Ever since getting onto the internet I’ve had a massive problem remaining productive and focused on the task at hand. This post describes the system I’m developing to help me cope with this sea of distractions, and I hope it might help you as well. Years of fighting myself with various productivity techniques, internet configurations, and browser extensions has led me to finally accept two opposing elements of my psychology:

  • the incessant desire to keep up-to-date with the entire world and respond to every incoming request for attention like my life depends on it
  • the complete inability to multitask and the unbelievably high cost of interruptions and context switches

The first of these is a classic case of FOMO and manifests itself partly as 1) an addiction to Hacker News/Twitter/Internet and 2) a desire to respond to messages as soon as possible. Direct messages from my friends and family usually contain interesting or relevant links, questions or requests for help, or just something they wanted to share with me. These are wonderful gifts I wholeheartedly accept and I want to return the favor as soon as possible - sometimes in the form of my thoughts, a related link, or just a simple message of thanks.

The second is the insane cost of context switches which are expensive for humans and computers alike. They seem to almost always be triggered by an incoming notification or reminder. But it’s not like I drop whatever I’m doing and switch to to it. No, it’s far more insidious than that: just knowing a notification is there waiting for me takes up some of my brain’s working memory until I address it (or forget about it). Worst of all these notifications are relevant to me personally about half the time, and relevant to what I’m doing at most 10% of the time. Email newsletters, planned group vacation conversations, off-topic discussions about burritos: all interesting things I don’t need to know about right now. Typically, such information can go unread for hours until I’m in a place where I can read it, make a decision, and reply if need be.

The solution #

I make a promise to myself over and over throughout the day: for the next hour nothing short of thermonuclear war is going to disrupt my concentration. For this to be effective however my brain needs to believe that promise and it took significant time to develop that trust (more on this below). I’m not saying I’ve tripled my output or become John Carmack, but I have noticed an increase in time spent in flow. Here’s how I do it. I began with the Pomodoro technique (pasted verbatim):

  1. Decide on the task to be done.
  2. Set the pomodoro timer (traditionally to 25 minutes).
  3. Work on the task.
  4. End work when the timer rings and put a checkmark on a piece of paper.
  5. If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go to step 2.
  6. After four pomodoros, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, then go to step 1.

In my experience I never liked this technique. It felt too structured and forced, and there are simply too many numbers and timers going on. I made two significant changes to it:

  1. Gradually increased the length of the period to 45-90 minutes. I find that for many tasks it takes me at least 15 minutes to even fully understand the context of the problem I’m trying to tackle. If it’s a few short bugfixes, I’ll set something closer to 45 minutes. If I want to go deep on a problem, closer to 90 minutes.

  2. No timing or counting breaks. Sometimes I skip the break altogether and other times I go make a peanut butter jelly sandwich. Usually I’ll open Twitter, answer the one or two messages I might’ve gotten, and get back to work within 4-5 minutes. Any long interesting articles I find get saved for later. I find having that open-ended break just takes some unneeded pressure off myself.

I also made some major additions:

  • Silence every source of notifications possible. Slack, Telegram, iMessage, email, SMS, phone calls – all of it. I achieve this by enabling Do Not Disturb mode on all my devices, quitting all apps which have red badges, and putting my phone out of reach.

    E-mail inboxes, in theory, can distract you only when you choose to open them, whereas instant messenger systems are meant to be always active—magnifying the impact of interruption. Gloria Mark … observed knowledge workers in real offices and found that an interruption, even if short, delays the total time required to complete a task by a significant fraction.

    Deep Work, Cal Newport

  • Avoid all time-sucking, infinite scrolling, and entertaining sources. They are acceptable during breaks, within reason. I haven’t found tools as helpful here compared to simply making a promise to myself and catching myself hitting the CMD+T;n;return sequence for that Hacker News dopamine hit.

