On the other hand, removing your internal distractions isn’t so straightforward. Your mind tries to keep you busy with trivial things, and it can make you anxious, stressed, too excited, apathetic, unmotivated — you name it. Removing the distractions from your mind should be high on your priorities.
Perhaps the most common distraction from your mind comes from our human tendency to conserve energy. This also means that we are prone to save our mental energy. You can notice this when doing cognitively demanding work, and your mind tries to sway you away from the task giving you all sorts of clever rationalisations, like: ‘Hey, I think I need to watch a documentary instead of doing this, because the documentary is talking about this subject and I could be missing some valuable information.’
Make no mistake. The most dangerous enemy is yourself.
We can fight these urges with increased introspection which of course is a skill that you should also develop and hone.
Measuring your output
The essence of this system is that you do self-experimentation, track your progression, and make corrections if necessary. This means that it’s vital that you log your time spent in the focus window.
You can do this with pen and paper, Pomodoro application, or perhaps by using Rescuetime.
Using sections to empower your focus window
After you’ve created yourself a focus window you need to start to put your nutrition, habits, and systems in order, preferably starting with your nutrition, then moving on to habits, and finally to systems. Doing them in that order is not mandatory, but since bad nutrition and habits affect everything else, it’s best to start with the foundation before tinkering with different systems.
I’m going to talk about the sections more below, but in the meantime, let’s look at an example of the aforementioned empowering.
Let’s say you have a focus window of two hours per day, where you do all of your writing. You’ve created yourself an environment with no distractions, stashing away your phone, maybe even blocking access to the internet.
Nice, you have your focus window in check, but what about the sections?
With proper nutrition, you most certainly boost your focus continuously, but you could also time it so that you take certain supplements before your focus window. Maybe you’ve experienced cognitive benefits working fasted, so you don’t eat anything before and during your focus window. This way you avoid the blood sugar crash during your prime time. The possibilities are endless.
You do the same with habits. You’ve noticed that when you meditate for fifteen minutes before you start writing, you can shut down your analytical pre-frontal cortex, and engage more easily into a flow state.
Finally, you can apply systems to help you with your workflow. It can mean anything from a productivity system, like Pomodoro, or an application on your computer, like Focus Writer which you may use for all of your writing to create yourself a distraction free environment.
In short, you use all three sections to get the most out from your focus window. Let’s take a closer look at these sections.
This is probably the most important factor for your ability to focus, and the importance of it only rises with age. If you don’t eat well, you can be chronically deficient in certain nutrients, vitamins or precursors to certain neurotransmitters, like Choline which is a precursor to Acetylcholine. This can result in you having a constant brain fog, making you unable to concentrate.
This is why I view this section as foundational, and also a continuous one because if you have a chronic malnutrition condition, you are affecting your performance in the background all the time — hence it’s continuous.
Also, nutrition has synergistic effects on the other sections. If you have a chronic brain fog, it hinders your capability of using say, to-do list, because you have trouble maintaining it. On the other hand, your to-do is not going to give you brain fog. So it doesn’t work both ways.
So getting your nutrition in check gives you a solid foundation to start tweaking your workflow further. We can view nutrition as a progressive line, where you have a bad nutrition on the left side, you are there if you eat a lot of junk food, or your macronutrient intake is not suitable for you.
When you move towards the neutral zone of nutrition, you feel that you are in a good balanced nutritional state. In this state, you shouldn’t have any deficiencies or brain fog. Note that I don’t specify what is the macro distribution of neutral nutrition; by neutral, I mean a state where you are not deficient in any nutrients, or vitamins, or certain key fats like Omega-3s.
After getting into a neutral zone, you can try to move towards the right which means optimizing your nutrition. This requires self-experiments to see what works for you.
You can try to supplement with certain supplements (nootropics) to give you a cognitive edge. Or you can try certain diets, like ketogenic diet or intermittent fasting to give you an edge. This is the realm where you have to find out what works best for you, for example, a ketogenic diet isn’t for everyone. Some get great results out from it, others not so much.
I view habits as a regular activity that doesn’t involve food since we already have our own nutrition section. I see habits as something that we are either forced to do in some capacity or something that we decide to do. For example, sleeping goes inside this basket. You can have bad sleeping habits or good sleeping habits.
Again, as with nutrition, habits form the second part of your foundation, because yet again, some of them induce a continuous effect on you. If you have bad sleeping habits, you can bet that it hinders your ability to concentrate among many other things. If you have a meditation habit, it will continuously help you with your focus.
