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Ask HN: What tools/methods do you use to focus your time well?
144 points by nikivi on May 23, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 58 comments
I wrote a piece in my wiki about tools & methods I use to stay focused.


I found this system to work well for me. It's a Trello board of goals separated by time. Weekly/monthly/quarterly/yearly. Where month goals are ideally based off my year goals and week goals are based on month goals. This kind of system gives me structure and focus and I allocate time with events based on the goals I have set. And more importantly it gives long term perspective to the things I do now & the things I want to achieve in life.

The link also goes over some nice tools I use to automate distraction as I have most 'news feed' like websites blocked (front pages of twitter/hn/lobsters/github/..). And only have few times I can actually visit those sites with goals of intentionally viewing them and not out of a habit.

I also try to systemize as much as I can to the point where I create some guidelines ([rules](https://wiki.nikitavoloboev.xyz/focusing/rules)) I wish to follow. It helps me keep things in order and I iterate on them as I gain more experience.

I am curious what systems & methods you guys found that work well for you to achieve this goal of being more mindful of your time and the things you truly want to be doing in life?

I utilize a similar system to "reverse engineer the year".

Breaking down the major outcomes I want for the year into quarters which each having a specific focus and theme. At the end of each quarter I have a 90 day review to reflect on how I'm doing, where I'm heading and if there is any recalibration that needs to happen from changing priorities.

Each month I is essentially 3 "Acts" that play out the goals of that quarter and those in turn have weekly sprints.

With all that said the day is the most important of it all. What I choose to do each day reverberates across the year. This is where deep investment in intentionally building habits and focusing on systems over goals come into play.

I write more about that system here: https://juvoni.com/you-are-a-rocketship/

A great book that talks about that system is The One Thing by Gary Keller

As for time management tools I’ve focus on four categories

- Tracking

- Quotas

- Blocking

- Scheduling & Task Management

I talk about the tools I use here: https://juvoni.com/tools-of-the-time-manager/

Big highlights are:

- Rescuetime

- Freedom

- TickTick

Put noise cancelling headphones on and go to musicforprogramming.net, select random mix.

About 10oz of coffee first thing in the morning. Then I let the world come to me ;) Being more of a maverick personality type, I don’t even entertain “methods” or “systems” to structure my life. I pretty much just follow whatever thread I’m on and do what seems best in the moment. At least this hasn’t failed me yet.

I do tend to struggle with a little ADHD, which the coffee helps with. Other than that I just try to have fun and blaze an interesting trail each day (though hardly ever consciously).

Minus the coffee and ADHD this is what I do. I’ve always felt any method/system was pure overhead and just lost time in planning when I could be doing. That said, I’m not a complete animal. I keep a few post it’s with hand written todos. I can assess and prioritize in my head as well as estimate time. Check things of when done. Toss the post it in my desk drawer when finished as a record of work done.

It’s basically the same system I use out of work to remember what errands I’m running on the weekend, etc.

This has been my approach but I’m getting fed up with my consequent inability to manage my time, which is way more precious and easily wasted than money, and harder to budget well. There are a lot of things I want and need to do but find very hard to do consistently.

I want an app (for iOS) that helps me “budget my time” but I haven’t found one. It should help me with goals like “30 minutes daily housekeeping, 4 hours weekly woodworking”, etc.

I’m also getting assessed for ADHD. Reading about it is extremely interesting and seems to explain a lot of my life: fidgeting and leg bouncing, constant awful backlog of bills and paperwork and late fees, moving to new jobs and cities and countries, obsessively stimulated fascination with a series of interests, learning basically all the programming languages by age 16, having a “projects” folder littered with a hundred sad subfolders, struggles with grocery shopping, acute restlessness during cinema screenings, embarrassing and damaging failures to perform rather simple tasks in a timely manner, and so on.

>I want an app (for iOS) that helps me “budget my time” but I haven’t found one. It should help me with goals like “30 minutes daily housekeeping, 4 hours weekly woodworking”, etc.

Have you tried Habitica?

I’m trying it now, thanks. It seemed a bit too much when I considered it once but I can see the appeal.

As someone that likes the spirit behind Habitica and has tried it a few times – also contributed some bugfixes I desperately needed – I’m curious what you found a bit too much, since I felt the same way.

I’ve toyed in my head with the idea of making a similar app, still heavily-inspired by gaming but without diving deep into the 16-bit RPG pixel atmosphere and the baggage that carries.

It just seems a bit optimized for people who actually love RPGs in all their complexity with different items and stuff, when I might prefer something that has a game aspect while staying quite simple. I’m less motivated by the possibility of spending gold coins to buy a new hat for my avatar than I am by simple and beautiful app interactions and just managing to remember and track my real life duties and desires. But I’m giving Habitica a try, I never actually played it before. So far it seems fun.