    • Recognize your triggers. A big one for me was encountering a strange error interrupting my flow and requiring me to go digging into documentation somewhere, potentially to the very depths of the internet. Or having files compile for 30+ seconds. These were learned responses to self-induced operant conditioning and took time to unlearn.
  • Jot down ideas, thoughts, or questions that arise, regardless of subject. This now applies to my entire day no matter where I am. I feel my subconscious works on many problems in parallel and occasionally insights float up to the surface like air bubbles. Assuring myself I won’t lose them by having a place to put them allows me to better focus on the task at hand.

  • Experiment, and record your results. Try establishing a routine such as starting with coffee or a particular playlist, and see if it helps. Keep in mind your body’s energy level throughout the day how caffeine affects it. Certain playlists get me into creative or productive moods. Look for the relationship between your environment and your body, and don’t be afraid to experiment! Scott Adams’ How To Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big is a great resource for this.

So, to recap:

  • Choose a task. Preferably not right then and there, but from a pre-organized source you spent time prioritizing and ordering. For my personal life this is Roam Research and for work it’s Linear.

  • Mute everything. Put family, friends, and coworkers on your call whitelist, and everything else gets blocked. While you’re working the outside world may as well be a figment of your imagination.

  • Focus for 45-90 minutes. Set a timer, flip an hourglass, ask Siri, but make sure there is a definite end. Don’t do the math in your head.

  • Avoid all distracting sites. If DNS level blocks help here, use them. Take a break and reward yourself. Get some air, a glass of water, do some stretches. Check your calls, emails, DMs – and be assured the world didn’t end while you were away.

  • Jot down thoughts, notes, or ideas for processing later. These often go right back into Roam Research for me, but require a dedicated time every week to process.

Some other facts I think are relevant:

  • I work remotely 4-5 days per week from my apartment or a nearby coffee shop.

    • I can’t wait for the rest of the tech industry to catch up to this. I can talk to myself. I can blast music as loud as I want. An entire portion of my brain dedicated to continuously assessing whether I am being a nuisance to other human beings gets re-allocated to productive use.
  • Our team has clear communication standards: phone calls for emergencies; everything else can wait.

    • When working in-person we do our best to avoid interrupting anyone with headphones on while they are “plugged in”. This isn’t a default in many contexts and environments and requires establishing norms.
  • I lead a generally healthy lifestyle with a stable sleep routine, consistent habits and a role where I feel both challenged and supported.

    • My body has a massive energy slump roughly 8 hours after waking up regardless of sleep quality or caffeine. Spending 30 minutes in the sun like a flower at the expense of pushing my day’s end back is absolutely worth it in terms of general happiness and productivity.

Why it works #

Simply put, people aren’t good at multitasking even though many of the tools and workflows we use are built with the assumption that we are.

I started realizing I had an issue early last year at a previous role with an open office. Though we were supposed to route notifications and requests through Slack and email, things still caught my attention – a person walking by to get a drink, another tapping my shoulder with a semi-urgent question, an outage indicator on Slack: I had effectively trained my brain to always be on alert for an incoming context switch. And I paid dearly for it. I had trouble reading chapters of a book in one go – even longer blog posts would occasionally pose problems.

It took me a solid 3 months to regain this ability to focus and I can’t say I’m 100% to where I want to be – but I am sure it involves even fewer distractions, less multitasking, and more concentrated effort on one, clear objective at a time. A large part of building the aforementioned trust was consistent followthrough: I don’t schedule a long session if I don’t think I can make it through to the end; and once I start it I treat it seriously.

For starting out I recommend sticking to the Pomodoro’s 25 minute timespan - and don’t beat yourself up if you can’t reach it. As with all things in life, guide yourself with compassion. The first sessions took significantly more willpower to complete, but it got easier and easier with each completed session. The benefits seem to bleed over into other areas of life as well: I can read longer without caring to check my phone, I’m generally content sitting at a bar with just my notebook, and I’ve produced more in the past six months than my entire life.

The method I’m developing allows me to address both problems by giving me an upper bound to how long I’ll go without seeing potentially important information, along with the power to address it on my own terms. It’s akin to diving underwater and knowing I’ll be back up for air before bad things happen.

