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Ask YC: How do you achieve laser focus and concentration?
35 points by markbao 3206 days ago | hide | past | web | 39 comments | favorite
Reading the news.yc item about Provigil and reading more about it, I'm convinced that it's the kind of thing that gives you laser focus and concentration. Silver bullet drug, really (see http://www.erowid.org/experiences/exp.php?ID=62958)

Since it has strange side effects and U.S. restrictions (requires prescriptions), I'm wondering how you achieve concentration and focus when doing work.

I'm interested in this in the context of concentrating in class, doing schoolwork, and hacking.


The single most important thing I do to "achieve laser focus and concentration" is to work in such a way that I don't need "laser focus and concentration" to get my work done.

This has to be done the night before.

I always quit all online work at least 2 hours before bedtime and print whatever I'm working on.

Then I go into any other room with program listings, blank paper, and pens (especially red!) and plan out all of tomorrow's work.

All analysis, design, and refactoring must be done at this time. I do not allow myself to sleep until the next day's work is laid out. I also do not allow myself to get back onto the computer. The idea is to have a clear "vision" of what I am going to accomplish the next day. The clearer the better.

This does 2 things. First, I think about it all night (maybe even dream about it). Second, I can't wait to get started the next day.

I always wake up and start programming immediately. Once I get going, it's easy to keep going. Any difficulties are probably because I didn't plan well enough the night before.

Not sure if that's the answer you're looking for, but whatever gets the work done...

That's actually an interesting approach. I have noticed that when I have a good idea in the evening as I get ready for bed, I need to get it on paper, and I keep thinking about it overnight.

The next day I can't help but work on it.

Ray Kurzweil has said he assigns himself a problem before bedtime, triggering his subconscious mind to consider creative solutions during sleep, the list of which he reviews upon waking into a state of lucid dreaming.

Kurzweil: ...When I go to sleep, I assign myself a problem.

Interviewer: For example?

Kurzweil: It might be some mathematical problem or some practical issue for an invention or even a business strategy question or an interpersonal problem. But I'll assign myself some problem where there's a solution, and I try not to solve it before I go to sleep but just try to think about what do I know about this? What characteristics would a solution have? And then I go to sleep. Doing this primes my subconscious to think about it. Sigmund Freud said accurately that when we dream, some of the censors in our brain are relaxed, so that you might dream about things that are socially taboo or sexually taboo, because the various censors in our brain that say "You can't think that thought!" are relaxed. So we think about weird things that we wouldn't allow ourselves to think about during the day.

There are also professional blinders that prevent people from thinking creatively. Mental blocks such as "You can't solve a signal processing problem that way" or "Linguistics is not supposed to be done this way." Those assumptions are also relaxed in your dream state, and so you'll think about new ways of solving problems without being burdened by constraints like that. Another thing that's not working when you're dreaming is your rational faculties to evaluate whether an idea is reasonable, and that's why fantastic things will happen in the dream, and the most amazing thing of all is that you don't think these fantastic things are amazing. So, let's say, an elephant walks through the wall, you don't say, "My God, how did an elephant walk through the wall?" You just say, "OK, an elephant walked through wall, no big deal." So your rational faculties are also not working.

The next step is in the morning, in this half-way state between dreaming and being awake, what I call lucid dreaming, I still have access to the dream thoughts. But now I'm sufficiently conscious to also have my rational faculties. And I can evaluate these ideas, these new creative ideas that came to me during the night, and actually see which ones make sense. After 15 to 20 minutes, generally, if I stay in that state, I can have keen new insights into whatever the problem was that I assigned myself. And I've come up with many inventions this way. I've come up with solutions to problems. If I have a key decision to make, I'll always go through this process. And I'll then have a real confidence in the decision, as opposed to just trying to guess at the answer. So this is the mental technique I use to try to combine creative thinking with rational thinking.

Source: http://www.kurzweilai.net/meme/frame.html?main=/articles/art...

To make the greatest success of anything you must be able to concentrate your entire thought upon the idea you are working on. Concentration, like any skill, needs to be practiced. To practice concentration and focus, do only one thing at a time.

When eating, focus on your meal and turn off the computer; when driving, focus on the road and turn off the car radio. Anything you find yourself doing, try to do that and eliminate all distractions (sometimes this is impossible).

