Focus is your single greatest asset. In an age where distractions are readily available, the discipline to resist distractions and enter into deep focus is rare. Writing this book in two weeks has been the most intellectually challenging thing I’ve done. The writing itself is not hard, as I’m passionate about these ideas, but it’s maintaining an extreme focus for extended periods of time that’s so demanding.
If you develop the ability to focus, the rewards are great. You can accomplish the same amount of work in less time, or you can get twice as much work done in the same time. Completing more work in less time means one of two things:
- More accomplishments.
- Greater freedom.
You can choose to do things besides work with your free time if you wish, or you can double down, maximize your effectiveness, and become the best at your work. You can achieve greatness.
What would your life look like if you:
- wrote every day?
- wrote one book a year?
- played piano every day?
- committed to waking up two hours earlier each day and deliberately practiced your passion?
- could spend more time with your family?
- had several extra hours a day to learn and develop new skills?
- exchanged two hours of productive work in an eight-hour day for accomplishing eight hours of work in a two-hour day and then spent the rest of your time learning and practicing new skills?
The rewards of focus are abundant. You can do better work, spend less time doing it, and simultaneously increase your freedom and deepen your sense of satisfaction.
Stop Chasing Squirrels
Today’s workforce is distracted. Most employees spend no more than two to three hours of an eight-hour day actually getting work done. Studies show the number-one distraction is checking social media. Reading news websites, talking about non-work-related activities with coworkers, and text messaging fall closely behind. Workers are interrupted once every ten and one-half minutes on average. That’s not even the worst part: studies have shown it takes twenty-three minutes on average to regain focus. What this means is a seven-minute interruption costs you half an hour in actual focused work time.
Think about what an hour of your time is worth. What is half an hour of your time worth? That’s the price of a single interruption. Every time you break your focus you’re setting money on fire.
The top 10 percent of productive employees don’t work any longer than anyone else. They enter into deep periods of focus ranging from fifty to ninety minutes and alternate with short breaks in between those periods. If you can manage to construct even a single ninety-minute block of uninterrupted focus, you can accomplish more than what most people do in an eight-hour day. If you can schedule multiple ninety-minute blocks of focus in a day, separated by breaks, you’ll be much further ahead.
The notion of needing more time is false. You don’t need more time; you need more focused time. Most people try to do too many things at once. The problem is you can’t multitask. You can really only switch between tasks, and switching wastes your energy. Switching between tasks kills your focus and makes you less effective at each task you’re doing. You’ll be more efficient if you schedule a focused block of time for individual tasks. Choose to do one thing and nothing else during that time.
Scheduling a focused block of time is as simple as putting it on your calendar. Actually entering into that focus when you arrive at the scheduled block is harder. What’s most difficult is staying in that state of focus for the entire allotted time. To stay in focus requires freedom from distractions.
How to Free Yourself from Distraction
There are two methods to get rid of distractions. The first is the most common: minimize distractions as they happen.
One way to do this is the whiteboard trick. If you don’t have a whiteboard, use a piece of paper. Let’s say you’re in a scheduled block of focus time and the idea enters into your mind to check your inbox. Write inbox on the whiteboard. If the thought occurs that you should check your social media, write it on the whiteboard. The whiteboard becomes a list of the things you’re making a pact with yourself not to do. When another distracting thought comes to mind, write it on the whiteboard.
Eventually, the same temptation will resurface. Just point and say, “Nope, it’s on the whiteboard.” Actually say this sentence out loud so you hear it with your own ears. It doesn’t matter if it feels silly. It’s important that you have a recollection of hearing yourself acknowledge the distracting thought and remind yourself that you’re not going to act on it. Acknowledgment is important. Otherwise, your mind will continue to replay the thought. Get it out of your head, write it on the whiteboard, and verbally acknowledge it if the temptation resurfaces. Saying “Nope, it’s on the whiteboard” confirms your conviction: “I’ve already decided that’s a thing I’m not going to do.”
The other method is less common though more important: prevent the possibility of interruptions.
First, recognize the environments and times where you most often get distracted and avoid them. If you find yourself often getting interrupted at a certain place, change your environment. If there’s a certain time of day when interruptions tend to be more frequent, try another time. Early mornings are almost always ideal distraction-free environments.
Second, cut off all sources of distractions you’re aware of. Turn off all sounds, vibrations, and notifications of any kind. Put your phone and computer in “Do Not Disturb” mode.
Third, no matter when or where you focus, make sure the people in your life know about your focused time ahead of time. It’s your job to communicate exactly when, where, and how long you’ll be focusing. Make it abundantly clear that they shouldn’t interrupt you under any circumstances whatsoever (barring death, fire, or some other emergency).
There must be zero chance of getting interrupted, and you must know this with absolute certainty. If you’re not completely confident that there won’t be a single interruption during your focused block of time, you haven’t communicated effectively. It’s your job to make sure you’re heard. You cannot have even the smallest concern that there may be an interruption.
