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How to improve your focus in 2021

carmenhchung profile image Carmen Chung Updated on ・6 min read

I recently finished the book "Deep Work" by Cal Newport, and I highly recommend it as a holiday read if you want to improve your ability to focus on complicated tasks without distraction - especially if you're a software developer. If you don't have the time (or the focus 🤣) to read the book, here are a few takeaways that I really enjoyed...

(Sidenote: If you are interested in productivity, tech, and product topics, follow me on Twitter where I post about these things in an easy and fun way. I've also just started a bite-sized newsletter talking about all things tech that you can subscribe to here.)

Why "Deep Work"?

To produce work at your peak performance level, you need to work for an extended period of time with full concentration and no distractions: what is considered "deep work". In fact, Cal argues that unless your talent and skills seriously outrank your competitors, you will find it hard thriving professionally if you can't focus without distraction for extended periods of time.

Is it for everyone?

Having said that, there are some jobs where deep work is not valued. Cal gives the example of executives, like Jack Dorsey, who is notorious for having a jam packed schedule full of meetings throughout the day. He even makes himself openly available for people to come up to talk to him by sitting in communal areas at work - meaning he hardly gets distraction-free downtime at the office. Cal also thinks salesmen and lobbyists, who need constant connection to others, also fall into the category of those who may not benefit from deep work. But he argues that many people are far too quick in saying that they need to be constantly connected with others in their role, when studies have shown that it is often not the case in reality.

Bimodal philosophy

There exists an approach (what Cal calls the "bimodal philosophy") that believes that deep work can produce extreme productivity, but only if the person spends enough time to reach full cognitive intensity...which is apparently one full day.

Yep, you read that right. Unfettered focus on something for a few hours apparently doesn't cut it. For example, Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant (sidenote: I recommend his podcast, Work Life) take two to four days off once or twice a month to work on his research uninterrupted - not answering emails or engaging with students or colleagues.

Rhythmic philosophy

A different approach is what Cal terms the rhythmic philosophy, which tries to make deep work a simple, regular habit (i.e. you create a rhythm out of it). Jerry Seinfield was known to cross a day off his calendar every time he wrote a joke, so that after a while, he was motivated to continue because he wanted to keep that chain of crosses going.

To make deep work a regular habit, Cal suggests using a set starting time every day for your period of deep work, in order to stop you from having to decide when to start, and helping you build the habit more easily.

Attention fatigue

Attention fatigue

Yes, there is such thing as attention fatigue. Concentration requires directed attention, which is a finite resource - similar to willpower. One study showed that after around 50 minutes of deploying concentrated attention, the capacity to focus was reduced to a low level.

To replenish this, Cal recommends doing something that does not require concentration. An example would be walking through nature, which according to one academic paper, gives your brain the opportunity to replenish your focused attention stores - even if it's in terrible weather, and even if it's only for 50 minutes.

Context switching

Stop the context switching. It's actually bad for your brain, and has lasting negative effects. Research has shown that people who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy or manage a working memory, and they actually trigger parts of their brain that are not relevant to the tasks they do.

Professor Clifford Nass, a professor known for his study of digital behaviour, said:

The people we talk with continually said, "look, when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser-focused." And unfortunately, they've developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They're suckers for irrelevancy. They just can't keep on task.

Cal argues that once you are used to filling your time with distractions like checking your Twitter feed or Instagram, your brain has been re-wired so that it's not ready for deep work, even when you want to concentrate.

Schedule break blocks

So what's the solution to our addictions to phones, email, and social media? Cal proposes that we schedule breaks from intense focused sessions where we are allowed to give in to distraction.

There is a lot of time spent moving information around in corporations, rather than doing deep work. The then-CTO of Atlantic Media, Tom Cochran, collected company-wide data on the number of emails sent every day, and how many words were in each email. By calculating that against the employees' average typing speed, reading speed, and salary, he realised that the organisation was spending over a million dollars a year to pay people to process emails. (That's not to say that some of those emails weren't important...but it's doubtful that they all were.)

