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Ask HN: How do you focus?
45 points by infinitebattery on Jan 1, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments
In the midst of distractions-how do you focus if you need to get something done? Is there anything you do particularly?

If I'm having a day where I am not getting much done, I stop trying. I close and leave the laptop and my phone at my desk, take a notebook and a pen, and go to the local library, where I sit down and write for an hour or two a discussion of why I am not getting anything done, and what I can do about it. The next time this happens again, I repeat the process, except I also reread the entry (yes, you need to keep the journal around) from the last time, and see if there's any patterns.

Leaving all your electronics behind, taking an old, analog medium (pen, paper) and going to a place where people are required to be quiet (library, not office, not coffee shop, not co-working space) is essential to the process of figuring out what's distracting you.

Do you find that it's the mind-hand connection (going analog, writing it out) that makes the difference, or simply the act of self-examination? Or is the pen and paper necessary to get away from the distractions the laptop offers?

I don't think it is specifically the mind-hand connection that makes the difference; the important parts are

1) having a ritual 2) being away from both distractions electronic and human

i was working, then i saw this post...

I had, literally, just hit "close" on the browser window when I saw it and re-opened to read.


I remove the distractions. Quit email, IM, IRC, work from home in a quiet place. Few people have my phone number, and they know not to call me unless their hair is on fire. The right kind of music can help too.

If I'm struggling to focus, I do some exercising, go for a walk (sunlight helps) or just take a break away from the work and come back refreshed. If I'm still struggling, I just give up and start again the next day (where possible - deadlines are a good motivator too, but not if overused). If I can't focus because I'm tired, I take a nap. I reserve caffeine for emergencies ("must get this done today") and with a two week cooldown afterwards (you'd be shocked what caffeine can do for you in a pinch if you haven't built up a tolerance from constantly abusing it).

Most importantly, look at what you're doing. I have little trouble focusing on something I want to do. It's the tedious bits that I struggle with, and so if I find something like that, I try to eliminate it as much as possible. This means picking your projects/clients/job carefully, and not rating money as top priority.

I close all unnecessary applications on my computer and put my work in front of me. If I need to use the Internet, I'll enable LeechBlock (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/leechblock/) (similar extensions exist for Chrome).

If I'm working on something that's particularly hard to focus on, I'll use the Pomodoro technique (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique) to keep my attention from deteriorating.

I make sure not to multitask. Multitasking makes it too easy to get distracted, and people aren't as good at multitasking as they think they are. Instead, I work on one important task at a time.

You may also want to try working in a public space such as a library. When people can see what you're doing, it makes it easier to stay off Facebook.

No social media accounts: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. I think that's at least half the battle.

Good advice from YuriNiyazov too. "If I'm having a day where I am not getting much done, I stop trying.". I think it's important to pick your battles. You won't be productive 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.

Word on the social media. I got rid of my Facebook in college and my average productivity instantly skyrocketed (although that creeping desire to waste time eventually gets filled with other things, like online chess).

I just don't obsessively check or respond to e-mail anymore.*

Peter Drucker had a great piece of wisdom: "There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all."

This implies that before we do anything, we should determine whether it's important enough to do. E-mail let's everyone bypass that filter and gives the world direct access to put unfiltered tasks on your to-do list.

Once I truly internalized that, it became much easier to focus on projects & tasks that I actively deemed important, instead of obsessively checking my inbox subconsciously hoping some life-changing email will appear.

* I still check my e-mail once or twice a day, and flag & act upon any related to my priority projects or people. They rest get left in the inbox unread. Inbox Infinity as opposed to Inbox Zero I suppose. On last count, I had over 2,000 unread e-mails: http://screencast.com/t/EC3VBAxmwM. I think the trick is to not let that bother you. There's no law that says inboxes need to be cleared regularly. It's a remnant behavior from the physical mailboxes overflowed and became unmanageable if left unkempt. However space is practically infinite in the virtual world, and you can search for any e-mail you need in your inbox whenever you need it. Therefore cleaning my inbox seems completely unnecessary. The only kind of cleaning I do is move e-mails to an archive folder every year, which reminds me...