You seem like me a bit. I also wanted app like this to track and improve habits. Habitica, while interesting, just took too much time and effort. I've since started using 'Loop habit tracker' for about a year now and I prefer it's simplicity much more.

I, too, follow the twodave method.

The most useful tools for me are:

1. Pomodoro sessions and timeboxing with a visual timer. I like the Time Timer brand.

2. When I'm working I take notes for personal reference in markdown files of things like bash sessions and code or approaches I tried to a given problem that did / didn't work. Project-wide searches of my notes repo save me a lot of time later.

The most optimal strategy I can consider towards making efficient use of my time is to spend absolutely none of it researching methods or techniques to do so.

Your reply is a little bit facetious but it is a valid point, very often I find myself hiding behind 'optimizing my work' research as a very circunvented way of procrastinating on actual work.

I've been trying out a slight variation on todo.txt format, for a lightweight way to prioritizing and scheduling things I should spend time on, including bumping tasks to the next day (to narrow down what I can do today). I have a bunch of low-priority tasks that have been getting bumped for maybe a year, and sometimes I remove tasks that I've been bumping for a while and seem like they'll never be worth doing. https://www.neilvandyke.org/todotxt/

Empty email inbox is another. Stuff in the inbox is stuff I either haven't yet read, am dealing with immediately, or haven't yet decided whether to star (for attention later) before "archiving". I have a search folder that shows everything in the archive that's starred. (The archive gets purged periodically, after some time has passed, and once I've resolved all the starred messages.) I usually start checking email first thing when I wake up, but am careful to leave stuff in the inbox until after I'm sure I've woken up fully (had a decaf, exercised).

For things to very quickly note in the moment, and possibly deal with someday later, I have a very simple Emacs package that quickly creates a timestamped text "document" file in some category directory. This can also be good for not getting distracted thinking about problems to solve: you've quickly captured the data you might need, without distraction or even worrying about grammar or format, so you don't have to deal with it further right now. https://www.neilvandyke.org/emacs-qd/

Concentration meditation is an extraordinarily powerful method. Ordinarily, the mind wanders haphazardly from topic to topic even in the middle of tasks [1]. Most people find it a challenge to focus on even one thing fully for 30 seconds without their mind wandering. With good concentration practice, the mind concentrates fully and effortlessly for as long as the meditator wants. As you can imagine, that can be a real boon for productivity.

[1] http://www.danielgilbert.com/KILLINGSWORTH%20&%20GILBERT%20(...

Interesting. How do you practice concentration meditation?

Pick something to concentrate on, like the breath. With your awareness, focus and get absorbed in the details of the concentration object. When your mind wanders from the object, bring it back. With good practice, it starts to become automatic.

I've started to practice vipassana meditation and this book was gave a really practical approach. It's really pragmatic and describes everything, position, breathing, problem handling, pacing. I recommend to give it a try.


shameless plug, I made an ebook from the online texts


1. pomodoro method (plan out the day in half-hour time blocks, there's a bunch of other stuff I don't do)

2. build sunshade for laptop, go work in the park, turn off all laptop radios to save battery

This won't work if you need the internet to get stuff done of course. Works for me though.

When I am really fighting to Be Productive, I will take out a physical timer that I have modified to be my Pomodoro Timer by painting over everything past twenty five minutes. When I am not I will just loosely track my time with Time Sink.

Whenever I'm doing work in remote locations, I just tether my laptop to my phone which automatically makes a hotspot for me.

And then you have all the distractions of the Internet right there on your computer. Being offline because I'm saving battery is a productivity boost for me.

I like this idea, I wish it were easier to build a sunshade though. Have you had success with any methods?

This works for a Mac or for any other laptop that has magnets in the lid so it can tell when it's closed. We will be making a sunshade that clings to them via the power of magnetism.

Go to the art store, get some black illustration board (I like cold press) and some black masking tape. Also get some small magnets, you can probably find them there too.

Also you will need a straightedge at least as long as the longest dimension of your laptop, an x-acto knife (you could probably make do with a box cutter in a pinch), and a pencil. Maybe a t-square or a triangle, too. And something to cut all that board on top of so you don't make a mess of the table or floor or whatevs, I have a drafting table with a self-healing cutting mat because I am an artist-type person, you could probably just use a kitchen cutting board if that's what's handy.

You will need to cut four pieces out of your board.

Piece 1 is a big rectangle about the size of the laptop - mine's about as wide and a little shorter.

Piece 2 is a rectangle about as high as the bezel on your screen and as wide as the big rectangle.

Pieces 3 and 4 are are irregular quadrilaterals. They can start as rectangles half as wide as piece 1 and a little taller than piece 1 and 2 put together; then you want to cut a shallow triangle off the top so that one side is as tall as piece 1.

