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Ask HN: Those with intense focus, how do you do it?
64 points by Xcelerate on April 15, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments
I've been having intense focus problems (beyond normal distractibility), and each year they get worse. I'm in grad school, and the inability to focus is becoming a huge problem. It takes so much work to get into something. On rare occasion, I'll be able to get into what I'm working on and then I can focus non-stop for 10-12 hours, but it's near impossible to just sit down and get 30 minutes of work done on something. Even those 10 hour sessions require an hour or two to get started.

I am looking for advice beyond the normal "minimize distractions". My best attempt has been to go into a plain, featureless room without windows and use a software program that blocks any time-wasting internet site. But I just end up staring at the wall, thinking about other things instead. Or if I start reading a textbook, I'll just fall asleep or read the same line over and over again.

I'm not sure exactly what the cause of this is. The bad thing is that the stuff I need to work on is mostly things I'm really interested in (research) although some of it I am not so interested in (classwork). It's very frustrating, and it doesn't feel like it falls in the "normal" range of focus issues anymore. I'm quite certain it's not ADD, because I didn't really have this problem when I was younger.

Any help would be greatly appreciated. I know many in the entrepreneur crowd have developed techniques to maintain rigorous focus (otherwise you wouldn't be a very good entrepreneur) so perhaps the HN crowd has a unique solution that may work for me.

Here is how I answered this question on May 15, 2008, (and several times since) here on Hacker News. Not much has changed because this strategy has always been "old faithful" to me:

* * * * *

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...

* * * * *

Original thread: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=191199

Also #49 here: http://v25media.s3.amazonaws.com/edw519_mod.pdf

Awesome, I have noticed that this is the key. When it comes to doing something, most of us have the ability to focus once we know what needs to be doen and exactly how it needs to be done. The problem usually stems when we have to make choices on what to do and how, then we are paralyzed by all the possible choices. Love your answer.

I have found that when I have such problems, I'm usually missing one of three things:

Sometimes I need a clearer idea of what needs to be done. Is it vague? Make it more specific so you know where to get started. Is it open-ended? Give it an end-point so you know how far you are from being finished. Am I even thinking of the very next step I need to take?

Sometimes I need a clearer idea of why I'm doing it. It's very easy to dissociate tasks from the original motivations, and it starts feeling like just "stuff you gotta do". So I take a minute and either re-associate the task in front of me with some larger or longer-term goal that is presently appealing (i.e. it doesn't have to be about "passion"), or I come up with a completely ad-hoc motive like turning it into a game or giving it some kind of constraint that makes it a little more challenging. Sometimes I find that the thing I'm trying to do is actually something I don't care about the original purpose of anymore, which quite suddenly makes it easy to stop and move on to something else.

Sometimes I find that I'm missing a sense of confidence that it's what I should be doing right now. It may be that I'm trying to work on a very unimportant thing and should switch to one of the things I keep being distracted by, but I have to consciously compare them before I can realize that that's why I'm getting distracted. Other times, I realize that the things that are bubbling up in my mind can wait, and the act of actually thinking about them and realizing that puts them to rest. I don't try to force myself into working on "the most important thing" at all times.

I try to work out these questions only when I happen to notice that I'm not really "doing" the thing that I'm supposedly doing, whether it's work or fun or even sleep. I don't try to pre-emptively make sure I have these things, either. -- I think of it as a way to answer the brain's objections to what you're doing rather than a way to force it to do what you want.

Disclaimer: I am not a very good entrepreneur.

If it helps at all, I "suffer" from the exact same thing. I once studied procrastination while I was procrastinating at work and here are my 3 tricks that work, at least half the time:

1. Just don't do what you have to do. Just sit there. BUT the catch is you are not allowed to do ANYTHING else. After about 15 minutes of doing nothing, your interest creeps back for your the task you are working on.

2. Make a big 3 list. At the very beginning of the day, write down the 3 most important things to get done that day. Only work on those things.

3. Cut up the elephant. This is the biggest thing helps me. Many times the items on our todo lists are really gargantuan tasks! Your brain unconsciously knows this and will try to avoid these loaded tasks. Break them down into bite sized elephant chunks. Elephant wasn't eaten in a day ; ) You'll feel better as you knock through those smaller todos. I also recommend Tudumo (www.tudumo.com) as a todo tracker. It has a lot of keyboard shortcuts. I have a list called "elephant chunks" and as soon as I tackle an item on the main list, I create the elephant chunks list and start hammering those suckers down.

