Section 2: Finding Focus in a Distracted World
How to hone your attention to produce work that really matters
“Scheduling in Time for Creative Thinking” Cal Newport
As people working in a creative field we are caught in a “productivity paradox”. In order to solve hard, creative problems we need long periods of uninterrupted work time, but we are required to be constantly available by email, instant messaging, and for meetings. In Newport’s opinion, many of the communication tools that we use every day are actually hindering our ability to get work done.
In this essay, Newport mentions the book “The Tyranny of Email” which discusses whether group emails are valuable to their recipients or if they are a waste of time. For us I think a similar technology is social media. Occasionally we can get website traffic or new subscribers from social media, but 99% of the time we are shouting into a room full of people already shouting. Is it worth it?
To combat the constant barrage of notifications Newport suggests using a “focus block method.” What he does is schedule blocks of uninterrupted work time into his work calendar. This way no one can schedule a meeting with his during this time, and it also gives a convenient reason to turn down unnecessary tasks. To make the most of this method he suggests tackling only one task per focus block.
“Banishing Multitasking from Our Repertoire” Christina Jarrett
“Studies show that the human mind can only truly multitask when it comes to highly automatic behaviors like walking."
In her essay Jarrett takes on the myth that multitasking can make you more productive. In reality, when we think we are multitasking, we are simply switching back and forth between various tasks. When we do this we end up taking much longer to complete these tasks than if we had focused on them separately.
One interesting thing that Jarrett discusses is “the hangover effect.” When we are working on a task and switch to another one without finishing the one we were working on, our brains continue to think about the unfinished task. This means that unfinished tasks will continue to draw our mental energy until we complete them.
This past week I have started to use the “Pomodoro Method” where you work very intensely on a specific task for 25 minute chunks of time. It may seem like a very small amount of time, but I am finding that when you eliminate all distractions and focus on only one task, you can get a lot done in a short period of time.
“Understanding Our Compulsions” Dan Ariely
In this Q&A section, Dan Ariely explores why we are so susceptible to distractions throughout the day. For many of us things like email are so tempting because every new email alert has the possibility of being an exciting new opportunity (though we know it is probably just spam). We also love the feeling of accomplishment; inbox zero is a wonderful feeling.
Because we are weak willed, we need to set ourselves up for success. One way to do this is to silence all of your notifications and get challenging, creative work done when your energy level is high. Mundane tasks should be relegated to the end of the day or between other tasks. We also need to find ways to show ourselves that we are progressing toward our long term goals.
“Learning to Create Amidst Chaos” Erin Rooney Doland
“Conditions to produce one’s craft are rarely ideal, and waiting for everything to be perfect is almost always an exercise in procrastination."
In this essay, Doland encourages us to embrace “positive distractions” such as giving ourselves small rewards for finishing tasks. These small rewards help us to power through our work and avoid succumbing to negative distractions.
One thing that I learned from this essay is that developing any habit, no matter how unrelated it is to your work, can help to strengthen your willpower overall. Plus, the tasks that we complete on autopilot don’t deplete our daily “willpower reserve.”
Another strategy is to alternate between mindful and mindless work throughout the day. Mindful work consists of tasks related to our job or creative pursuits, while mindless work is simple office tasks or household chores, etc. Since I work from home I have started to take breaks from my mindful work to do small chores around the house rather than save them for the weekend. Not only am I better able to focus when I go back to my mindful tasks, but I have a cleaner apartment and more free time on the weekends!
“Tuning In To You” Scott Belsky
“When we turn off one type of stimuli, we unleash another."
In this essay, Belsky discusses the importance of unstructured time and serendipity to a creative entrepreneur. How many of us, when faced with a few spare moments, dive into social media or checking email? While sometimes spare moments are exactly when we should tackle our notifications, we need to leave time to be present; to experience the world and people around us. Belsky suggests that we take a more deliberate approach to communication and social media. We should make time to check those things, but not use them as a filler or crutch. Over time as we learn to deliberately connect and disconnect ourselves from the communication stream, we will become more in tune to our own minds and thoughts.
- What are some alternatives to social media?
- How much time do you spend on social media daily?
- Do you tend to multitask throughout the day?
- How can we show our progress toward long term goals?
- What are some “positive distractions” that you can employ throughout the day?
- Block out uninterrupted work time into your day
- Track your daily progress toward your long term goals, then celebrate this progress
- Try alternating between mindful and mindless tasks
- During moments where you would normally look at your phone, take the time to be present in the moment
For the past few days I have been tackling the urge to look at my phone rather than being present in the moment. I have been bothered by the fact that I check social media and email immediately after waking up, so I have started keeping my phone in another room. Now when I wake up, I grab a book and read a chapter. This helps me to wake up my mind and fill it with new ideas and great stories.
What action steps have you been working on this past week? Have you noticed that you are less distracted and more productive?