August 9, 2020

Ways I develop and maintain focus on my work

Focus, willpower, discipline – are these words that describe what you are like throughout the day? They certainly didn’t describe me for a long time after I got a smartphone. Have you ever forgotten your phone at home and only realized it at work? Something suddenly clenches your throat, you find it hard to breathe and you feel lost without it, checking your pockets or checking the side of your desk from time to time, thinking that it is there. In fact, I’d suggest it on a random day because it can be telling how addicted you are to your phone. When it happened to me, I ended up looking at all the things on my phone on my computer instead which again, speaks to how addicted I was to my phone.

But when you are trying to do great focused work, you cannot have distractions. Cal Newport, in his book, Deep Work, explains his method of trying to do great focused work (i.e., deep work) – he locks himself in the office for several hours at a time and blocks out the internet, social media, visitors, phone calls, and any other distractions. After reading Cal’s book and in the need for deep focused attention (writing a book, studying for an upcoming certification test), I thought that I would share some of the things that I have learned developing that focus:

You can use your smartphone to help you focus

There’s in fact, lots of apps that can help you focus – I’ve been using one called Forest which grows trees every time you get off your smartphone. You may have also heard about the Pomodoro technique and there are lots of apps that simulate the pomodoro timer on your phone. As an added bonus, some of these apps motivate you into not using your smartphone during this time – for example, in the Forest app, if you click away from the app (to view social media or the general internet), your tree dies and you have to start again. If you are finding it hard to focus, try an app to help you get off social media or other apps and sites that distract you.

Take small breaks in between

Or in my case, I take some big breaks but I do make sure to get in as much focused time as I can when I have the time. Early on, I knew that I could not just sit down and focus for several hours – you have to build it up much the same as building up the endurance for a long run. From 5 minutes to 30 minutes, I have slowly built up the time it takes for me to ‘distract’ myself from distractions and to focus.

Block out noises with light music

We can be prone to distractions through outside noise – maybe you are sitting in a coffee shop and look over at the door every time it opens or you are sitting in the library and you give critical glares at people who are coughing incessantly (no I don’t do that… all the time). I use a set of wireless earbuds but any sort of earbuds, earphones, headsets, etc. will do – when it is linked to the Forest app, I hear the sound of rain and thunderstorm and when that sound ends, it also gives me a cue to take a small break. Tim Ferriss and others use the idea of listening to one song on repeat while writing – when you listen to a song on repeat, it often drowns out as you focus in on whatever you are working on.

Reward yourself

After a few sessions of getting off your smartphone and hunkering down for work, make sure that you reward yourself. It’s certainly not an easy thing to do and you are well on your way to developing the skill of focusing (which is an interesting reframe, it’s certainly not something you are at first but something that you develop). I like to reward myself with a fancy coffee or to watch a show on Netflix.

Understand your energy levels and when your motivation and willpower is high

If you have read a lot of self development books, they always suggest that you wake up early in the morning. But why? In Daniel Pink’s book When, I learned that that’s when your alertness and energy levels are highest and therefore, you should take advantage of that by doing the hard work. In the afternoon, your alertness drops but your energy levels go back up (after that afternoon dip or doze) and therefore, that is the best time to do creative work where you can let your imagination fly. What kind of work are you doing? Studying? Trying to write that important report for a client? Do it in the morning (and do as much of it as you can in the morning). Are you painting a picture? Trying to come up with ideas for that book you want to write? Do those activities in the afternoon. I know, I know, you sometimes don’t have a choice but at least recognizing when your alertness and energy levels peak and fall can help you organize your day.

Don’t sweat it when you can’t be productive all the time

I used to flog myself for not being able to concentrate or to be productive all the time. But like I said before, it’s a challenge and it’s a skill that you have to develop. Would you beat yourself up for not being able to run a marathon right off the bat? Probably not but that’s what I was doing (well, not an exact analogy but similar as it does say how distracted I was). All I tell myself every day I want to focus and do deep work: three good sessions. Why three? Really an arbitrary number but if each of my sessions was 30 minutes, then I can at least do 90 minutes of deep work every day. I tried to set a low number and after completing the three sessions, I could do whatever I wanted after. Plus, it reminds me that I have limited time to spend on the deep work so it helps me prioritize what work I want to accomplish in those 90 minutes.


What are some of the things that you do to help concentrate on your work? What is your relationship with your smartphone like?

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