It also happens to be in complete opposition to the way almost every single app and platform out there is designed today, from social media attention magnets to enterprise “productivity” tools. Sure, I’ve made some progress in dealing with but I’m no closer to addressing the fact I can’t triage my iOS notifications across devices, 5 different Google Apps accounts, I’m part of 13 Slack organizations, there is no global notification protocol, and the list of things demanding my attention is only increasing day by day. Unfortunately this is beyond the scope of this post but I absolutely intend to publish more on how we need to start addressing these flaws.

If you’d like to email me to explore the ideas discussed (or not discussed) above, I’d be delighted. My sincere gratitude to Arthur Tyukayev, CJ Pais, Orion Lehoczky Escobar, Andrew Bugera, Raffael Senn, and Temirlan Nugmanov for valuable feedback on drafts of this post.

I intend to make future additions and changes to this page as I learn more. If you enjoyed this you may also enjoy my Digital Tools I Wish Existed post.

Cal Newport’s Deep Work is where most of the ideas around this originated. I have yet to implement most of the techniques discussed in it and am excited for the day I do.

Alexey Guzey: Every productivity thought I’ve ever had, as concisely as possible is a wonderful compilation of tools, strategies, and readings for maximizing productivity.

Scott Adams’ How To Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big can be summed up as “treat your brain like the wet computer it is, and don’t knock things if they seem to help you achieve your goals”. An exploration of serendipity, listening to your body, and building routines to help you succeed regardless of how weird they seem.

Abe Winter: Slack is the opposite of organizational memory dives deep on why Slack is a terrible piece of software. An excerpt, for your pleasure:

Paradoxically, speed is just as toxic to group thought, as people will race to get out ideas and leave them half-formed or contradictory. Missing ‘not’ in a sentence is my favorite. When people catch themselves at this they will post a *not, sometimes a few lines down. I feel like I’m in a wayne’s world sketch.

CGP Grey: Thinking about Attention (Youtube) is an insightful exploration of this issue by someone who practically lives on these platforms as a content producer

After discussing this topic on both Hello Internet and Cortex, I feel more strongly than before that 1) this topic is connected to a lot of other topics and 2) that I’ve barely begun this process.

Alex Petrache: How Focus Became More Valuable Than Intelligence

Every single day you don’t work on your goals, you’re pushing away the day when your vision becomes reality. If a random distraction is more fun than working on your goals, then your goals are not great enough. You should have goals that make you shiver with excitement just by thinking about them.

Paul Graham: How to Make Wealth

One valuable thing you tend to get only in startups is uninterruptability. Different kinds of work have different time quanta. Someone proofreading a manuscript could probably be interrupted every fifteen minutes with little loss of productivity. But the time quantum for hacking is very long: it might take an hour just to load a problem into your head. So the cost of having someone from personnel call you about a form you forgot to fill out can be huge.

John Cleese on Creativity in Management describes how to foster an environment for creativity. The whole thing is worth a watch (thanks Brian Timar).

You can’t become playful - and therefore creative - if you’re under you usual pressure … so you have to create some space for yourself away from those demands and that means sealing yourself off. You must make a quiet space for yourself where you will be undisturbed. (14:08)

Jason Heeris: This is Why You Shouldn’t Interrupt a Programmer (a visual guide)

Tools #

SidebarOverflow (Chrome extension) hides the distracting sidebars from Stack Overflow. Similar tools exist for Youtube.

Show HN: A Firefox extension to add latency to distracting webpages may be helpful if you want to kill the habit of accessing these pages universally. You’ll get so bored waiting for the page to load you’ll probably go right back to doing your work. I haven’t tried this personally.

Gestimer: Drag to Create Timers (Mac App Store, $4) is the app I use for timers. Set a timer simply by dragging the desired length of time, and letting go starts it. It’s honestly magic.

Thanks for reading. Now go create something and send me it once you do. Don’t worry, you won’t interrupt me :)