The Battle for Focus

Seeking depth in a world of distraction

“See, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push” — The Joker

Two months ago, I was working on a mobile app prototype when my phone buzzed. Twitter delightfully informed me that three people I follow favorited someone else’s tweet.

I’m sure this notification was sent to me with the best of intentions. The fine folks at Twitter probably thought my reaction would be something like the following:

Thank you so much Twitter! Your proactive support in growing my interest graph has improved my life in endless ways! Thank goodness I don’t even have to open your app for such valuable, contextual, personalized information!

My actual reaction wasn’t far off, but was more along these lines:


In a moment, my focus was disrupted. Immediately I knew I only had two options:

  1. Forsake a connected existence, move to Portugal, become a surfer (logistics weren’t in favor of this plan).
  2. Fight back, end the madness.

Lacking the courage (and coordination) to become a surfer, I fought back.


Which notifications truly add value to your day beyond a dopamine rush with every vibration?

I turned off vibrations and sound effects for all notifications so I can choose when to check my phone. For apps I don’t use regularly, I turned off notifications completely.

Shifting my app usage to on-demand only hugely helped break my cycle of constant interruption. Now I pride myself at saying “no” to the “enable push notifications” alert without hesitation.

Facebook or whatever apps you’re always checking

I don’t have any logical justification for my facebook usage. I don’t post anything, I don’t engage much, my good friends barely post anything. My facebook use is just aimless browsing to fill gaps of silence where thoughts on the frail nature of existence might otherwise creep in.

I was one of the few cheering fb messenger as a standalone app. I happily deleted the main app and kept the direct messaging functionality I valued.

Apps that deepen relationships

Technology can and does bring us closer to the people we care about.

In my case, browsing facebook was purely about scratching some neurological itch, not bringing me closer to anyone important in my life. On the other hand, whatsapp, fb messenger, skype, slack, all directly connect me to people I care about and include them in my daily life where they otherwise wouldn’t be.

When my cousin sends goofy 5 second videos to his buddies on snapchat, I’m deeply confused yet incredibly warmed by their friendship.

Long-form content

My realization here was the importance of doing things that take time. Focus is a muscle that must be trained and excellence in most things requires focus.

I took this to an extreme and reoriented my smartphone usage around four apps: podcasts, pocket, twitter, and kindle.

Podcasts: My favorite podcasts are unabashedly long, rich with storytelling, and peppered with detail. After a day of non-stop reading, kicking back with a podcast feels like needed therapy for a worn mind. My pro tip here is falling asleep to something soft and story-driven like The Truth (prepare for weird and awesome dreams).

Twitter: After years of thoughtless followings, my Twitter feed had degraded into a state of anarchy where snippets of inner monologues ruled the day. I became one of those jaded hipsters who made comments about how hard Twitter is to use and probably cheered that high school kid who said his friends didn’t care about it.

I was wrong. Twitter is still too complex for my taste, but if you’re willing to do the work, there’s nothing else like it.

I realized I just wanted links to interesting content related to my interests. I blocked a couple hours and went through all 381 followings I had, ruthlessly unfollowing anyone who hadn’t posted a link to something interesting within their last 3 tweets.

My homescreen, podcasts and pocket in the dock

Pocket: With Twitter providing a steady stream of interesting articles, Pocket became much more useful, always filled with great articles I was excited to read. Now when I get that itch to check my phone, I hit it with a dose of long, dense articles.

Kindle: The whole idea of focus became important to me when I felt my smartphone habits were destroying my ability to read. While I love reading books on paper and my kindle, shifting my phone usage towards reading books helped temper the rapid, shallow, transactional interactions I would typically have on the go.

Work in progress

I’m not done tuning my relationship with technology. If you (oh mythical reader) have any experience on the topic, I’d love hear how you‘re reining in the noise in your digital life. Give me a shout on twitter @amirshake.

If you enjoyed this post, I would very much appreciate any love you can give it by recommending on medium or sharing on twitter. Thanks!

Amir Shaikh was previously product manager at SoundCloud. He now works with Michael Evensen on building Spoken, a new home to discover and discuss your favorite podcasts. If you’re passionate about story-driven podcasts and want to learn more, sign up at

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