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How to Focus (infovegan.com)
152 points by cjoh on July 26, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments

I used to use techniques like this to maintain my focus. Let me toss something out though that might be a bit controversial. Perhaps having to do this is a sign of ADHD. For me it was. There are many signs and symptoms, and unfortunately many people have heard that people are over medicated on things like Ritalin and Adderral. However, the thing to consider is that people with strong ADHD actually have a different brain structure. It turns out that the focus benefits of being on the medication only works for people who genuinely do have ADHD, and does not work for "regular" people (if there even is such a thing).

Let me just say, that Adderral changed my life. I used to have what I termed "Reddit seeking behavior". I could work on tasks that were interesting, but if it got a little rough or boring - what's happening on Reddit, or HN or Digg? However when I got on Adderral that entirely changed. I still check HN, but much less frequently because I'm busy getting things done. I don't have to resort to extreme changes in my environment to resist distractions. It comes naturally now.

I don't discount or disagree that focus can be improved. I know it first hand, but I would also argue that people with ADHD have some additional things going on that are much harder to train. If you are one of those people, getting on the appropriate medication could well change your life. I know it did mine. That's a big statement, and often over used, but for me, it changed the way I experience every day life in substantial and dramatic ways.

Take it for what it's worth, YMMV.

Did you find that it impacted your creativity/lateral thinking? I sometimes consider focus-enhancing drugs, given that I feel that I'm not nearly focused enough in my programming or my daily tasks—but I'm also a writer of sci-fi/fantasy stories, and I wonder if taking such drugs would prevent my mind from drifting to the kinds of places it needs to go to give me new material. Thoughts?

One nice thing to keep in mind about these drugs is that the majority (the stimulants) function on an as needed basis. That is to say, unlike an anti-depressant or cholesterol medication which depends on daily usage over a long period of time, the stimulant medication can be directed at a block of time as little as 5 or 6 hours.

If you find that it negatively impacts your creativity or that it just doesn't make you feel like you, you can use it only for those occasions when you especially need to sit still/focus/etc..

A therapist friend of mine doesn't take her meds on days when she sees patients. She does take them when she has to catch up on all the paper work that she lets accrue.

What's more, there's a nice little truism that comes up from time to time around here that just because something feels like work, that doesn't mean it's actually productive. I think the same might be true of creativity. Within the first hour of taking my first medicine, I had a kind of fuzzy discomfort at how quiet my brain was. I'm used to having a flood of disparate ideas and impressions. Having that slew of noise in my head may occasionally yield some creative product that otherwise would be lost, but by the same token, I often will find a creative thread that I am excited about only to have it slip away as some other tangent jumps in front of it in my mind's eye.

When I started taking it, there was a pronounced impact on things like my personality and creativity. I think that was mostly from the drug effect. I was super focused and pretty euphoric for about a week. There was some residual euphoria for a month or two, but always decreasing. Unfortunately the euphoria is why Adderrall is so strongly controlled, people have to keep taking more and more of it to chase that feeling.

If however you use it as prescribed, the euphoria leaves and the focus remains. I honestly feel more creative now, but as mentioned by others, it's a bit different. Before, I felt like I had a thousand ideas battling for my attention all the time. I didn't really notice it though because - well it was like that since birth. When I went on Adderrall, it was as if someone took all the buzzing in my brain and turned the volume way way down. The ideas and thoughts are still there, but they don't dominate my thinking process unless I choose to focus on them.

I have a similar story to NyxWulf. As a musician, I find that Adderall does not reduce my creativity per se, but it does change it a bit.

That said, it is not a permanent change. If I take a break from Adderall, the way I think about music is back to how it is "normally".

As an aside, I've found that smoking pot while on Adderall brings me to a rather mentally focused and creative state, which is nice, but not something I'd do every day.

I think Adderall would be more useful for you while taking existent characters and places in your worlds, and extrapolating around them, for lack of better phrasing. Coming up with new characters and places? Not so much. Really fleshing out existent ideas for characters and such? Oh yes. YMMV, of course.