Likewise, some of the habits also form a linear progression. You may have poor habits on the left such as not getting enough sleep, working too much, and not exercising at all. At the center, there’s a neutral zone, where you get normal sleep and do some regular exercise. After that, you can try to optimize your habits such as meditating every day, or hacking your sleep with sleep trackers or even trying polyphasic sleep.
Note, that it’s essential that you remove your bad habits because it’s safe to say that not getting enough sleep or not exercising is negatively impacting your focus. On the other hand, I can’t just slam you with an advice of: “start polyphasic sleep, it will boost your focus.” The optimization zone is up to you, all I can do is give you different habits to test out, but you have to evaluate their effects yourself.
When you have your foundation in a solid state, it’s time to move into systems. By systems, I view any method that will intermittently help you with your focus, when you are using the system. Such systems are anything from a Pomodoro system to a productivity application on your phone.
This category is intermittent, because mainly, systems only affect for the time you use them. Of course, using to-do list might make you more in touch with your productivity, making you more motivated, but generally, systems have only one purpose: a particular system is meant to help with a certain problem.
This also goes into the explementary category, which means that once you have a solid foundation, you can start to experiment with different systems. Some systems work wonders for you, and other may not integrate so well with your workflow. You have to try them out yourself, but the systems you try can only have their greatest effect when you have your foundation in check.
You should be wary of becoming a systems hoarder. As said before, you can hog too many of these things, only cluttering yourself. I can’t say what is the perfect amount of systems, but in general, you should look for the return of investment, which means that you should get more time from the system compared to the time investment you spend mingling with the system itself.
The scalable focus window
The root of your ability to focus is your focus window. Unfortunately, we can hold our concentration only so much. This means that this system must be scalable to our abilities. If you don’t have a solid foundation, you may find out that just pressing out an hour of deep focus gives you great trouble. It’s no use at trying to force yourself to put in more hours if you feel that you can’t do it, instead, by strengthening your foundation, you are building your capability to handle more deep focus hours, giving you the possibility of scaling the window up.
Most experts agree that four hours is typically the limit that you can stay in a highly concentrated state per day, but you don’t have to take this as a fact.
The whole idea of this site is that we explore various ways on how you can hack that timeframe (either deepening it or lengthening it), with different nutritional plans, habits, and systems.
However, most of us are capable of producing at least an hour per day of focused activity. For many of us, even the hour removed from all distractions feels like hell. Fortunately, you can train your skill of concentration, and more importantly, train it in a way that you can put consistent hours independent of your motivation level, or your willingness to do something else instead.
The reason for this system is to lengthen your focus window, deepen it, and remove the distractions, either from the outside or from your own mind, building your ability to hit consistent windows of focus. So the goal is to get so that you can put the four hours, which is deemed to be the maximum, or maybe even extend that window with consistent practice, and synergistic effects. This does not mean that you should be able to endure four hours per one sitting, you can divide your focus windows throughout the day.
Why go through all the trouble?
It’s one thing to read about deep focus; it’s another thing to commit yourself to it. Our commitment often depends on how much value we give to the outcome. Let’s say, somebody points a gun to your head and demands your wallet. You don’t start to procrastinate on giving the wallet; you give your wallet to the robber because you value the outcome of it — your life.
Your focus determines everything you do in life. Your long-term focus determines where your life is headed, and your short-term focus determines if you can actually accomplish anything.
If you are an entrepreneur, do work by a contract, or you are a student, you must already acknowledge the value of your focus, but what if you work by the clock? How does increasing your focus help with anything?
Increasing your focus does not solely mean that you get more done. It means that you get the work done with less anxiety and stress. You get more enjoyment from your work, especially if you can engage into the flow state. Additionally, if you are working by the clock, but you have a dream of starting a side business, you must be focused to get anything done when you are already exhausted after your day job.
Valuing your focus should be viewed as a lifestyle, not just a productivity oriented objective.
- Allocate your focus window, and stick with it. Start with a window you can easily cope with.
- Start to move your nutrition to the neutral zone. Get rid of junk food.
- Identify your habits, and start to remove your bad habits.
- Self-experiment with various systems, take a close look at how they are helping with your workflow (if they are).
- Try to expand your focus window, or allocate multiple focus windows to your day.
- Self-experiment with different nutritional plans, and supplements. Remember, one at a time, so that you know what works.
- Start experimenting with different habits. Make changes to your sleeping habits. Again, one at a time.
- Repeat ad infinitum or until you feel like you have found your sweet spot.