Your body should also be in a healthy state, thus exercise is of the utmost importance, 2-3 times a day for 45 mins seems to do it for me.

The food you eat and substances you consume have tremendous impacts on your mental state. Avoid meat, alcohol, cigarettes, pungent and spicy foods. Eat mild, bland foods and you'll begin to notice a clarity of mind and increased ability to focus.

Finally, for 15 minutes every other day, sit in a quiet location and meditate. This will increasingly clear your mind, allow you to manage your energy and multiply your ability to concentrate and focus.

The greatest man would accomplish nothing if he lacked concentration.

To back up the food argument, I decided to become vegetarian a year or so ago (to the chagrin of my mother), and definitely noticed an increase in clarity and 'calm' mind. I changed in part because of this rumoured clarity effect, so placebo is definitely not out of the equation, YMMV, etc.

I've been a vegetarian for 14 years, so I don't exactly recall what my concentration was like before vs. after (and I was a teenager before, so I was probably only concentrating on girls and rock and roll, but mostly girls). I do know that it isn't uncommon for testosterone levels to be reduced in men who become vegetarian, depending on diet, which actually has an adverse effect on many aspects of life including concentration. However, with a small amount of care, it is very easy to eat a vegetarian diet that is entirely positive for health. Walnuts (among other tree nuts and legumes), for example, provide the building blocks of testosterone better than the vast majority of animal products.

I think, in general, we have a pretty poor understanding of how various foods interact with the human body, particularly foods that trigger hormone production (as many high density proteins, like meats and non-tofu soy products, do). So, I would probably agree that a well-balanced vegetarian diet probably does lead to a more balanced day-to-day emotional life, which helps with concentration, wakefulness, and feeling good about what you're doing with your life (which I find is the single most important aspect of productivity for me).

I certainly encourage folks to give it a try, and see how it works for you. But do some reading first. There are some non-intuitive aspects that throw new vegetarians for a loop, and make the experience less than satisfying. For example, soy proteins of some types, while they seem like a high quality protein, are actually rather hard for your body to deal with. Tofu, on the other hand, which is processed similarly to cheese, has had those hormone-related proteins broken down into a form very friendly for your body.

I've also known people who've become vegetarian and gained weight (which was not my experience, as I lost about 15 pounds within months of becoming vegetarian without trying), because they've become carb-o-terians or bean-and-cheese-a-terians. Even if you rule out a whole class of (predominantly) unhealthy food in the form of meat, you can still eat a phenomenally unhealthy diet. And being unhealthy is bad for concentration (among other things).

"we have a pretty poor understanding of how various foods interact with the human body"

That's a fascinating area all by itself. I read a couple of years ago about a study in hyperactivity and (while it's not classic double-blind, etc) the anecdotal examples presented were interesting. In one case, a woman with identical twins (who were hyperactive and very unruly) started feeding one on "real food" rather than the processed stuff that many busy parents rely on. Two weeks later, there was a huge difference in behaviour, in the way that you might predict. I'll see if I can dig out a link.

A friend of mine is a school-teacher, in a really rough school. They just banned all forms of soft drink, and he says that has, in itself, made a big difference with discipline. Basically, kids who were getting tanked up on sugar and "bouncing off the walls" are now noticeably calmer and easier to manage.

Religious debates to one side, it's easy to forget that our bodies are just a bunch of chemicals, so the chemicals we put in are bound to make a difference. Thanks for relating your experiences :)

Kids don't get "tanked up on sugar." That myth was disproved many years ago. No doubt, replacing empty calories with healthy foods is good for children (and adults).

Well, I'm just quoting what he said.

I've been a vegetarian for 12-13 years and I have the same thoughts. I've noticed huge changes in my concentration abilities when I eat a mostly junk/unhealthy diet for several days. I know that isn't restricted to vegetarians though.

try exercising before you work and take exercise breaks during the day:

http://brainrules.net/ http://www.johnratey.com/site/default.aspx

Indeed. I live in a house with a few other people, and we make music a lot. I'll play the drums for a bit, and guitar for a bit, and when we're done I can generally be much more productive coding than I would have been if I had just sat down to code.

This seems to be from being physically active for a bit, and from having the creative juices flowing for a bit as well.

Totally. I can't tell you how much running for 40 minutes a day on an elliptical has changed my life.