I still lapse into massive procrastination, but these tricks have helped me a lot. You aren't alone. And I don't think you are lazy. If you are anything like me, this is probably some of the stuff you are most passionate about and it's killing you that you are avoiding it. Make a new big 3 list every day and don't give up!

Somewhere I read that you should use the 1-3-5 rule: each day do 1 big task, 3 medium and 5 small. However personally I prefer using 1-2-3.

My personal read on this is that, if you have difficulty focusing, you're not really interested in what you're doing.

I say this because everyone I have met in my life -- including myself -- who had excellent focus, also had a transcendent passion for what he was focused on.

Based on your description, you simply aren't interested in your studies or your work, and that is the real problem, not focus per se. Maybe you're having second thoughts about your life's direction or your school major.

> It takes so much work to get into something.

This isn't the voice of someone who is passionate about what he's doing. I think that's the problem. You're asking for advice about how to deal with your life as it is, but my advice is to consider making changes to your life, to your work, to your studies, in a direction consistent with your real interests.

> My personal read on this is that, if you have difficulty focusing, you're not really interested in what you're doing.

I don't agree. I personally have lots of trouble focusing, and the more into something I am, the harder it is for me to focus. It's as though my thoughts go into overdrive and I feel actual pleasure in processing all the different facets and scenarios related to a particular idea, so much so that it incapacitates me and if I stop thinking about it, I start to feel miserable. Take writing for example, I'd love to write for a living but whenever I have an idea that I absolutely must get down on paper, a few things happen.

1- Nothing else matters, so everything else suffers.

2- Writing is too slow. Before I've finished a paragraph, my head has moved onto another chapter and trying to get back to where I was is like trying to tell myself to stop doing the most fun thing in the world and clean my kitchen instead. (I hope that makes sense).

3- It begins to dawn on me that I'm not making any progress. I start to feel mildly depressed and all by energy and excitement begins to dwindle as I realise this time is going to be like every other time and I'm not going to finish "it".

And then I go back to what I was working on before, all my energy and excitement in that project is renewed and then I repeat steps 1 to 3.

There is a huge difference between this and working on something that doesn't interest me. As a programmer, I often have to work on things that don't interest me, that are slow and laborious and repetitive. But the strange thing is, I can do that stuff to completion. It bores me to tears, and I start to hate my job if I have to do too much of it, but my brain gets out of the way for a while and lets me finish what I'm doing. Until I have another awesome idea for something, and then I'm screwed.

Luckily, I enjoy most of my work, and I get interesting problems to solve that, even though I've no burning desire to solve them, keep me interested and happy none the less.

This has gotten very personal very quickly. Reading this back, it sounds like I have will-power, self-control problems more than focus issues.

Well thanks HN, this has been very therapeutic.

My advice would be lay off the stimulants.

> if you have difficulty focusing, you're not really interested in what you're doing.

I'm afraid if that's really the case, then I'm not interested in anything at all. Which is certainly a much bigger issue than focusing. But I don't think that's the case because I really enjoy seeing the results of my work and I've always been able to interest myself in math/science before in my life, so as far as I can tell I'm still interested. (Heck, just look at how many comments I post on HN about my research.)

Interesting doesn't necessarily mean fun. Try doing something that's fun just to get yourself going.

Fun could mean coding something in a new programming language or something. It could mean writing a game or doing something mischievous. Something that increases your productivity momentum.

Once you've got yourself going it's easier to take on bigger challenges.

What do you do instead of working on what are supposed to be working on when you find yourself not focusing?

In my case, the thing was not about eliminating distractions, but about providing a stimulating enough challenges.

Eliminate distractions all you want - if the task is boring, and the environment not stimulating, you'll sooner become crazy than focus.

I also used to stress a lot about not being able to focus. And stress alone hindered my ability even further. Which caused me to stress even more, and so on. The revelation came, when my coach asked me "so, does stressing about work help you?" I decided to take it light - if I cannot work, so be it. Lo and behold, a couple days after letting go, I went into an uberdrive, and built a product which I struggled with for months..

Right now, my recipe is: - if the work doesn't flow, I let it go. I go for a walk, I do sports, wait for a muse. And have faith that it will come - I try to keep my environment stimulating - I had to go a couple friendships, and stop doing activities which no longer helped me develop myself - I try to have a couple kinds of activities lined up - so when I cannot focus on programming, I do marketing, or accounting in my startup. - A good diet helps a lot as well.