Hasn't impacted my creative thinking one bit. I'm not sure if that is a sign that it isn't working on me(though there are plenty of signs that it is working).

I only started adderall few weeks ago. For the past five years, I kept myself from going this route after hearing so many horror stories re: adderall etc. But finally, I realized few weeks ago that a pill can't make my life too much worse than it was. So I made the move.

It's been few weeks and my life has completely changed. I haven't quite experienced a "high" nor a crash except the first day. I just feel normal--and not like a bot that adderall is supposed to turn you into. I am not sure what to make of it. And it could completely be placebo.

I really wish I took this step few years ago! Simple things like making my bed, having breakfast seemed like a super pain in the ass. Not anymore. I really hope it stays this way longterm and isn't placebo.

My experience was pretty similar. Except as mentioned in one of my other responses I had a pretty strong personality change for the first week - probably similar to the robot idea. It went away pretty quickly though. I honestly think I was just so shocked I could think in quiet that I spent more time doing that than I used to, so people thought I turned more robotic. I was genuinely fascinated at how much my internal environment changed, and I did spend a lot of time thinking about it. For me it was so profound and so beneficial that I didn't really care if I turned into a robot, I was staying as long as I could. It turned out to be a non-issue for me though.

How are you coping with the side-effects? When I tried Adderall for the first time, it was like some one had switched on the stadium lights. However, it killed my sleep and I was a wreck within a week. I had to discontinue it as lack of sleep was causing social issues with my wife and co-workers.

I've heard your kind of experiences from friends too. And that is what kept me from taking it.

Yet, I experienced no high of any sort. I still indulge in timewasting activities while on adderall(I'm on it now:)--but it's significantly less.

I don't have those side effects, so Adderall my just not be a good fit for you. Have you tried something else? What did your doctor say?

Concentration depends on context, surroundings, motivation. It can be trained and improved. To use a drug as a quick remedy is dangerous and frankly rather sad.

Please rethink what you're doing.

To put my tin-foil hat on: I consider ADHD an artifical diagnosis pushed by the pharma companies.

I am literally in the waiting room for my appointment to get a prescription. I was diagnosed just last week. I'm very excited that I may be on the verge of a new chapter.

I wish you the best of luck. I really hope it works well for you, it has been such a positive experience for me that I really have a hard time explaining it without sounding like a "fanboi".

Thanks. At the moment, I feel a sense of kinship with others who have made this discovery relatively late in life (as opposed to in childhood).

In that light, I'll share that my first 6 hours on medication (ie. as of this writing) have been an absolute revelation. I did a few chores around the house, the kind of thing that would usually take three times as long as it should, throw me into a bad mood, be interrupted by three or four stops at the computer to see whether anyone's responded to me on HN, and then end up being done with less than great attention to quality. Instead of that, I felt like I was in flow--for the first time in a LONG time. That usual static in my brain and in my attitude was almost entirely turned off, and instead, I was able to focus my attention and energy on efficiently and effectively solving the problems and accomplishing the tasks that were part of the job.

One of the biggest and most pleasant surprises was that I generally didn't misplace any of my tools while I was working. Usually, I spend several irritating chucks of thirty seconds or more trying to track down the pliers or the sand block. That didn't happen at all this time.

Also, and I'm sure this sounds pathetic to those who can't relate, I would often be faced with the most trivial of decisions, the most minor of challenges, and that would throw me off entirely, compounding all of those negatives I described above. This time, when a challenge was before me or a choice had to be made, it seemed like the most natural and normal thing in the world for me to quickly assess the situation, the options, and immediately settle on a likely solution and put it to the test without delay. All without duress and without effort.

I see what you mean about becoming a bit of an evangelist for this. If these benefits from medication last even once my system has done whatever adaptation it's going to do, I will be looking at a whole new life.

I'm curious ... I also have what you call "Reddit seeking behavior"

Could I go to a general practitioner or local clinic and get a prescription to try Adderral?

