Last Night A Book Saved My Life

My rules for focussing in an attention-hoovering world

I’ve been geeking out so hard on how to focus it’s been challenging to find time to actually do it. My nerdiest friends have been asking me (of all people) how I get shit done. Here are some thoughts on focussing in our attention-hoovering world.

The human attention span is riding at just eight seconds — below a goldfish’s nine. Learning how to best manage your time is itself a skill to master. And setting an intention — what you want to have happen — is not reserved to yoga classes. It’s just as relevant to your average workday as it is to your entire life.

Assuming you don’t have designs on cheating death (because why in God’s name would you need to learn to focus when you’ve got infinite time?) the rules below may prove helpful. Some are more drastic than others and from time to time, I’ll break one. But the overall effort in upholding them, means I need to exercise less discipline in the long run.

A universal solution to speeding things up, is by slowing them down. The real hack, and the only one that matters — is abiding to you’re own rhythms and rituals (R&Rs). Being deliberate about your R&Rs will not only boost your creativity, but your ability to focus as well. Percolation, it seem— proves profitable.

And with that, here are 5 things to do today, to get ahead of tomorrow.

1. Be a Process Nerd

There is no sufficient answer to: ‘Is there an App for that?’ Headspace, Tomato Timer, MindZip, Blinkist, Pocket, and Session Buddy — all have utility when it comes to productivity (or thinking you’re being productive) — but even collectively they don’t do the trick. Indeed one of the first band-aid solutions is to turn your smartphone’s home-screen into a tool-only zone.

On the macro level you could ask: how can I increase my output by reducing what I work on? How can we all employ some Kaizen to our daily practice? Once we get rid of the waste we may just find that we’re firing on all cylinders. The master of this is Warren Buffet and his ‘2 list strategy. Life changing stuff — literally.

2. Block your Time

Shallow work is all too familiar and entails talking or thinking about the work to be done while actually doing very little of it. This mode of work is much less cognitively demanding than deep work — which requires a sustained focus and depends upon your unique skills.

In many ways, how you move between the two styles is determined by your self-discipline. If you fail to design and adopt the conditions for doing your best work, it’s likely because you lacked awareness and didn’t deliberately choose when, where and how to do it.

Time-blocking your day is the hack. Simply group your work into blocks of time, say for example an hour and a half, and bear in mind when it’s optimal to execute a particular activity. You can then shovel all your shallow work into a 90-minute chunk in the late afternoon. This leaves the entire morning as well as other times of the day free to perform long stretches of focussed work. Experiment with different schedules and be sure to measure your performance to discover what works best for you. The end result is safeguarding your most creative times and ensuring you don’t break your flow.

Side note: when you’re really in the zone consider not having any major plans, say, like flight (as was the case when writing this — and my plane took off without me on it)

3. Safeguard Mornings

I’ve surveyed a shit tonne of folks and nearly everyone uses their smartphone as an alarm clock. Go on and splurge and by yourself an old school (or new school) alarm clock. The clock will prove to have an unintended benefit besides waking you up: it will expedite the time in which you pee, shower, and dress.

After that you might prescribe to a Tim Ferriss-styled practice: make bed, meditate, do push-ups, hydrate, and journal — but it’s likely you have your own distinct R&Rs. Whatever it is, safeguard it. It should be a sacred time.

It’s highly likely that your morning involves some form of coffee — which can really works wonder (in moderation of course) for helping focus. The main point is to protect your mornings — -when you slip out of REM and into a mode of mind-wandering your thoughts are luminous. You’re seduced into doing work that matters.

4. Fuck Emails

It’s 2:36 a.m. — I’m thinking about checking my emails but I’m actually enjoying writing this a whole lot more. The moment I open up Gmail it’s become a fun game too see how fast I can close it. If you happen to be a Filer who likes your emails sitting pretty in folders —read this to learn why Searchers are crushing you. Spoiler alert: on average, finding an email by searching is done 41 seconds faster than locating it by folder.

After some heavy experimenting, here are 5 rules I subscribe to when it comes to slaying email:

  1. Check emails no more than twice a day. Once in the a.m. and if needed again in the afternoon

2. Restrict your email sessions to 30 minutes, 45 minutes max

3. Be in a good mood when you do emails

4. Find a system of flagging or forgetting that works for you — -and stick with it

5. Put the onus on the sender and don’t reply to emails that don’t require a response

5. Rest

If you think scheduling leisure time is not a high priority, you’re wrong. I’m reading about it right now. And it’s not the book that saved my life literally — but it’s representative of deliberately taking time out. It’s brought me solace and happily helped me speed up.

Research supports that when you get busy (like real busy), your attention is hijacked. You simply can’t exercise good judgment on how best to spend your time. The net outcome of course is that you often end up even busier and with increased anxiety.

Planning a recess not only boosts creativity as your mind works through problems in the background, ironically, it reduces your feeling of time pressure all together. The creative benefits of walking, running, napping, toiling, meandering, and generally mucking (all in good measure) are well known. As it turns out, a bit of slacking can help you really focus on what matters and stay calm amidst the storm.

6. Slip Up

Remember all of this is an ideal. Morning gets sidetracked by an unexpected incident or sometimes you’re just not feeling it. That’s OK. The point is to be both intentional and have a process that you’re continually flexing and experimenting with — tweaking, twerking, and toying as you go.

Staying focussed is a practice, a new art form in and of itself. And if it were piss easy, you’d have stopped reading this a long time ago.


Bonus: A (short list) of who’s who in the focus mafia

Adam Grant | Alex Pang | Austin Kleon | Cal Newport | Dan Pink | David Kadavy | James Altucher | Joceyln K. Glei | Ryan Holiday | Tim Ferris


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