But everybody is different. It's important to discover what works and what doesn't - in your case removing distractions clearly doesn't work. Perhaps you could try changing your learning habits (e.g. use Inkling, or Coursera instad of traditional books, or try group learning?), or try finding a different subject, or a different approach to the subject?

Your experience sounds familiar. Go with the flow. Let go of forcing to do something. Get inspiration. Work when you are inspired. These work for me also the best.

This is also why day jobs are so difficult and unnatural. You are forced to complete tasks that do not always come naturally.

It sounds like your brain enjoys lengthy productive learning sessions and is bored at the idea of jumping between topics at 30minute intervals - "hey brain, just absorb this for me, oh and this, this too" Your brain just shrugs and says "where's the fun in that?"

Make something, create something, build something. Instead of being passive (reading a screen or a book) put your whole brain to task on a project that needs solving, designing and leaves you with an end product.

For me, it took a long time to realise that I absorb information SO fast when I'm immersed in it.

I've written in the past about all the creative strategies I used to get through my exams - whatever you enjoy doing, try to incorporate it alongside the topic you're learning.

People think they tax their brain too much with study but the fact that your brain wanders off into it's own thoughts or sends you to sleep show you it's actually looking for something more challenging to solve. Engage your brain with a more challenging & creative problem.

I too often have difficulty focussing on a task, often getting bogged down in reading email or 'quickly' checking the news.

To get around this I use the pomodoro technique [1] and [2]

I have also found quite a bit of success using paper lists; If I write down everything productive I need to get done (mostly on a high-level like 'look into bug nnnn') and only allow myself to work on the items on the list.

I also actively work on keeping my mind on task; if I find myself wandering off and thinking about something important I will write myself a quick note so that I can remember it later, this helps get it off my mind so I can get back to working.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique [2] http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/

I like the inverse of to-do lists: a have-done list. Say you need to get a large task done for the day. That's what you need to do, but getting to the point of getting it done contains a lot of smaller actionable items (e-mailing people, setting up new servers, whatever, etc).

I then write that down as 'done' lists. Or basically, a 'what I did today' list, even if it is small stuff. You end up feeling more productive, because you often don't realise what you actually DID do in a day.

John Cleese's lecture on creativity [1] was really helpful for me and is something I'm using to get into the flow state myself. The 5 factors Cleese says you need to get creative is nicely summed up in Brainpicking's blog post [2].

Highly recommended!

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9rtmxJrKwc [1] http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/04/12/john-clees...

As a teenager I was always a bit of a cynic about anything that wasn't an exact science, the ideas of introspection of my own mind for things I dismissed as hippy bullshit of the organic food variety.

However later I found that meditation helps my mind and even my asthma a lot. Taking the time for 5-15 minutes every day to just focus on my breathing in the lotus position really does make a difference to my productivity that day.

Also getting and staying of HN / Reddit / SO for a day helps too...

Been struggling with this also for my whole life. Solutions that work _for me_:

1. Before doing anything, figure out: Is this what I am flowing to do now? Or is it something else ? If I feel like I have to force myself to do something, usually I am doing it against the flow. This is why I hate dayjobs.

2. Go for a swim/run/do yoga/meditate. All of these help me to focus better, when my body is relaxed, so is the mind. Create a routine for yourself, when I relax my body right in the morning, it is usually a good day and I get things done. If I skip any of these, it is harder to sit down and stay in one place.

3. If something feels impossible, do something else. Dance, go out for a walk, practice close combat weapons, something physical.

4. Break the problem into small pieces, write those pieces down. Complete one at a time. Preferably so that each piece has different kinds of things to do, like program, then design, then do some writing. So that it keeps interesting and not just repeating the same thing all day.

Also, when I truly have to force myself to complete something, I have found one good technique to get me into the zone: put on my headphones, turn on some good trance/psytrance, and just dance into the zone for 5-10 minutes, then continue coding in this state of trance. Helps to get in to the flow.

What is it in your field that really makes you jump up and down with joy and amazement?

I sometimes have similar problems (though by far not as bad) and what works for me is to leave a straightforward problem lying on the desk so it's the first thing I see in the morning. Additionally, there's a (very short) list with achievable things I want to do that day. (A lot less than I could do, more a 'at least this far' list.) When I get bored with one task there's usually another one on the list that's ok. And not all textbooks are equally boring. Oh, and deadlines [1]. I don't always follow this, but when I do, I get some stuff done and it's quite satisfying, even though it's just the 'minimal stuff list'.

