Alejandro Escamilla /

Heads down

Thumbs up.

Justin Jackson
Jun 3, 2013 · 3 min read

I’ve been fortunate to interview a lot of great creative people: the folks building awesome software, writing inspiring books, and building impressive companies.

There’s one characteristic they all share: they have focused, uninterrupted, “heads down” time.

Here’s an email I received from Derek Sivers:

I’d love to do an interview! But could we wait just a few months?

I’m deep in the middle of my programming. Very head-down. Not much to say. I’d be a pretty bad interview right now.

But if you don’t mind waiting a few months, I’ll be more head-up with a lot of new stuff to talk about.

Is that OK? Ask me again after July or so?

Derek is one of the most generous people I’ve met: the kind of guy that will write a two page response to a question I’ve asked him. But he also understands that a focused mind produces great work.

Here’s the problem most of us have: we’re always “heads up”. We’re scanning Twitter, answering emails, saying “yes” to new requests, going to meetings, reading the news, jumping on a new side-project, opening new tabs, and getting distracted by pop-up notifications.

Chris Nagele, the founder of Wildbit, is a prime example of heads down. In his 2012 SuperConf talk he lays it all on the table:

Building an amazing product is about being focused. Avoid multi-tasking. Sweat every single detail. Make sure it’s perfect.

Despite what some people tell you, you do have to work hard. It doesn’t mean you have to work 15 hour days. It does mean that when you do sit down to work, you need to put your head down and work. Get the fuck off of Twitter! If you’re getting distracted every 5 minutes, you won’t get any work done.

To do this well, you have to prioritize, and focus on one thing at a time. What’s the most important thing you need to get done? Do that, and don’t get distracted by anything else.

First step: start heads up. Figure out your priorities: what do you need to achieve? What’s your timeline? If you’re on a team, do this together.

Second step: find a place where you can work free of distractions (if you work from home, and have kids, you might want to find a place outside the home)

Third step: dedicate your most productive time of day to working quietly, in solitude (ie. early mornings)

Fourth step: turn off notifications, close that email window, TweetDeck, and chat. Block tempting websites.

Fifth step: heads down. Commit to working distraction free. Focus on your goal. Start working!

Sixth step: finish what you’re doing. I’ve found that 10% and 90% done (respectively) are the hardest hurdles to overcome. Get over those humps, and keep going.

You can’t stay in heads down mode forever; you’ll eventually find your own rhythm: ie. focused creative time in the morning, less creative tasks in the afternoons.

If we want to achieve the success of great creators we need to emulate their habits. Let’s practice being heads down.

You really have to tune everything out, and just work. And you have to do that every single day. - Chris Nagele

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