If there’s even a possibility that you’ll be interrupted, you won’t be able to enter into full focus mode. Your mind will think about the possibility of interruptions, and that will steal mental bandwidth from the task at hand. If you’re working in a place where you’re getting interrupted, you’re not working. You must protect your focus.
If you’re working at home, if you’re running your own business, if you’re a freelancer, you have to get your family on board. The reason you need to prevent even the possibility of interruptions is that we crave interruptions. Focused work takes a tremendous amount of effort, time, and intense concentration. Preventing interruptions before they happen is only the foundation.
A lack of interruptions does not automatically mean you’re focused; it merely enables you to enter into focus. Entering into focus still requires effort. The first twenty-three minutes of focusing are difficult. After twenty-three minutes, you’ll enter into a state of flow. Before you enter into that flow, you’ll be desperate for interruptions. Because focusing is such an intense mental workout, interruptions are a sense of relief. We want someone to interrupt us because then we can say, “I got interrupted! Someone needed me! I was needed!” Interruptions are a relief because we don’t really want to go through the work and effort of focusing in the first place.
All interruptions are your responsibility. Any form of interruption is something you can take responsibility for. That sounds weird, right? Because interruptions are typically not you. We talked about disabling notifications—that’s obviously something you can do—but when other people are interrupting your focus, that seems like it’s not on you. However, you can and should take responsibility by evaluating the situations you put yourself in. Evaluate the expectations you’ve set and the expectations you’ve allowed others to have of you. This includes but is not limited to your availability, your time, and your willingness to stop in the middle of what you’re doing. You have to communicate these expectations with people—you can’t expect them to know inherently. These people might be coworkers or your family—whoever it is, you need to speak to them. Tell them, “I need you on board.” Tell them, “I want to be able to help you,” or, “I want to be able to give you my full focus, and in order to do that when the time comes, I need to give my full focus to the things at hand right now.”
You need silence. Remove the noise, get away from the noise, eliminate the noise, tune out the noise, cancel the noise, or otherwise prevent noise of any kind from occurring during your focus time. You may be accustomed to noise, but you need to get out of it. You need to eliminate it completely.
I am the oldest of thirteen kids: nine boys and four girls. I lived at home until age twenty-one. My parents let me stay at home without paying rent, so I took advantage of that to save as much money as possible since I was about to get married. I worked from home and ran a computer repair business I’d started several years back in high school. I was also teaching myself web design at the time. We were living in a single-story house with a dozen people. My siblings were well-behaved kids, but our home was still awash in constant noise. We’d play a game when someone came over in which I’d put my finger up and say, “Shh! Just wait. Wait for one minute. Just listen. Listen for even a single moment of silence.”
That moment never came.
You’d think it was about to be quiet and suddenly another kid would run in from an adjacent room holding up a Lego creation, making spaceship noises, pushing a toy truck and creating his own sound effects, or calling out to another brother outside at the top of his lungs.
I’d feel something brush against my leg. It’s another kid under my desk! Where did this kid come from? I have no idea. They came from outside, from the other room, from behind the couch, I don’t know—they spawned! It was some kind of magic, I suppose. Like clockwork, they’d fill any silence. Had it been a movie—I felt like I was living in one—it was perfectly and persistently scored.
Needless to say, I had to learn to concentrate against the noise. I learned to tune it out.
I used to get in trouble because of that. I’d be on my computer and my mom would tell me to do something. I wouldn’t hear it. I legitimately would not even hear a single word. She’d say, “Of course you heard me!” No, I really didn’t. That was something that took me years to unlearn. (Though if you ask my wife, I never did unlearn it. She can’t say something to the back of my head while I’m in deep focus. I won’t retain it. It just bounces off completely.)
I now live in a two-story house. It’s just my wife and I. For the first half-a-dozen years of marriage, we lived in apartments. Anything was worlds quieter than my family’s house growing up, but we still had loud neighbors above us, delivery trucks driving by all day long, and people talking outside our door or window. Now that we live in a house, the silence is deafeningly glorious.
Commit to Focused Time Today
I’ve learned to focus and I’ve learned to work in many environments. You get used to your environment, but that doesn’t mean what you’re used to is the most ideal. You can learn to focus against noise, but don’t assume that’s more productive than silence until you’ve logged your output in a distraction-free environment.
Without constant interruptions, you might think you’d be able to focus all day long. But while ninety-minute blocks of focused time are extremely productive, you can’t just line up a bunch of them in a row without any breaks in between. It’s similar to lifting weights: trainers will tell you not to work out the same groups of muscles back-to-back each day without breaks because it can be counterproductive. You need to allow yourself to bounce back and take the full benefit of the hard work you put in. You have to alternate intense focus time with dedicated breaks.
Start small by committing to at least one ninety-minute block of focused time a day and see how much more you’re able to accomplish. Once you’re comfortable, steadily add more focused blocks of time in a day. Instead of seeing your workday as eight hours long, visualize it as four or five blocks. Each of these blocks represents ninety minutes of focus.