When you say intense focus, I rather think of short activities like sword training (wonderful state of mind!) or a few minutes of coding the 'heart' of a short program, not longer periods of work.



edit: You might also wanna check Lesswrong, they have a lot of ideas about these problems: http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Akrasia

My tricks from school:

Short term: Colored pens, white paper, make cheat sheets (as if you were planning to bring them with you, but leave them at home).

Slightly longer term: Get hold of real exam assignments (if possible and allowed) as soon as possible. This helps motivation quite significantly because you can see what you would make you fail today. Knowing one assignement that I wouldn't pass does a whole lot to motivation.

Do stuff. I created 3d models (of yet to be invented furniture and tools) out of cardboard (empty pizza boxes where my favourite.)

Attempt at getting good/fast in everything you touch. But let no failure ruin your day.

Long term: Find and reinforce motivation. Why are you reading that textbook in the first place? Because you are going to be good at something. Why? Because you are going to get good work. Why? Because you want to change the world/help someone you know/etc.

Learn to defend yourself against your own and others critisism while not blaming others: There all kinds of things that rise against us: disabilities makes thing harder, economy (hard to study while your brain is working non stop on how to pay x), etc. Tell yourself: If I manage all this, that will be quite a story to tell.

I have very similar issues (in fact, I should be working on a mandatory assignment right now). I find that using something like Trello or http://kanbanflow.com, or just a simple notebook, to split up tasks into smaller tasks is a good thing.

I'll have problems getting started (and I still do) doing something without splitting it up as much as I can first, and I also find using a Pomodoro timer is very helpful.

Set a timer for 25 minutes. During those 25 minutes you will be focused and work. When it rings you set it to 5 minutes and have a break, do whatever you want. When it rings you go back to work.

I'm not exactly sure why this helps but having a set amount of time for 'work time' and a set amount of time for 'break time' helps me focus. That way you just avoid going to HN or Reddit and all other things fun during those 25 minutes, and since it's only 25 minutes at a time you get a little reward when you take a break.

After having done like 4-5 of these 25 minute sessions you can take a longer 30 minute break for some food or just relaxing.

I've managed to use this with fairly good success working 6-8 hour days at uni studying for exams.

A combination of these have often worked for me.

1) Stop drinking alcohol (after about 3 weeks I find my thinking is a lot clearer and more I'm interested in learning/working).

2) Change your work location - drastically if you can but often the next room will do.

3) If you're working alone find a space where you can work with others in the room, even if the tasks are completely separate. (or vice versa)

4) Get those big tasks that weigh on you out of the way. Realize how much better not having them around will make you feel, and that should be enough incentive to get them done.

5) Tutor somebody.

6) Stop thinking about work/study all the time, clear your head by listening to stories, I like radiolab from WNYC because it's not too tech. (Something like this would be in lieu of meditation which would probably be better long term.)

7) Wake up earlier.

8) Reward yourself for tasks. For me this used to be ciggies, which then transitioned to cups of tea.

9) Start your day with small easy tasks. If you're thinking about a productive day in terms of 10-12 hours you are likely scaring your sub conscious. Success is 20 minutes of work early in the day. Make that your goal. Everything that comes after is a bonus, and fun.

10) Switch careers (this is what I eventually did)

The textbook is probably too much text for you - your brain gets bored and you fall asleep. If you're studying for an exam: Try to summarize what you want to remember in as few words as possible - 1 or 2 words per point. You'll have a page at most for an entire unit/subject (don't worry if no one else gets the page). Study that instead, and I think you'll be less likely to be bored. For each point, very quickly (e.g. less than 2-3 seconds), go through the entire point with your mind, then move on to the next. Repeat points that you feel you can't process as fast, they are what you need to get more familiar with. Once you get to the end, as long as you still got energy, go back to the beginning. Eventually try to recall every point the unit without even the single page of paper.

Do this as soon as possible after you wake up. (e.g. study after breakfast). Get a glass of water or a small sandwich every hour and resume studying.

The idea is to process as much information (rather than text) as you are physically able, so you don't ever get bored, and you can stay focused.

Don't be surprised if you get really tired after 3-4 hours. Yesterday I woke up at 12. Started studying at 1, and finished up by 5pm. I was so tired, I had to go sleep for a couple of hours. Had dinner then went to bed for the night.