Schedule break blocks in your planner

If you want to reduce distractions, get your calendar out and decide in advance when you'll let yourself use the Internet/check your social media accounts/check email etc. Stay firm and don't allow yourself to do it until the allotted time - this will teach your brain that you can't just switch to something else whenever it encounters something challenging or boring. If you do need to check your email regularly, Cal suggests scheduling more numerous break blocks - but make sure you stick to schedule for the focused-attention blocks.

Instagone

Ditch the social media. Rough I know. I'm not willing to do this, but I get where Cal is coming from. He proposes a strategy of banning yourself from using all social media for 30 days. He says you shouldn't tell people you're going offline (because then they may reach out to ask you why, and you'll feel important and wanted, and will likely use that as justification for being on the platform) - just stop using the services. After the 30 days is up, ask yourself if the last month would have been noticeably better if you had been able to use the platform, and whether people actually cared that you weren't on the platform.

Social media is especially toxic because the platforms offer personalised information (through things like push notifications) that arrives on an unpredictable schedule, which makes it incredibly addictive.

Conclusion

In conclusion, obtaining concentrated focus takes time and is like training your muscles - you need to build them up slowly by making a habit of it. Start by setting a time when you will start the deep work period every day; schedule breaks throughout the day where you are allowed to go on the Internet/check your email/do whatever it is that is a distraction to you; and if you can stomach it, keep off social media for 30 days to try to break the cycle of addiction and see whether it really is a value-add to your life.

Finally, make sure you give yourself time to recharge at the end of the day - squeezing more work out of your evenings is likely to reduce your effectiveness in the long term and be more detrimental than if you had given yourself a proper break to rest and recharge (much easier said than done for people like me - I'm currently writing this at 9pm after a full day of work! 😅).

What things have helped you increase your focus? Do you have any specific goals for being able to concentrate better in 2021? Hit me up in the comments or tweet at me here - I'd love to know!

Discussion (22)

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farhanaxmustafa profile image
Farhana

I read Deep Work a while back and didn't take any notes! Thanks for this post, it was a great refresher. Also definitely can't wait for you to read Atomic Habits. I deem that book as my best read of 2020

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carmenhchung profile image
Carmen Chung Author

So glad it came in handy for you!

Ohhh the number of people who tell me how great Atomic Habits is makes me think I should actually buy it rather than wait for a copy at the library to become available! Am going to see if there are any post-Christmas sales on it - thanks for motivating me to get my hands on it. :)

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destynova profile image
Oisín

I listened to the audio book of "Deep Work" and enjoyed it, as well as the fact that he didn't drag the book out with unnecessary waffle -- it ended suddenly while I was out for a walk and at first I thought there was a mistake, but that was just the end of the book!
The great thing is that you can get a lot of the benefits of "flow" without making drastic sacrifices like going cold turkey on social media (although if you feel like it, by all means do so). I strive for a "lite" version of this by using a Pomodoro timer, listening to binaural beats (rather than distracting music) and trying to avoid email and chat while the timer is running.
While on holidays, I occasionally activate Super Flow, in which I'm working on my own on a side project and 12 hours could easily pass without my attention being broken. It's amazing but do difficult to replicate at work, since I always tend to need information from people, or they need it from me, or the calendar is peppered with meetings.

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carmenhchung profile image
Carmen Chung Author

Yeah that's a great point - one of the beauties of solo side projects is the ability to just get the work done without having to sit in back-to-back meetings! I love just banging out code for 6 hours straight, listening to rain sounds on Spotify (not kidding you, it's amazing for concentrated focus!).

I love the Pomodoro technique - do you use a special app for it, or just set a timer?

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destynova profile image
Oisín • Edited

Yeah rain sounds are good - I used to listen to Noisli, and sometimes I use an Android app called Noice (admittedly, mostly when trying to sleep). Sometimes I'll listen to video game music since that tends to be composed in a way that loops naturally -- often when coming out of flow, I'll realise the same song has been playing for 40 minutes.
The Pomodoro timer I use is just a super-simplistic webapp called Tomato Timer and it does the trick without being too distracting.

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tff27 profile image
Tiago Fonseca

Hey Carmen
I've started reading this book this week. (Got it for christmas :D )
Is nice to see another good review of it.
I have this goal for 2021 to create more "deep work" time alocated to my regular working schedule, this is pretty challenge since one year ago i've started to lead a software development team.

May i ask you if there was a specific reason behind this book pick to you rather than of course getting better at coding?