And now the magic part. Center piece 2 on the top of your laptop's bezel. Get out those little magnets, and feel around for where the magnets are in the bezel. Let them snap down onto piece 2. Draw around the magnets with a pencil, then take them off and use your x-acto to cut out little holes just big enough to put the magnets into. Cover one side with tape, put piece 1 back on the bezel, and put the magnets back in again. Then tape them over on the back side, add a layer or two more on both sides while you're at it.

Finally you get to tape it all together, kinda like this shitty ASCII diagram:

    |\  _______________  /|
    | \[______2________]/ |
    |  |               |  |
    |  |               |  |
    |  |               |  |
    |3 |       1       |4 |
    |  |               |  |
    |  |               |  |
(3 and 4 are actually a little less than half as wide as 1, and the slope on their top is a lot shallower.)

Make hinges with the masking tape, there are some subtleties about creating small spaces in the hinges to make sure that 1 is going to be sitting on top of the thickness of the edges of 2, 3, and 4 when it's all folded up on top of the computer.

Ideally when you fold 3 and 4 over 1/2, the whole thing should be about the same footprint as your computer. If your bag's pocket is properly sized for your laptop then it should fit in there really nicely along with the lappy and not get messed up.

If you get a new laptop of the same size you may have to take out the magnets and re-orient them, the magnets in the bezel are not guaranteed to be any particular orientation.

Probably costs like ten bucks, plus whatever an hour or two of your time is worth. Cheap and easy to replace if something happens to it, weighs next to nothing. I keep on promising to make one of these for my boyfriend so he can join me in slouching around under a tree and getting work done...

I use my own time tracking tool (https://logmyhours.com) along with rescuetime.com to make sure I'm keeping focused. I can actually tie my timesheets right into rescue time to see how productive I was during the time period.

Ive been using clubhouse.io recently to help me keep my many todos a bit more organized.

I want to try to plan out my day the night before, but that almost never happens.

I also use a Pomodoro-style system to get myself to concentrate. Right now, I'm using the _Forest_ app on my Android to tell me to concentrate.

Good luck!

what do you during your breaks? This I think is the greatest pitfall for me. Get up and walk around? I usually find that I just want to go back to work once I let my mind wander.

I check email, read a bit on info relevant to other projects, take a snack or bathroom break, do some typing practice, daydream, etc. It’s just about shifting your focus away from the main project and doesn’t necessarily have to be an unproductive task.


Yeah it's great. Although I love the automated approach of fixed intervals in which you ideally focus on being productive. With scheduled breaks inbetween. I find this takes the friction out of starting that first pomodoro as you have the system already in place.

I've been using the Chrome extension I built [1] to set a task and block distractions that aren't relevant. This turns my browser into a less distracting environment which is a big help.

Even more important is setting the right physical environment - I'll try to find a relatively quiet coffee shop that doesn't play music (or at least not pop music). This is still fairly suboptimal though, especially because I am addicted to people-watching. After a couple of hours I usually find myself observing the facial expressions of baristas as they go about their job. The best working environment I've ever found was when I used to sneak into the psychology experiment cubicles at my university - small, isolated white rooms with no visual distractions.

Taking a small dose of dried psilocybin truffles (about 0.25g) can be quite helpful for focus. It puts me in more of a third-person view where I'm less likely to get distracted by external things although it also makes me more emotional which can sometimes leads me to get distracted by internal things.

I've used modafinil in the past which definitely aids focus (I think partly because it alleviates depressive feelings) but the long half-life ends up affecting my sleep and it becomes a negative trade-off in the end.

Morning is definitely the best time for getting work done. I find it very difficult to reach the same level of focus after lunch so I try to squeeze as much as I can into the first four hours of the day. This might be related to nutrition so I could do with experimenting with my lunch diet to improve this.

To-do lists and calendars are helpful to a point but I'm so bad at sticking to them that I often end up feeling deflated.

[1] - https://deepmode-website.herokuapp.com/

I’ve realized lately that I do most of my procrastination either in Firefox or on my phone since those are the places I’ve naturally bucketed my consumption/lizard-brain-behaviour to.

So when I need to focus I’ll just start a Freedom (https://freedom.to/) session that prevents me from using Firefox (I use Firefox Dev Edition for work instead and don’t tend to use problematic websites in it anyway) and keep my phone far away from my field-of-view (it’s 80% of-the-time on silent mode).

If I’m still managing to fritter my time away then it means whatever I’m tasked with isn’t very important to me and I should strongly consider doing another project, whether it’s a personal or professional one.

I've tried many things, to-do lists, timers, etc.