Get lots of sleep. After a day where you have intensive studied like this, 10-12 hours of sleep is good. Sleep helps your brain move stuff you studied that day into your long term memory. This way you only have to study something once, so that you'll not have the opportunity to get bored studying the same thing again.

Oh, and I do everything on paper so I never have my computer in front of me when I'm studying like this.

Don't know about you, but works for me!

Tricks like reducing distractions and using your time better are interesting and sometimes helpful, but also a great way to procrastinate. When you're an adult, you become more self-aware, which probably explains why it wasn't a problem in the past.

I agree with what others have said - you may simply not be interested in what you're doing. If that's the case, change.

I have three bits of advice:

1. It could be you're not sleeping enough. Sleep more and drink less caffeine and alcohol.

2. If you aim to do a great, great, job of whatever you do, it can become much more rewarding. Be a perfectionist. (nb for some people perfectionism leads to procrastination, but not for most).

3. Get on with it. Don't allow yourself to read any further advice on how to be effective. Get up early, get working, work your ass off, have a fixed schedule with breaks and don't try to do long hours. I think an awful lot of people worry too much about productivity rather than just getting on and doing the work. It's also a case of momentum - once you start getting some feedback on what you've achieved, your hard work will feel justified and you'll be more motivated.

The lack of focus can be directly derived from the lack of interest, vision and love on what you're doing.

When you're thinking about other things, it means what you're about to do is so much of a chore to you that you subconsciously procrastinate and despise doing it. Remember that what you're working on is something you love; you'll soon find out that everything else doesn't matter. Love isn't a feeling, it's a decision to commit because you found value no one else can't seem to see.

It's clear that the most productive people are people in love in what they do. They find joy and value even in their smallest chores/tasks. They don't need to "minimize distractions" or use "software program that blocks any time-wasting internet site", it's natural for them to have a distaste for other things except on what's currently right in-front of them.

The practical task lists or methods on "how to focus" are easy as pie, there's a lot of content tackling, although looking for something you love working on or reminding yourself that you should love what you're doing - that's something only you can answer.

If you want to fix the cause, I would suggest finding a good quality meditation teacher and learn meditation. Your mind is obviously scattered, you have to learn, and I mean learn how to focus. I've been practicing meditation and similar arts for over 6 years, can't really recommend it highly enough.

I will tell you upfront: it's hard word, but it pays off tremendously.

It's personal. You have found what works for you: "I can focus non-stop for 10-12 hours", and if "Even those 10 hour sessions require an hour or two to get started." then force yourself to spend those 1-2 hours to get started.

A key trick I use is to have doable tasks. Getting started is the hard bit, so start small. Then, acknowledge that you made progress instead of putting it down. Why? Because putting it down will destroy your motivation, your interest and your focus. it's also a distraction (you're thinking about how you don't have focus, instead of what you're supposed to be focussed on).

  If you want to hit a bird on the wing, you must have all your will in focus, you
  must not be thinking about yourself, and equally, you must not be thinking about
  your neighbor: you must be living in your eye on that bird. Every achievement is a
  bird on the wing.
note: "you must not be thinking about yourself"

For myself, It's a strong desire to learn something new. I can be sitting in a noisy place and tune out my surroundings, staying focused on the matter in question, as long as I can read the words I can put them together in varying ways until they all work together.

Sometimes I sit here for 36+ hours straight. I just can't give up until the task has been completed. The tasks are taken in small portions, and I do take breaks, but not as often as I should.

However, if I have no appreciation for the goals of the project, I can procrastinate in the same manner as I focus.

It's a dual edged blade, and you can cut your own line if you're not careful. Having a strong desire to achieve your goals should be your priority, and having a vision for the long term is crucial in order to carry you forward through those times when you are less than motivated.

Balance is key, as is moderation.

Reduce distractions is a good start.

Close email windows, HN, put your phone on silent, find a space in which noise does not intrude, remove the clock.

Lock out any external signal that might distract you. It might be noise, it might be discomfort in a mouse you're using.

Then the second part is that you've got to enjoy what you do. The craft, the elegance of it. Take pride in wanting to do it well, refine that. Look for improvements and do it even better. Be excited by the improvements. This is the undefinable quality of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

With those two things; reducing distraction and find the beauty, elegance and satisfaction in the simple and mundane... I found it's possible to totally immerse yourself in whatever task is at hand. Just taking care of distractions isn't enough, you need the pursuit of quality too.