Before cutting off all your social-media sites (including HN), there's intermediate steps you can take to break the kind of reflexive habits that crop up without discipline:

1. If I just want to limit the temptation to Tweet or post about something on some service, I just log out of it. I might still check the service to read some things, but not being able to participate or respond sharply limits the time I spend on it.

2. If logging out doesn't work because you reflexively log in, due to your password being auto-completed when you visit a website, change your password to your accounts to a long gibberish string and paste it somewhere in a text file. Everytime you want to log in, it's 2 to 3 extra steps to find that password. Usually that's enough for me to not care to try.

3. If you're on Chrome, StayFocusd is a great plugin:


You give it a list of sites to blacklist, which you can either limit the total time you spend on them or completely block them for an hour or two.


After that are longer term things...The Pomodoro technique is good...I use a static white noise app on my iPod and time it for 20-30 minutes, during which I don't even switch away from my coding environment for any reason (except for an emergency stack overflow lookup)

And meditation...it's hard to get into at first, but if you set a time for something short, like 5 to 10 minutes, it's not too hard to ease into. It's a great way to start off the morning because its a short, relaxing exercise involving discipline.

I work from home. We homeschool our 4 kids. My office is in common area in middle of 1700sqft house. I've got level 12 ignoring skills.

Did you simply adapt to circumstances, or were you previously blessed with such high ignoring skills?

I've definitely leveled up over time, but have always been able to selectively process input :)

My main distraction is noise, since I mostly work from home, and my home can be a rather noisy place sometimes (I don't live alone). The sound of the TV, for instance, can be anywhere from a nice background presence (like for a documentary) to an impossibility to work (like an action movie that tries very hard to catch your attention).

But one day, I tried this, and boy did it change my life! http://simplynoise.com/

I'm pretty sure this doesn't work for everyone and can get annoying to some people; but for me it was a revelation and solved a problem for good.

I normally try to get a few cups of coffee into my system, and start making a list of things that are most important to accomplish within the amount of time I have to work for that day. When I have a defined list of objectives, it makes it easier for me to try to cross things off the list. If that fails, I'll end up watching an episode or two of a tv show, playing an instrument or something away from electronics mostly so I'm not staring at the problem I'm blocked on.

Agree. A to do list is my go to option. If I do not complete the tasks on time, the list grows ominously. When the list becomes gargantuan, I get really scared and end up doing everything in one shot.

Also the joy of scratching off completed tasks is unmatched.

Focus cannot be maintained for long hours without some sort of intervention from stimulants like Caffeine. There is a limit to our biology. I like to use Yerba Mate (http://www.theroadtosiliconvalley.com/personal-development/y...) to help with long focus. For me, it works better than tea/coffee.

Once you are focused, choose your battles (as mentioned above ref Peter Drucker). Actually you should choose your battle well before you begin.

I find that whenever I get distracted by a thought, an idea or something else that needs to be done I try to remove it from my head by offloading it into a trusted source. This allows me to continue focus on what I'm doing knowing that "later" I can come back to it for review/pick it back up. This is also what the GTD method teaches you. I use an iOS app called GSDfaster => http://www.gsdfaster.com/ - note this is an app I initially built for myself to solve this need.

As some have stated above, sometimes the day feels like crap maybe due to lack of sleep or whatever. Or maybe it was a crap start to the day. It usually means you got wedged into a bad mood. It can last few hours if you don't find a way to get out of it. What works for me is usually a 1 hour walk, bike ride or a gym session. Gym session is the winner here to wake you up both physically and mentally releasing endorphins and "restarting" the brain in a better more focused mood.

GOTO Line 1.

Hope this helps :-)

I've always found some sort of sound blocking helps me focus, even in relatively quiet environments. I used earplugs almost 24/7 until it started I started having some issues with my ears and realized that's not really a good health practice. Since then I've been experimenting with sound blocking hunting ear muffs and noise isolating/cancelling headphones.

Also many years ago, I discovered this thing called Holosync which is some sort of binaural beats thing that's supposed to help your brain. After just checking the site now it seems really new-agey and psuedosciency and I'm not really sure if I would wholly endorse it. There are a bunch of different meditation "prgrams" that have a strict regimen, but then there's an epilogue CD with two tracks in particular (for Alpha and Theta brainwaves) that I just listen to on repeat and I've found help me immensely. Nothing else I've really experimented with has worked as well.