The only thing that has ever worked for me is Qbserve because it tracks everything in the background for me and lets me know if I've been off task too much. It is relentless in its tracking which is exactly what I needed.

I read the David Allen GTD book a few years back. I have not fully committed to the method. But a big take away for me was keeping lists of things to review. This closes the open loops in your mind so you don’t feel stressed that you forgot something.

I use Things 3 app on ios for lists and reminders.

Staples sells an ARC notebook system I use at my day job. I like the ability to rearrange things and they have a nice page template for notes and action items. I use this for meetings both in person and on the phone.

I use the 5 minute journal to help me keep focused on 1-3 top items at night.

If you can have at least 2 kids, that is probably the best way to learn time management. Everything else pales in comparison

Before focusing:

1. Write down the list of things I need to do today AND tomorrow. (If there was a list of things that I like, "list" would be at the top of that list :)

2. Draw "points" beside some items, indicating their urgency.

3. Choose one which better fits my current state of mind (late at night I work on repeating tasks, in the morning I work on creative stuff, in the afternoon, esp. after lunch (!) I mostly think and strategize, so I do programming then).

During the focus:


1. Café noise app (or online web apps)

2. Nature sounds (rain, thunder, ...)


3. Soft music (if what I'm doing requires attention) or chill music (if the task is boring and repetitive, ugh!)

4. keep going as long as I __feel__ doing it. I don't believe in Pomodoro or similar apps.

Meditation, exercise, and a diet that includes no caffeine, no added sugar, & no processed food has done wonders for my ability to focus. I also made it a point to become a morning person, usually up by 5:30.

Stephen King’s Book on writing has a few fun quotes which seem related. Here are some samples:

On protecting your focus/writing space: “The space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut.”

More on the importance of your physical space: “put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”

Could you explain the part of the desk being in the corner, not sure I completely grok what that means.

> Could you explain the part of the desk being in the corner

That idea is continued in the rest of the quote:

> Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.

The desk isn’t at the center of the room because art (writing, in his case) shouldn’t be the center (the most important thing) of your life. You shouldn’t sacrifice your life to produce art, but create art to improve your life.

Zen Pencils has a short comic with the surrounding context for the quote: https://zenpencils.com/comic/king/

If life isn't a support system for art, the implication is art should support life. My take is that art (or your work) should be supplementary to life itself, and should not take over it entirely.

Journaling. It feels like modding life with extra memory and save states. I made a tool for it. Thinking about doing a "Show HN" some time.

What do you write about?

The most barebones pomodoro for Linux: ‘sleep 45m

Oof. My mobile client cut off the best part. It was supposed to be `sleep 45m && xeyes`.

The MacOS version:

  sleep 2700 && say "Time to take a break"

I use switch_off Firefox/Chrome addon (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-GB/firefox/addon/switch-off) to keep me focused. Other than that I just maintain a simple TODO text file in the home directory.

Ever since I've started using Todoist, my life has gotten a lot more structured. With pro membership, its feature pay in dividends. From reminders to tags to "English-pseudo code" query language for task due dates and more.

It really has helped me organize my life.

Loose interpretation of "tools" but I pair program. It does wonders for clarity and focus most of the time, but can be exhausting and sometimes counterproductive for deep thought and analysis.

I practice yoga (mostly pranayama, and ying) I find this helps me not be invested in my surroundings(distractions). After that it becomes a simple matter of prioritization and bookkeeping..

I have a checklist app on my phone where I just have all the stuff I want to do daily/weekly. Then I check it off as I do it

pomodoros have been mentioned quite a few times, but I love using Apple Watch as a pomodoro timer


I use Focus Keeper on Iphone for this

hmm... I'll have to try this out too. Love the charting feature (which I do by hand in onenote)

One thing about timers on iPhone is when I look to see how much longer I have, other notifications distract me.

Does Focus Keeper solve for this in some way? Or do you turn all notifications off?

That one of two reasons why I switched to Iphone from Android. Ability to turn off all notifications from one screen. Focus from distraction is paramount

Good tools are my brain (to focus and concentrate), and my mouth (to keep people away). But there also exist doors or earplugs.

An office with doors? I wish...

Make discipline an important part of your life. Do not rely on motivation or passion or interest to get things done. Tell yourself what you will do and then do it without question. The more you practice this the better your time management and focus will be - your mind has nowhere to wander for excuses because there are no excuses to be made.

That's good advice, but it must be mentioned that discipline (and attention) are like muscles, you can strengthen them, but you can also strain them to dysfunction. A one-sided approach, where you're always "on" can't work, it needs to be intermittent. You have to pace yourself. In a way, discipline is to be able to do when you're not doing, and to be able to not do, when you're doing. This last point should ring true to those with tendencies to obsess and burnout (like me).

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