I have a few things I do to stay focused, some you can control and some you can't:

1. Eat well, sleep well, work out and relax\mediate\etc. <-- this is really important for me

2. Keep simple, simple lists. (Someone on HN actually made one of my favorites recently: http://1-3-5.com/)

3. Make sure your list is kept simple. Remove things from it, do not add to it without removing from it.

4. Work on things that inspire you. Rethink what you're working on if you're not inspired by it. ( This is sometimes out of your control )

5. Wear headphones and do not listen to lyrics. Classical is actually my favorite for getting stuff done.

6. Use a white board to keep track of your ideas and thought process. Notebooks can work, too.

For the last 8 years, I've training myself like a Pavlovian dog.

All I need to focus is my headphones and the song programmed with the mood I want.

Many songs have come & disappeared in my playlist of "mind silence" but right now, if you play "Intro - XX" in a loop into my ears then I will sit down and work.

All that helps me is to get started.

It helps that I love my work - after I really get started, my train of thought is rarely derailed.

But despite loving it, I do need to be manipulated into putting in the first 40-50 minutes of time - every day.

And music makes me go with the flow.

Are you unable to focus at all times even when you do something you completely enjoy? Or are you unable to focus only on boring tasks? That's two different problems and solutions.

I can focus for more than 12 hours at a time... if I love what I'm working on.

When I find myself distracted, I use the pomodoro technique. I set a kitchen timer for 30 minutes and leave it in another room. In those thirty minutes, I am not allowed any distractions - no facebook, no email, etc. I just focus on one task until it's complete. When the timer goes off, I have five minutes to relax or work out. Then I set the timer again.

I (informally) study procrastination and attention management, and maintain The Attention Management Blog (http://attnmgmtblog.com). That's not to say my advice will be better than anyone else's in this thread. But there are two really simple things I've found that have helped me maintain focus and momentum, especially when I'm feeling especially distracted.

First, break your larger tasks into absurdly tiny steps. I mean, embarrassingly small steps. “Why would I even need to write that down?”-small steps. As others in this thread have mentioned, when a task is too large, or has too many dependencies, or the next concrete action step is unclear, the easiest thing for our brain to do is to punt it. Our current brains have a lot of confidence in our future brains. Too much, in fact. Breaking a task into steps that are so small that you can't help but do them is hugely helpful.

Second, write things down. Two parts to this. First is that you need a trusted system to capture everything you have to do (all those big tasks, and all the tiny steps that comprise them). I use a Field Notes notebook (http://fieldnotesbrand.com/), and find that writing stuff down on paper is essential. I'm not sure whether it's because it's an analog break from digital stuff, or whether it's more flexible for the kinds of notes I'm writing down, or what. But writing it down on paper is essential. I also have a larger "programmer's notebook" (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00007LV4B/) that I use for longer notes. The second part of the "write things down" piece of advice is to write down what you're working on right now. That can be on paper. I usually prefer to jot it down here: http://charliepark.org/rightnow/ (disclosure: mine, totally free), as it's a temporary notepad that takes up zero resources (no notes I have to save, no Post-Its on my desk I have to revisit and think through, "did I get this done yet?").

One of the best writers on this is David Allen, with his book Getting Things Done, which your local library will have. I also like Cal Newport (http://calnewport.com/blog/). And, of course, if you want short pointers to longer articles, I post a not-overwhelming stream of stuff at http://attnmgmtblog.com.

Odds are good that those with intense focus won't be answering your question because they're too busy being focused ;)

My pick-me-up checklist for when I'm procrastinating too much for comfort:

* Get plenty of sleep. If you're sleepy, take a nap. Go to bed early, wake up early.

* Drink plenty of water.

* Eat well, whatever that means for you (for me its cutting back on sugary things and processed foods).

* Do some exercise.

If you take care of these basics, for me at least, the rest seems to fall into place.

> Or if I start reading a textbook, I'll just fall asleep or read the same line over and over again.

This happens to me if I'm trying to read something too far beyond my level of knowledge. Skip back a few chapters and drill yourself on their content until the thing you were stuck on becomes easy/natural.

Also, sleep.

Do something fun, even if it has no immediate value. Motivation runs on momentum. Do whatever seems like the most fun.


Can you expand a bit on how it has gotten worse over the years? How were you better at focusing before? How do you know it has gotten worse? I can imagine it may be especially frustrating if it is something that has been worsening over time.

Good physical health. Seriously.