My personal list: * Active noise cancelling phones and Mozart seem to help. I notice a big difference. I even don't like classical music, but it seems to help me focus better than other types of music. * Mindfulness meditation tends to help me focus even outside of meditation, especially in tasks that require sitting and thinking for >5 minutes about a problem, like maths or topcoder tasks . It literally makes me realise "oh crap, I am not thinking about the problem I supposed to be thinking". * I muted all sound notifications everywhere. Probably muting visual notifications would help as well. * Pomodoro technique * Get 100 grams of L-theanine with each cup of coffee. L-theanine is natural ingredient found in green tea. It removes jittery effects of coffee, while keeping high alertness. http://www.gwern.net/Nootropics#theanine . Modafinil is good as well.

I change jobs. I don't have a Facebook or Twitter account. The televisions were trashed over a decade ago. My home page is my personal KanbanFlow page, modified to follow Mark Forster's Final System. It almost works.

I make sure not to overcommit myself. A study shows that scheduling has to be considered independently of effort, ability and experience. If I am not doing what I think I should be doing, I try to change the environment so that not doing what I should be doing is harder than doing what I should be doing. I don't believe that the exercise of willpower is any kind of solution. Its usefulness is limited largely to the minimum expenditure necessary to operate within the environment one designs to encourage work.

Also, I try to operate on a long time horizon. If something I do isn't going to have a discernible impact 10,000 years from now, I consider whether the opportunity cost is too high.

If something I do isn't going to have a discernible impact 10,000 years from now, I consider whether the opportunity cost is too high.

I'd be really curious as to what crosses that threshold, and how you determine this.

I also find it a very interesting viewpoint in light of the famous JM Keynes quote, which I've only just encountered in a longer form:

But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.

h/t: /u/wumbotarian on reddit: http://www.reddit.com/r/Economics/comments/1tzb9c/10_quotes_...

I think going somewhere and having a built-in time limit imposes a "better make this trip productive" mindset that's pretty powerful. For example, I go to the super-quiet room in my school's library for a few reasons (some obvious):

1) It's super quiet -- no talking allowed, cell phones need to be off, so fewer distractions available.

2) Being surrounded by other people who are all getting work done => a good kind of peer pressure / vibe to channel.

3) A built-in time limit (library closes at 5pm) causes me to focus on getting things done so that I can feel like my excursion to the library was a productive one.

4) Somewhat counter-intuitively, switching from double-monitor home setup to single-monitor on-the-go laptop means that while I might not be able to do certain things as efficiently as I would otherwise, I am 100% focused on whatever single window is open on my screen at once!

Set a goal to do one small part of it in 5-10 minutes, then the rest usually follows. If it's a real struggle to get that small part done, examine why I 'need' to get it done in the first place. Deadlines are a huge motivator; I find external ones if the task doesn't come with its own.

Also, making tea or a latte before getting down to work can help me focus my mind, over time I've come to associate both of those activities with 'focus time'.

Edit to add: Isolating the task from distractions kind of goes without saying, but I find it helps to frame the distractions as much as the task. Why am I so compelled to go play game X, or read book Y, instead of the task at hand? Going a level deeper and figuring out what your brain's avoiding/being lured by has been really useful for me (especially while dealing with focus issues after a concussion).

- Only work on something as long as I'm productive on it - When I stop being productive, it goes to the end of list and I pick up the next thing and repeat

For big tasks where procrastination might be more of a problem, I put something like "work on x for 10 minutes" and make it a repeating todo until the due date. That way I don't pressure myself into getting some big component done. I can make myself feel good about consistent progress.

I also found that diligently tracking my time on tasks has helped. Now I have a better sense, more or less, of how long common tasks take and can better gauge the time commitment before starting. Before I had data, I think I put off a lot of things or let myself get distracted because I thought something would take an hour when in fact it only takes 15 minutes.

I take a walk, or a nap. On a bad day I may try to work on something else for a while.

Really bad days, I find that I've been reading HN or Reddit for hours, serially. Sigh.

My productivity is cyclical. There will be whole weeks where I'm utterly uninspired, I hate the world and it hates me, I don't want to go to work. I try reading. I try to remember that this will pass, and in a week I'll probably be a typing fiend.

