Radically Honest Blog

How to Focus on Work (especially When You Can’t)

In the past, when the grass was greener, I’d read a book for four hours straight without much strain. Or spend several hours of deep work on one task. Or do pair programming hours and hours, without distraction. These days, thinking of such magical mental focus causes a sad, nostalgic feeling. It’s been years since I rarely do such things anymore. My longest span of focused work is now about an hour or so.

My attention span became shorter when I stopped programming and started doing whatever and everything. In fact, a product owner’s role is a constant interruption by design. Staying focused is hard when everyone has loads of questions for you. If you play several other roles in a company (besides being a product owner), you get screwed up (concentration-wise, then) pretty quickly.

All kinds of chats for internal communication have made the mental focus, uh, almost impossible. It started with Skype, then Slack came in, and once you go Slack… My productivity went down the drain. Sometimes I catch myself opening Slack every effing five minutes: to look if someone replied already, check out a new thread, or just for fun. Just give it a thought, switching to Slack for fun!

This pathetic habit develops beyond your control, though. Back in the days, people used to dumbly poke the “Get new messages” button in their inbox, right? Apparently, when your brain needs a break, it counts this kind of distraction as one. Today, I tap the Slack icon: what if there’s something new there! But for f*cks sake, there were no notifications, there’s nothing new! Looking at myself from a distance, I’m astonished by my own idiocy.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t just blame instant messengers. Slack has certainly improved the communication density. But at the same time, it made it all too available—and this really, really interferes with concentration. It makes me wonder: how to focus on work when we’re all blessed with monkey brains and the ease of instant messaging?

How to live with this? I’ve tried lots of things and tricks to keep focused at work, but most of them didn’t work. I’ve got various great reasons it didn’t work, of course. I don’t call it a “productivity hack,” because I don’t pretend I hacked productivity. It’s a process, rather.

  1. I installed Focus. Nice app, it kills all your distractive services and puts you in the focus mode. Bottleneck: I never launch this app. Like, maybe once a week. Why? As it happens, while you’re working on an important task with full focus, there’s always a moment you really need to tell someone something. Something crucial! You launch Slack, type your message… And there you go, you disappear in a swirl of messaging. For some reason, one cannot simply get back to concentration after this! The app is thus very promising, but I don’t have enough willpower to make it work.
  2. I made my Fridays meetings-free. The idea was, no meetings means minimal distractions. I still have no meetings on Fridays. Anyway, it has zero positive effect on my focus or productivity. My Fridays are still nothing like 8-hour Pomodoro sessions.
  3. Mindfulness meditation. This one actually helps to clear your mind. However, it took me about six months of regular meditation before the effect even started to show. So if you think, ha, I’ll start meditating and will become focused and productive in a couple of weeks, that’s self-deception. I meditate in the mornings, five to seven times a week, for 15 minutes. Highly recommend Headspace, it works great for beginners.
  4. Stopping to follow the news. News floods our brains with huge amounts of completely unnecessary stuff, distracts (FOMO!), and provokes useless thoughts. I went cold-turkey on the news two times. The first time, it lasted two months and was amazing. The second time, I got sick and returned to reading the news. I hope to make the third attempt work in the near future. Reading the news is a socially-acceptable bad habit that transforms us into informational junkies, and the more junk info we consume, the less space is left for concentration. The solution to staying socially-adequate while not following the news is to get them from quality analytical long-reads and books than from Twitter.
  5. Shutting down social media. One time, I deactivated my Facebook account for about eight months. I think of that period with great affection. Unluckily for many of us, a decent amount of professional communication happens on Facebook. I simply need my account for work. Here are the half-measures I use: unfollowing the vast majority of people, removing Facebook apps from all devices except my laptop, installing F.B.Purity.
  6. Headphones with noise canceling. A great thing, especially if you’ve got some concentration-enhancing music. Best to use together with switched off wifi.
  7. Still thinking about what to do with Slack. I mean, I have to do something. Alas, no good ideas so far.

All in all, to focus, you need to have a job that would allow you to. Leadership positions don’t seem very allowing, though. So maybe we’re just entitled to make incredible efforts to reach at least some semblance of the depth required for problem-solving.

P.S. While writing this post, I’ve launched the Slack app three times and checked Facebook two times.

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