I've had troubles with this (some injuries), and -- anecdotally -- the correspondence is direct and very significant.

I find the Pomodoro technique simple and effective.


For years I've been able to sit down and get intense on solving a problem. YMMV, and maybe you'll just cherry pick some of the points. Also, about none of this is original, they're all concepts I've picked up from various fields, thinkers and people over the last 8 or so years.


This is how I do it:

1. Get your location right. I have a desk and computer for doing work on, and a completely separate one for playing/watching movies/just about anything else.

This location should have one purpose, and you should be cool with that. If you want to use the location for anything else, you'll mess with it.

It's for work. Nothing else.

Note, I say location because it doesn't have to be a desk. A laptop, comfy chair, and a nice room might work for you. Or maybe sitting outside is your thing.

2. Plan your time. If you want to get serious work done 30 minutes wont cut it. You won't even be able to get ready to work in 30 minutes.

Set aside a few hours. I usually split my 8 hour day into a ~3 hour chunk, lunch, then another 3-4 hours. For me, the break is almost always useful. On one hand to eat, because eating is cool. (I've forgotten to eat enough times while coding, to not let that happen again.)

These blocks should not be rigid, if you're on a roll don't stop. Just remember to eat (good food, not crap. crap food does not help the brain).

3. Coffee. Might not be for you, but a well timed coffee with food in your stomach can do wonders for your productivity. I'm sure it's psychosomatic but I swear I type faster with good coffee.

Actually thats another point. Get good coffee. Here in Melbourne, you practically trip over it, there's good real coffee everywhere. If you can't get a real coffee, try some good black tea.

They're both acquired tastes, so find a friend who loves them who can show you the ropes.

I'm not a fan of energy drinks, the release is too fast. A good tea or coffee in the morning will keep you going until 3pm, which is the perfect time for a second one.

I almost never go more than 2, you don't want too much of a tolerance to it.

4. Scope your work. If we take the analogy of a good golf swing, you need to plan what you're about to do. But like a good golf swing, it should be more mentally thinking about the problem, as opposed to over thinking where the club must go to hit the ball.

For a good 8 hour chunk of time, taking 30-40 minutes to get into the right frame of mind to solve a problem is the way to go.

5. Music. Now's a good time to start some music, incase you haven't already got something playing.

But kill the lyrics.

Any lyric heavy music, or anything that if mentally intensive to listen to - is sapping your brain power. Not cool, your brain is here to work. It's not time to enjoy music the way you would normally.

This music has a purpose. It's there solely to get you into, and keep you in a state of trance.

Surprisingly trance music is pretty good at that. But I'm more into electro, house, electro swing (Caravan Palace anyone?).

If I could reccomend anything here, get a nice comfortable pair of open cans. That is, circumaural headphones that cover your ears, and are open backed meaning the sound will leak out. It's very important that the sound can leak out, as it prevents a pressure on your ears. Closed headphones are generally amazing to listen to, but they can become incredibly fatiguing after a few hours.

Get a pair of headphones that barely even feel as if you're wearing them, that sound amazing. You may need to get a headphone amp as well, they're only $20-80. Do it. Trust me, I was once an audio engineer.

Also, spend a good bit of money on professional headphones. Not only do they sound amazing, are made to take a bit of a beating, they're almost always designed to be repaired.

I'm a fan of Sennheiser, AKG, Sony, et al.

Beats are for chumps.

I don't recommend spending less than $200.

You're going to wear these every single day for up to 8 hours. Get something that brings you joy to wear and hear. It will also help get you in the mood to work, knowing you get to listen to these awesome cans. If you can, use them exclusively for work.

6. Do your work. Alright, you've got a sweet location. You've got time to yourself. (I often use a sign telling people to email me, instead of distracting me. A small question that throws you out of your trance can cost up to 20 minutes each, get a few of them and there goes your session.)

You've had your choice of stimulant. Please make it tea or coffee. They're so much better, just don't go overboard. Having 4 in a day scares me.

You have an idea of what your doing today.


Start slow. Ease your way into it.

Work on something easy. Enjoy your tea or coffee.

I often start by looking over what I have, or reading someone's post about something code related I saved to read.

If you've done this right, you should ease into doing work without actually realising it.

This my friend, is the much written about state called 'flow'.

You will forget there's even music playing (to the point where if it stops playing, it could be hours before you realise).

7. Let your mind wander. It's time for a break though. You're mind has just be smashed with thinking. Thinking is hard. Fun, but damn it's hard. So do something else. Keep your headphones on, your music playing.