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carmenhchung profile image
Carmen Chung Author

Tiago, I LOVE this question. Would give it more hearts if I could!

So I think of learning to do deep work vs learning to get better at coding as similar to the saying "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." What I mean by that is that I could spend the time to become a better programmer - but that only helps with one dimension of my life (i.e. coding). By becoming a person who is able to sustain intense concentration for extended periods of time, I can "10x" almost every aspect in my life - I'd (hopefully) become a better writer, a better reader, a better sports person, a better musician, a better teacher, etc.

In short, coding is just one skill (and with career changes these days, who knows if it's something I'll be doing for the rest of my life?) - whereas sustained concentration is something that has application and benefits in almost everything you do.

PS. I love that you're trying to carve out deep work for yourself while leading a team - this is super tricky (especially if you have people that rely on you always being available to them), and I applaud you for doing it!

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tff27 profile image
Tiago Fonseca

I really like the way that you are thinking and I’m glad that I comment on your post by this answer alone.

I do believe that time is the most precious resource that anyone can have, this kind of skill give us the ability to make more with your time and avoid this never ending context switching that somehow entered your lives.

Like you said if you master a skill that can improve a lot of areas on your life, although we can have a motivation at first for start to learn how to "deep work" (could be coding, could be writing, could be pretty much anything).

I hope that you met all your goals and have a great 2021!

I'll keep on reading the book :D

PS: Thank you so much for the encouragement!
My hope is if I’m able to focus to plan our work, tackle complex problems and anticipate possible bottlenecks I will make my team and I more effective and efficient.

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carmenhchung profile image
Carmen Chung Author

Aww thank you! Hope you have a happy new year and a successful 2021! The point about the bottlenecks is a great one - if you manage to anticipate and reduce that for your team, it will definitely open up more time for deep work. Good luck!

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kethmars profile image
kethmars

Great post! It's exactly what I needed to have a fresh start this year.

You may also like my article / YT channel about Atomic developer habits ;)
dev.to/kethmars/become-a-better-de...

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carmenhchung profile image
Carmen Chung Author

Haha you're what feels like the millionth person to recommend this book to me - I'm on the waitlist for it at the library, but think I'll have to bite the bullet and buy it. Great post btw!

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eldadru profile image
Eldad Rudich

A tool that really helped my productivity journey - brain.fm
It generates special rhythmic sounds to help you relax, focus, calm down, learn etc'

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carmenhchung profile image
Carmen Chung Author

Oooh interesting! Haha I have to admit, I usually listen to rain sounds on Spotify (there are literally playlists of rain falling on window panes, with the occasional thunderstorm - they're great), but I will check this out.

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eldadru profile image
Eldad Rudich

So, I tested different ambient sounds on YouTube, Spotify, and others and never found something as good as brain.fm

Not sure why It just worked for me.

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Jonathan Mator Jr.

This is so much of the information that I have been in search for over the year.
Cheer!!!!

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carmenhchung profile image
Carmen Chung Author

Glad you found it helpful Jonathan, thanks for leaving a comment! :)

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BK

Nice write up, Carmen! Read it yesterday morning and came back and read it again this morning! Motivating! Eye Opening!

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carmenhchung profile image
Carmen Chung Author

Thanks so much BK, this comment made my day!

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Admir Osmanovic

Great post, thanks for the summary. Do you have any great productivity books you can recommend to someone that's really enjoying the theory behind it, but also is quite new to the field? :)

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carmenhchung profile image
Carmen Chung Author

Hey Admir, that's a great question! Glad to see you're enjoying the theory - have you taken a look at 4 hour work week? That one's a pretty good read (and most people love it).

From my understanding, the best way to actually achieve high productivity is building a habit out of it. I've been told that Atomic Habits is a great book that helps with this (I've got a copy on the way, so will let you know if it is useful after I check it out!), but the thing that I recommend to people that seems to help them the most is keeping a habit tracker (here's a bit more info on what I mean: jamesclear.com/habit-tracker). 🙃

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_abass profile image
_Abass

Really grateful I found this!I started reading the book recently

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carmenhchung profile image
Carmen Chung Author

Hope you enjoy it - let me know if there's something you loved that I missed! 😊