My regular doctor prescribed it - he's a general practitioner. It is quite expensive if you don't have insurance.

It's definitely something you'd want to talk to your doctor about, and they will monitor you closely when you go on it. If it turns out that it doesn't work for you, it can have some negative side effects on your personality. People get really angry and irritable, so if that happens you'll want to get off of it.

Definitely talk to a doctor about it if you think it is impacting your ability to work or study effectively.

I believe adderall is very carefully regulated. Our uni clinic refuses to prescribe it. It refers you to a $250/hr shrink who wrote me a prescription 20mins into our session and billed me for the hour. Well worth it though :)


This is an image representing an average-length human life; each box is one month.

So, this works for me:

Step 1: Clear your mind: - Close your eyes, take a deep breath and say "oooooooooooooom" ten times. Try to keep your voice as steady as possible - concentrate on trying to keep the intensity and pitch of your voice consistent.

Step 2: Open your eyes slowly. Your mind will feel clear and you can now focus on the task at hand.

Interesting that an article on how to focus, which I read in Readability, contained 28 links. I wonder if this was an intentional assualt by the author to prove his point.

The article isn't about how to narrowly focus on one and only one minuscule thing (reading one article), it's about focusing on one and only one task (reading a blog post in this case, which typically implies the availability of related links), and more importantly, how to train your attention span so that it lasts longer than the usual couple minutes.

My thoughts exactly. Out of those 20 links, the author expressly asked the reader to click at least one link to understand his point. And that was a link to a picture that a good article could have easily embedded inside his article.

I guess without proper "paid" media, articles of this quality is all we get.

It's a matter of preference I suppose. Ultimately, I tend to keep images out and stick with links because it gives users more control. I feel like a big image there will have everyone rushing to see the screenshot, whereas someone can open it up in a new window to get the point with minimal flow distraction.

Regardless, I use links because I think I ought to be doing you the service of linking to my original sources -- usually well founded research -- rather than just presuming that I'm to be trusted.

A link isn't distracting. You clicking on it is. We need articles with more links to background information, not less. See:


I appreciate links to sources, but links are definitely distracting. Even if you don't click on it, a link forces your mind to imagine what's at the other end of that link and make a decision about whether it's worth clicking on.

If you frequently link to many sources within a single post, it might be better to use superscripts and link to sources at the bottom (which, incidentally, is how PG does it). These are still distracting, but considerably less so when they're used exclusively for citations, as opposed to digressions.

I had the same thought when I tried to read "Getting Things Done". The text is sprinkled with small info boxes of wisdom, which made it next to impossible for me to focus on reading the text. That really amused me at the time.

Vipassana meditation is basically the boot camp equivalent of this, it is nothing but focused attention. Highly recommended.

Seconded. There's more than a bit of literature documenting the benefits of mindfulness/insight/vipassana meditation, which, besides an increase in the ability to focus, include reduced stress and anxiety:

http://bit.ly/9OKHt9 (google scholar search)

And "...a nuts-and-bolts, step-by-step guide to Insight [Vipassana] meditation...":


I second the recommendation for Mindfulness in Plain Language. Great book.

I've used the pomodoro + Spaces + single monitor technique for a while. I actually took things a bit farther and now keep my laptop on a stool to the left of my desk (I do my main work on a desktop). Instead of having a separate Space for non-work stuff (chat, email, casual browsing), I keep it all on the laptop. I only use it during pomodoro breaks and I have the screen go to sleep after only a couple minutes of inactivity so it's not distracting when the breaks are over.

I've found that since I have to perform the physical act of swiveling my chair to comfortably use the laptop, it is much less tempting to get distracted. It was too easy to "just check my email really quick..." or "just respond to this one instant message..." when it was only a quick Spaces shortcut away.

I don't know why in the world people think that it's "normal" to sit still for hours on end focused on a task. Has that ever been natural for us? Kids can't do it. Most adults can't do it without caffeine or other drugs. Why do we keep trying?