Time to let your mind wander.

It's very bad for your eyes to stare at a close distance for long periods of time. So kill two birds with one stone, stare of into the distance and give both your eyes and your brain a rest.

This shouldn't go for too long though. Maybe a couple of minutes.

Truth be told, you'll probably do this naturally.

8. Don't finish abruptly. Like a good golf or tennis swing, the follow through is everything. Don't just jump up and go head first into something else.

You brain just spent 8 hours being intense. It needs a few minutes to de-brief.

This isn't time to waste though.

Keep your music in.

Take a moment to look back at what you have achieved today, and be damn proud of it. Didn't solve anything? Pfft, most people who succeed have more failures behind them than you'll ever know about. I have on more than one occasion spent weeks working on one problem, failing every single day to solve it. But each day, learning more about the problem at hand. I've never not solved a problem I've put time into. I'm sure I will one day, but that's when you ask for help.

Make deadlines, they'll encourage you to get stuff done. (Incidentally no GTD software or system, has ever worked well for me. Analogue lists with pen and paper, and backups [either typed or photos on an iphone] work better for me.)

The last thing you should to here, is plan out what you should do in your next session. Issue trackers are cool, and invaluable in teams. But you need your own notes too.

"I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I'm writing it down to remember it now." - Field Notes

You should have a pen (a damn good pen) and a notebook (again, get a nice one). This is your analogue RAM. I'm a Moleskine person myself, but Field Notes also make some good notebooks. You don't put crappy RAM in you computer, so why should you use a crappy pen and paper. $30 will get you a pen like a Lamy (a nice solid aluminium pen), or maybe your lucky enough to have a Parker. It' doesn't matter what it is, but it should be special in some way. Like your headphones, and you notebook, you should look forward to getting to use them.

A good Moleskine or FN will cost around $20 and last maybe 2-3 months. You probably won't spend more than $300 a year on them. And if you do you're probably making enough money to spend more.

The point is, use gear you love. And love the gear you use. Sure they're tools, but every good craftsman love's their tools.

9. It takes 28 days* to form a habit. You will fail a lot.

Not just in life. Not just in code. If you can fail, you will :D

That's not a sadistic smile on the end of that sentence (which also purposely does not have a full stop in order to distress the OCD among us - okay that might be sadistic).

Failure is good.

I've always learnt more from what I got wrong, than what I got right. Usually because getting something right is often predicated on getting many things wrong beforehand.

That's life. If you don't like it, too bad. You're playing this game - you may as well learn the rules.

So however you decide to get into your state of trance or flow, stick to it. Choose one point to work on and get that to 'good enough', then move onto another point. When you finally have everything kind of going, refine it all.

Get your process working for you.

That last point is key to all of this. How I work best, likely differs from you.

*Is it 28 days? I honestly can't remember and it doesn't matter in this context. It's close enough to the right amount of time it should take you to get all this to be close enough to habit, that you don't even think about it.


Almost forgot this.


Work out what you need each night, and don't take crap from anyone. You need to get the right amount of sleep to code. To solve problems. You need sleep. Good quality sleep.

All night coding binges are for chumps.

This is some quality info!

One thing I can add, if your looking for a solid, no BULLETPROOF pair of headphones, definitely take a look at some Sennheiser HD-25's. These things sound amazing and you can wear them for hours without them hurting your head at all.

I've had my pair for nearly 5 years now, still hasn't let me down and I use them everyday.

If you take notice of the headphones all sports reporters and the majority of DJ's use, you'll see that they are all HD-25's.

And screw noise cancelling, these things basically block out most noise without anything even playing :)

Absolutely. I love most of what Sennheiser put out. A friend of mine just got a pair of these [1], and I didn't want to give them back.

[1] HD 598 http://www.sennheiser.com.au/au/home_en.nsf/root/private_hea...

Also, get a subscription to Rdio or Spotify and find some coding playlists. Just search for them. There's heaps on Rdio, and they are specifically made for coding.

For the record - hd25 is really-really nice but consider AKGs too - I am using AKG k518 from a while now, and it is almost or just as good as the HD25 but have a far lower price.

Thanks for taking the time to write that out. It's very useful. I need to work on getting into my "zone"...

My approach:

1. Low music. Better as background music. Random, any radio.

2. Shut down all Twitter apps.

3. HN procrastinator mode-on.

4. Get on doing the stuff no matter what's going outside.


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