I also play the practical joker. No pranks, as such, but leaving little signs around for people to notice is fun. I once wrote profanity in very small letters on the bottom of a hallway-length whiteboard (people were helping with that one). If you can rope one or two other people into a joke, that's fun (creative and only mildly destructive use of superglue, for instance...).

Thinking in rhythm can help you focus. You run a clock in your head with a rhythm pattern imposed on it. You create anchors in your short term memory at the start of the rhythm cycle that tell you what you're currently thinking about. If your mind strays while you're working, your thinking clock should keep running. Then you can remember your last anchor and return to that point to re-focus yourself on what you were working on before you strayed. Thinking in rhythm makes you more aware of the temporal aspects of your thinking. Over time, you begin to gain control over when you think.

For a more in depth discussion, see http://bit.ly/JIXwSf

I set a one hour timer on my phone. The agreement with myself is that i will not stand up, not open a browser for something unrelated, not go to the bathroom, not speak to anyone, not listen to anyone, not do anything but focus on the one task at hand until the timer goes off. This can be planning or actually writing code, but i only work on the task.

By the time the timer goes off, i'm usually pretty immersed. The more i do it the less i use the timer, i just need it to get out of slumps.

And i don't start the timer unless i'm sure i'm ready to commit the hour. Deciding to commit alone helps me get rolling.

Create a buffer between yourself and the necessity of the task. It's cliche, but I love to take a walk. I find that my mind reliably wanders away from the thing I'm trying to do. And when I remember it, as I walk, I can feel excitement rather than pressure, for coming upon the problem as if by chance. It's a little cheat, a self-inflicted head trick. Every time this happens, it makes me realize that you're never ready to do something well until you want to.

Stop trying to focus. Just do, or don't.

It may sound as silly advice; but it's the honest truth. The very fact that you are thinking about focusing when you are trying to focus; precludes you from actually doing it.

It's counter intuitive: Sit behind the work to be done, and truly accept whatever happens. Accept the fact that you might be unfocused or distracted. It's a sign that you aren't ready to work. Don't resist. Just either do, or don't.

I've found learning to slip into focus and stay focussed are two different things.

Each are a skill to learn on your own through a set of strategies and tactics you can recognize that work for you.

I try to see if I'm restless and can't focus, I try standing up and working, if I'm tired, I try to sit. I try to keep my workspace only for working. I try to do separate computers/devices between work and personal so it's a hard context shift.

Lately, it's been a combination of removing distractions like IM, e-mail and the like. Putting on headphons and listening to Coffitivity. Then, I either grab a paper and pencil or tablet and stylus and sketch what I should be designing. I take components and use Vitamin-R (pomodora) and get working. If this seems to fail at any steps, I take a walk around the block with the expectation that there will be no delays when I return.

Oftentimes inability to focus is because you didn't leave yourself a good starting point. Writers use this trick; they stop for the day when they are sure what comes next. So split it into two - sit down and spend a bit of time doing nothing but orienting - figuring out what you would do next if you were about to do it. Then when you've identified it, go take a break until you feel ready to start again.

I have ADHD, so I stick to the Pomodoro technique for work/rest cycles. I will listen to music/podcasts to reduce background noise in my cube farm.

I also practice mindful meditation and yoga to prevent any distractions that may be caused by stress. Early in my career I allowed it to burn myself out severely and since practicing meditation, I can think more clearly and not over-react.

Don't think about the work and just do it.

Often times you find an excuse to distract yourself because you think the work is tedious and annoying. So stop thinking about how annoying the work is and just do it.

Don't try to manage your tedium, don't use tricks, don't use any systems. Just sit down, tell yourself to stop whining and just attack the work.

Oh and modafinil. :)

Go somewhere that isn't a regular habit of yours. At home you have certain patterns of behavior, the same at work, your location matters.

Find a neutral ground when you want to focus and use that location or ones like it as a way to both isolate yourself from common distractions of your normal surroundings, as well as to set the scene for your focus.

Focus@Will provides streaming music to help you focus -- https://www.focusatwill.com/

TED talk by the founder about focus -- http://www.tedxbrussels.eu/will-henshall/

Block distractions:

sudo bash -c 'echo " news.ycombinator.com" >> /etc/hosts'

I focus by ceasing all communication with the rest of the world. Logging out of your social media accounts and closing anything else that isn't relevant to what I am trying to focus on is a wonderful approach.

http://www.pomodoro.me/ do stuff in chunks of 25 minutes of uninterrupted time.