Just bought a bike trainer (it stops the bike moving and applies friction to the rear wheel) and I'm doing 2 x 15 minute sessions per day. I'm about to get a rower so I plan to do the same amount on that, hence 1hr per day total. With just 15 minutes per day though (my easy-to-do starting point) it's made a tremendous difference to how I feel. Not sure I'm working any harder though *8) I just feel better.

Provigil doesn't give you laser focus and concentration if you aren't already focused. If you're prone to time wasting, it just gives you more hours in the day to waste.

Obviously I'm failing at this since I'm posting on news.YC. ;-)

For me, it's always been a matter of the work "pulling" me along. I don't achieve laser focus & concentration; rather, at a certain point, the work becomes so engrossing that focus just naturally happens. If I think about it, I've lost it.

I've got a bunch of tricks for setting things up so this is more likely, but no hard recipes. Atomic commits is a big one: when you've got the rush of "okay, I just finished this feature, I can check it in" 6-8 times a day, it's a pretty powerful reward system. If you've got some boring task like typing in a lot of details, try to write a library to generate it for you, or pick it up from conventions you already use. Also, having API documentation close at hand for the code you've already written seems to be a big win: I got significantly more engaged when I started generatting JSDoc for my JavaScript widgets so it was all at my fingertips.

For me, it's always been a matter of the work "pulling" me along. I don't achieve laser focus & concentration; rather, at a certain point, the work becomes so engrossing that focus just naturally happens. If I think about it, I've lost it.

This is precisely how I work. Basically, start on some small task related to a larger project and just hope it sucks you in and won't let go... if it doesn't, wait a while, try again. Rinse and repeat until you hit the 16-hour coding extravaganza.

I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned flow here. Google it up and read up about it; if you have time for a book, "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" by Csikszentmihalyi is a great book.

This is commonly called "being in the zone." And you reach it when the challenge at hand is slightly above, but attainable, relative to your ability, such that it requires effortful focus to achieve. If you tackle a problem of this sort, chances are you will focus automatically, lose track of time, feel unstoppable, etc.

Obviously not all problems are at the appropriate level. There are some people (not myself, unfortunately) who skillfully reshape these problems into smaller tasks, or add challenges, such that they can lead to flow. This skill (of reshaping problems) takes training itself, but I can see it being tremendously useful.

Of course, stuff that stresses discipline is probably better than any pill, in the long run. :-)

You can legally order Adrafinil (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adrafinil) in the US, and it metabolizes into Modafinil (Provigil).

I tried it once, and didn't seem to do much for me.

If you want to give it a shot, it's available under the brand name 'Olmifon' online.

Adrafinil has worse side effects then Modafinil (liver toxicity), I would not recommend using it. To try out Modafinil, talk to your doctor about a prescription.

ObPeeve: In general, you don't focus lasers. The narrow beam is a result of it being collimated as it's produced.


I would mention kratom as an unregulated substance sometimes used for focus but I usually get mercilessly downmodded even though it it topic-appropriate. I'm not advocating it for anyone, but it certainly exists and has its legitimate uses.

If anyone is looking for a drug solution, and I certainly wouldn't recommend using drugs to solve your problems, amphetamine would be the best thing, though it certainly has worse side effects than Modafanil. It worked for Erdos and is readily prescribed by psychiatrists to treat ADD, the disease of being unable to focus.

" ... to treat ADD, the disease of being unable to focus."

ADD may be more of a problem of inappropriate focus.

It would also help to know if the cause of one's poor focus is indeed neurochemical, and if dopamine levels are the issue (tho that may be quite hard to determine except though experimentation).

I 'have' ADD, and I'm able to focus perfectly fine, thank you.

I don't want to derail the thread, but lately I've been thinking that ADD is more about a faster attention 'cycle' than pure inability to focus.

What did Erdos use Modafinil for? I recall reading that Einstein enjoyed his cigar very much for his mental work... is this the same kind of thing?

Sorry, my text was ambiguous, Erdos generally used methylphenidate and/or benzedrine.

;) The apophasis may have been unnecessary, I think the real trigger is linking to the site in question.

