Tools for a Focused Work Environment
Mastering Cal Newport’s monastic philosophy
Multitasking is a thing of the past. So says dozens of research studies and the top minds of self-improvement. But, what’s left in its wake? Cal Newport calls it Deep Focus, others call it mindfulness, and, in the tech world, they call it single-tasking.
Now that I’ve been working in Silicon Valley for two years, I can see why none of them have caught on. It feels impossible to focus in my open-office environment. And there’s a lot of research to back that up. When I’m not in the office, it feels like I have to make up for the lost time.
When I started writing, I didn’t really think of my desk in this way. I assumed I’d be able to switch from the space I used to watch Netflix to one of uninterrupted work with ease. From the outset, it was easy to see how wrong my assumptions were. But I didn’t know what to do about it.
My only response was to heap on self-criticism. I thought that there was something wrong with me. That I would never achieve anything because I couldn’t pay attention. It wasn’t until I started my research and reading Newport’s work that I found out how common my plight was.
In his book, Deep Focus, Newport lays out several rules you should follow if you want to cultivate concentration. His first principle, Monastic Philosophy, requires you to set up an environment allowing for long periods of focus. This means devoting several hours to deep work at least once a week to help develop this habit.
Monastic Philosophy: Isolate yourself for long periods of time without distractions.
The most extreme examples of this meant deleting all email access or forbidding any communication before noon. Unfortunately, I don’t know a single person with the privilege to manipulate their schedule like this. As someone with a nine to five, this meant coming up with my own style of monastic flow.
I want to share my process for building this environment. As well as the tools I use to keep it functioning. Some of them hold a dual benefit. They let me limit distractions and allow me to track the time I’ve spent focusing.
Mitigating distractions is vital to maintaining focus. Something as simple as a notification on your phone is enough to pull you out of your flow. Instead of staying on task, your imagination starts to wonder. Who messaged me? Is it important? Is someone trying to make plans? Should I respond soon? These thoughts gnaw at the back of your mind until you take a quick peek. And that’s all it takes to stop the monastic style of work required of single-tasking.
Block Site is relatively on the nose. You use it to prevent your browser from accessing web pages you’ve specified. I use it as a catch-all. There are specific sites I know I shouldn’t go on anymore because all I do is browse. Not a single contribution. I’m in pure consumption mode, and often, I don’t come out the other side feeling very satisfied. Sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
If I want to watch videos, or browse Twitter, I try and do it solely on my phone. Since I do work on my computer, I want to maintain that expectation for myself. My goal was to train my brain to see opening my laptop equivalent to work.
“Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.” — Cal Newport
I used RescueTime to help me analyze my internet usage. I wanted to know when I was the most productive and what the most distracting sites I used were. After gathering a couple weeks of data, Rescuetime does just that in a couple of easy to read graphs.
In my case, it turned out I was by far the most productive in the morning. As soon as I got home from work, my productive time dropped to around 5-percent of my total time. Now, that doesn’t really come as a surprise. I just spent 8 or more hours working, of course, I want to relax. But, what it really taught me is that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself after work. I need to take a break, so I should plan to.
With this in mind, I changed the order of my work. Things like research, editing, and emails were reserved for work during the week. I could do those things outside of deep work, and my environment didn’t impact them nearly as much.
Every Saturday and Sunday morning, I’d head to a coffee shop, well away from the distractions of home, armed with only my laptop, and do deep work. This has produced amazing results for me. I can spend three to five hours, wholly immersed in my work. I only take a couple of fifteen-minute breaks to let my mind settle if writer’s block kicks in.
During deep work, I often have my phone on me. I know that after I’m done my day is entirely free, so I try to schedule as much as I can for the afternoon and evening. To do so, I need my phone. I can’t possibly hope to make or adjust plans without it. Yet, this presents a sticky situation. I’m going to want to check it. It’s where I house every piece of entertainment; friends, family, games, and social media.
This is where apps like Forest and Stay Focused come in. I use Forest when I want to block access to my phone without turning it off. I use it as a Pomodoro. It helps me keep track of the time I’ve spent active, while still giving me access to the critical aspects of my phone like messaging and emails.
I love StayFocused because it helps me manage the total amount of time I spent on distracting apps. I’ve love to believe I have the self-control to stop using apps like Reddit, but I know that’s not realistic. So, I set a reminder and a limit — it works perfectly for me.
On top of all the apps and structures I use to support my concentration, I’ve come to the realization that I’ll never do deep work at home. At least not in any of the living situations I’ve had — A single room with multiple roommates in the house. It’s just not feasible; there are too many distractions.
So, armed with this knowledge and these tools, I’ve allowed myself to cultivate a focused work environment. And, the longer I’ve done it, the more work I’ve been able to condense into a single deep work session. I’ve gone from producing a single article over a week to 1–2 a day.
My status as single and employed means I have a certain amount of freedom not true for everyone. But, at the very least, I hope the apps I’ve mentioned can serve as a way to eliminate distraction and free up time for any individual.