Music, Mountain Dew, and a Pomodoro timer. Can't get out of the seat if the timer is ticking.

wake up early. Take a walk when you start getting distracted. Don't multi-task too much. Someties work with one friend in the same physical space on the same thing - you'll have expectations towards each other of seeing new shit getting done.

I have ADD/ADHD so it's very difficult. Some things might seem extreme to some people.

GTD - Getting Things Done is an invaluable book/workflow/system. The GTD workflow map helps if you're familiar with the system: http://ideas2followup.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/gtd-workfl...

Objective-- One thing often overlooked, undervalued, and even stressful is knowing that your focus is correctly directed. (GTD helps) This is a lot harder than it sounds, and usually determined by the most unqualified and biased person for the job; yourself. Mitch Hedberg explains it best: "I play the guitar, I taught myself how to play the guitar, which was a bad decision... because I didn't know how to play it, so I was a shitty teacher. I would never have went to me." Steve Jobs has an amazing technique to stay on top of this: “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Environment-- Having literally nothing going on around me. No sounds, music, movies, TV, radio, people, moving objects, windows to stare out of, etc. Even voices in the next room that are basically inaudible distract me. Silence any possible notifications/apps/programs that distract you, and be anal about it. Recreational email/social usage is a time suck, for business purposes 4 hour work week goes into a system for appearing responsive while not being distracted.

Health-- Diet and exercise matter. Meditation is important. Breaks are important. Most of the hardest problems I encounter are solved away from the computer. Going outside is very important. Ironically under health, one reason I loved smoking was the excuse to go outside. Without that excuse I have to force myself to remember to go outside, and always find some excuse not to. Find your excuse and/or force yourself. Wake up early.

Other stuff-- Multitasking is a killer. If you have to multi-task make sure you move on only once the current task is completely finished/solved, and that you only create tasks that are broken down correctly into solvable chunks that don't require other outside input/action. Tasks that involve using the web should be done with one tab open only, and I try to avoid the habit of creating more tabs like the plague. Once I open more than one tab without fail I suddenly have 10+ tabs open (related to a task), and don't want to shut them for completely illogical reasons. I tell myself "I'll get around to this tab once I'm done over here" which almost never happens.

Self-sabotage is a killer, and can undermine any potential efforts you make. Find out why you're sabotaging yourself. This is a road that most people avoid travelling because it requires finding/embracing your mental/emotional problems, and is therefore best done by an independent third party. ("What mental/emotional problems?" I can hear you asking yourself.) Everyone has them, and it's usually something they'll completely overlook such as fear.

Have barely touched on everything I wanted to, but may extend it to a blog post someday.

Great post, it's like you're describing my life - minus that whole "solutions" thing you've got going on :)

Regarding sounds and noises during work, have you tried ambient style music or noise machines in the background, for example:


I've honestly gotten to the point where I can't sit down and get any work done without it, but I'm sort of paranoid that it might be a distraction and I'm not doing my highest level thinking with it on. I have no evidence to support it, just a concern. It may just be that whole "I get my best ideas while showering/jogging/driving" thing, though.

Also, if you don't mind me asking, would you say you've effectively "cured" your ADD with just the techniques you describe, or are you medicated as well?

Anyway, I'd love to read that blog post if you get the chance.

I've listened to classical, and as long as it's slow it's not bad. I've listened to a lot of binaural beats, and for focusing it worked quite well. Thanks for sharing I will definitely check this out.

You should run a test comparing amount of code commits made listening as opposed to silence. Kind of like lovesdata did with coffee and universal analytic http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C27yMQOS8n0

I don't think you can cure it. Only suppress it, or harness it. Drugs can only do so much, but taking them while I was in school definitely helped. Believe it or not, medical marijuana helps more than one would think, but it's illegal in my state.

I wear earplugs next to a running fan or white noise machine.

I find that playing a musical instrument helps calm the mind.

Ear plugs, then gun-range earmuffs over that.

Wake up insanely early in the morning

Marijuana and a medium-long walk.

Weed actually helps you code?

DragonForce at full blast.

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