This is what works for me: 1. Get up early, very few distractions and the mind is fresh, work non-stop for about 4 hours atleast. 2. Keep the browser closed and open it only if necessary. Having only the code editor and other necessary files open makes a big difference. 3. Get your life in order, there's no way you can focus for any length of time if there's drastic conflicts, stress, relationship problems, etc in your social life. 4. Exercise and keep healthy.

I can never quite concentrate in class: best thing I could do is carry a laptop and take notes on it, hoping to review them later, read the textbook and make use of all resources available to me.

As far as concentrating on work/hacking, the tips are: Use a development environment where you can concentrate on creating useful features versus the process. To me it's: - Linux with a window manager that allows me to have multiple work spaces and tile windows automatically - Emacs with the tramp plugin (allows me to edit code on remote machines as to test the code immediately) - Dynamic programming languages and unit/other automated testing. - Either dual screens (preferred) or a single large screen. With this combination I am writing code on one screen (or part of the screen) and debugging (or editing a wiki/bugzilla bug entry/base camp task list) on another.

Also I try to be aware of when I am in the "zone" and try to get as much of the crucial (or core) work done as needed during that time. When I am not in the zone I try to get as many of the annoying/"easy, but tedious"/need-to-be-done tasks as possible, so that things are easier for me next time I enter the zone.

I also try to maintain a work out schedule as to keep myself free of headaches and fatigue.

I would just echo the idea that you need to eliminate distractions - turn off phone, email, tv, and choose music with no lyrics. I have to have music going to get in the zone. I would add two other things that prevent me from getting in the zone: (1) small (less than 10 minute) tasks, and (2) tasks that I've procrastinated on. If there are lots of 10 minute tasks floating around, they are a distraction since, while working on a major code change, I'm often tempted to just do the quick fix here, quick fix there and then bam - I'm out of the zone (and now am checking email, etc). Do the little tasks and get them out of the way - even if it takes the whole day.

The second thing for me is clearing out any procrastinated items. If I don't answer that email, return that call, finish writing that article or whatever, sure enough it's going to pop into my brain at the wrong time and then I'll start thinking what a loser I am b/c I didn't do x, y and z on time.

So to sum up: not only is it important to minimize email and other interruptions but it's equally important to clear the chatter from your own head. To do so requires that you eliminate the small tasks and those things that make you think less of yourself.

Working on something interesting is the first requirement for me to overcome distractions. I love troubleshooting and that is when I come close to some kind of a zone. But more often than not, I end up taking lots of breaks reading YC, reddit, etc. I suppose self-discipline and practice is the way to achieve consistent and deep focus.

In regard to provigil...from what I understand it helps you to stay awake more than it does improve your concentration. It's also relatively expensive from what I remember. It doesn't seem like the most cost effective way to improve your focus/performance.

I agree with gcheong, exercise is a good way to maintain focus. In fact, doing something difficult (and hopefully productive) on a daily basis is a great way to increase your personal discipline, which leads to more focus. Try to force yourself to exercise, read or do anything that you don't generally want to do every day. The confidence and work ethic you build could translate into improved studying and focus. (I know it sounds crazy, but some people say it works)

It's a difficult thing but this is how I do it

Get yourself a nice table and chair, no leather or anything special but one with an upright back. Posture is important

Next, don't use incandescent lamps, use flourescent lights instead. White light is neutral on the eyes and makes it easier to work.

Get a quiet environment or get yourself noise canceling headphones like the Bose QC ones.

Plug away at work, you will definitely reach a point when you will get engrossed and lose track of time. Now you're in the zone.

Alternately, practicing meditation daily for 10 minutes in the morning and the evening helps. Breathing rhythms are very important for relaxation and concentration.

Install AntiRSI http://tech.inhelsinki.nl/antirsi/ and follow the breaks rigorously. I.e. 8 min break each hour and mini breaks for stretching. Then fire up itunes with "Ambient 1: Music for Airports" by Brian Eno set to a very low volume. Then work! [and read http://seoblackhat.com/2007/01/29/do-it-fucking-now/]

Remove distractions while you're working. Shut down browsers, email, chat, etc.

If you have a brain, and you're doing something worthwhile and interesting with it, that will cause it to focus.


Before I can really concentrate everything has to be just right, I also like to go for a walk before I get started just to clear my head, a regular pattern of sleep helps too (need I mention a healthy diet?).

schedule distractions. sleep well, regularly. eat well. exercise.

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