Different work requires different kinds of focus. Some tasks need more than ninety minutes of continuous focus. For instance, many software developers say it often takes them as long as four hours to really get into a problem and solve it effectively. The twenty-three-minute statistic cited earlier was only the average amount of time needed to reenter focus after an interruption. For a software developer, that time may be more like sixty minutes. Think about that the next time you interrupt a developer for twenty minutes. What you’re really costing them is an hour and twenty minutes before even starting on what might be a four-hour endeavor.
Ninety minutes is not the upper limit of a focused time block. It’s merely the sweet spot. There’s nothing wrong with going more than ninety minutes if you’re in a state of flow. If you’re focused and productive, by all means keep going. There’s no rule that says you have to stop at ninety minutes. Getting into a state of flow is the important thing. Ninety-minute increments work well, especially when the work is difficult and breaks are needed. The oscillation of highly focused work time and intentional breaks is an effective way to keep up your momentum and maintain focus.
Know What to Focus on and When
In a photographic sense, focus is a device on a lens that can be adjusted to produce a clear image. Depending on the aperture of the lens, the focus may be deep or shallow. When the aperture is mostly closed, everything in the picture is in focus. But when everything is in focus, it’s not always clear what you should be looking at—so you look at everything.
A shallow focus in photography involves a wide-open aperture that produces a narrow depth of field. This is how you achieve that blurry background look, where everything but the item in focus is blurry. A lens with shallow focus means only one small area can be in focus at any given time. For anything to be in focus with a narrow depth of field, everything else must be out of focus.
In addition to focus, you also have different zoom modes. There’s zoomed-in mode (focused on the details), and there’s zoomed-out mode (focused on the big picture). The mistake is jumping back and forth between these zoom modes in rapid succession. Repeatedly zooming in and out causes you to lose your bearings and become disoriented. Rather than try to get really good at switching zoom modes, become adept at scheduling zoom modes. Dedicate a focused block to the details or dedicate a focused block to the big picture. Stay in each zoom mode uninterrupted for as long as possible.
Zoomed-out mode is good to start with to ensure you’re doing the right work in the first place. Don’t make the mistake of entering straight into detail mode and doing work without first questioning why you’re doing it. I’ve made that mistake many times. At scale, the consequences are huge. If you don’t evaluate whether the work you’re doing is actually the work you should be doing, you can waste a lot of time and money. I’ve had my team work on projects for months only to discover later we were solving the wrong problems. I realized I wasn’t thinking in big-picture mode, so I zoomed out a little bit and reevaluated. We made some adjustments and got back to work.
Several months later, we found ourselves yet again heading in the wrong direction and solving the wrong problems. Why did that keep happening? I found out it was because I hadn’t zoomed out far enough. I zoomed out one level and made some changes and zoomed out another level and made more changes, but it wasn’t enough. You have to zoom out until you can’t zoom out any more. How do you know when you’ve zoomed out far enough? Ask this one-word question: “Why?” Ask “Why?,” and then ask “Why?” again. Then ask “Why?” a third time, and a fourth time, and a fifth time.
You can almost always get to the true core of an issue by asking “Why?” five times. If you’re getting a different answer every time you ask, then you need to keep asking. Keep asking until you get to the heart of the matter. Keep asking until the answer stops changing.
Like the possibility of interruptions, the chance that you’re working on the wrong thing is something that will bug you at a subconscious level. If there’s a possibility that you’re working on the wrong thing, it’s more productive to stop doing the work and schedule a focused block of time to enter into big-picture mode. You can’t afford to have niggling doubts in the back of your mind while you’re working or you’ll never be able to enter into deep focus.
Know what you’re going to be working on in advance and know that it’s the right thing. This takes planning. Your work sessions and projects should be scheduled ahead of time. You need to know what you’re working on tomorrow, next week, and next month, and how that all plays into where you’re going next year and beyond.
If you don’t know what you’re going to focus on and when you’re going to do it, it’s easy to procrastinate. Schedule your work on the calendar and commit to it. Scheduling your focus has to be something you just do. Make a public commitment, make a commitment to an accountability partner, or make a commitment to yourself—ideally, do all three. The reason people psych them themselves out of doing something is that they have the time to do so. They have the option of not accomplishing something because it was never scheduled, there was no deadline, or they weren’t accountable to anyone. You can’t afford to psych yourself out of doing something. Get your back against the wall by committing to it.
- The rewards of focus are abundant. You can do better work, spend less time doing it, and simultaneously increase your freedom and deepen your sense of satisfaction.
- Add a ninety-minute block of focused time to your calendar to work on your passion. Plan out what you want to accomplish in that time. Have a clear goal in mind.
- Start small by committing to at least one ninety-minute block of focused time per day.
- If you don’t know what you’re going to focus on and when you’re going to do it, it’s easy to procrastinate. Schedule your work on the calendar and commit to it.