The answer for me is balance. Work for two hours, then 1 hour break. Maybe exercise. Then when I come back, I'm focused and ready to go for another hour or so. Then maybe break, run an errand, have lunch. Take a short nap. Then work for another 2 hours.

Also, if you're having trouble focusing, ask yourself how much you like what really like what you're doing. I've been a programmer for 6 years, thought I liked it but had problems focusing, then realized my true passions were elsewhere.

I find that actually focusing is not an issue - it's more the 'getting started' part that I have trouble with, ie. tackling serious issues/features in the code base, rather than just frittering around the edges, tidying up minor things, checking HN, and so on.

I just tried pomodoro today as an experiment based on this article, and ended up going waaay overtime on several of them. As in, an hour or more of sustained focus at a stretch. So I suspect that the paperwork and the "have to stop after 25/35/45 minutes" parts are actually impacting my productivity (by popping me out of 'the zone'), not helping it.


After reading a suggestion on HN, I now try to start with something productive instead of email. If I HAVE to check my email first, I'll first start an alarm countdown to 10 minutes and then check email + HN.

I'm not a fan of medication. I believe some people really do need it to balance out, but I think others just need some proper dieting and exercise to balance their body's chemistry out. Our bodies aren't made to sit around all day on a computer, we need to have some physical activity to stimulate the rest of your body and give your mind a break. Perhaps thats the problem people have with focus'ing, is that they are overworking their mind. My friends, colleagues, joke I have adult add, or whatever you call it, because I jump from topic to topic. Perhaps. But when summer came rolling around I began hiking miles and miles of the Adirondack Mountains. I began to bike around. Not to mention I picked up a motorcycle and began riding that. These activities away from the screen, really help. I still jump on topics, but when I work, I'm focused on what i do. Granted I can't wait to get out of work to go on another ride or hike. Get off the computer, and read a book, go for a walk, do something that doesn't require you being near a screen. Get some real achievements in life, not on the xbox. Check your diet for being healthy. You will have to google on this one cause everybody's diet is different. For me as I try and lose more and more weight (so I can go skydiving), I tend to eat leaner protein, and keep on the carbs for energy, making sure to exercise to burn the carbs right. Some of you might want some St. John's Wort, for your moods, others may want to get some more Omega3's in their body. I'm no dietition, I just like to research what I can eat naturally before turning to synthetic drugs pushed by a corrupt government and group of doctors looking for money in treatments and never the cures. Once a day I try and push myself physically to a racing heart, and it in turn clears my mind. The joy you can get from pushing your body will clear your mind and help you appreciate it much more.

The article starts by mentioning Nick Carr, who recently wrote a book about how the Internet is ruining our mind/attention span. Steven Pinker disagrees[1]. (Which Carr tries to rebut[2])

I'm always a bit scared about the large influence a few pop-sci titles have, especially the ones that aren't even written by scientists.

[1]: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/11/opinion/11Pinker.html?_r=1

[2]: http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2010/06/steven_pinker_a.ph...

I use concerta... 30 minutes till focused.

I've been using the pomodoro app for a few weeks now, and I love it. I've found I can get twice as much work done before I started to lose my concentration.

Also, vidar mentioned Vipassana which I also have tried in the past. I meditated daily for a few months and my focus increased a TON. Extremely beneficial.

I find that AntiRSI not only prevents me from developing RSI, it also keeps me focused by making me take breaks: http://download.cnet.com/AntiRSI/3000-18487_4-85044.html

Pretty good article. I used to use Remember The Milk too, but deleted my account a few weeks ago as my list(s) ended up being way to distracting. I never felt like I was making any progress.

I'll definitely check out Pomodoro though.

Getting off the computer helps me to focus. I use a pencil and paper to work on any task that doesn't really need a computer. I print off long articles to help me read them with concentration.

I usually commit browser suicide and grab a meal if I ever start slowing down.


I thought this was a hilarious comment considering the article. but I know, this isn't reddit

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