If you read this, chances are that you spend a good bit of your waking time online. The double edged sword of the World Wide Web brings us the world at our fingertips and also a world of distractions. Our attention is fragmented and increasingly there are many things vying for our attention online (thanks for giving me some of this!). This is something that I deal with everyday and I know many people who also feel their time and focus is splintered among the many outlets of content and information that are just a click away on the web.
So what to do? We have to be online because this is largely where we work, where we communicate, where we express ourselves and connect to the broader world. How can we manage to both focus on one or two things to get real work done and not feel distracted and frustrated by all the things pulling for our attention. I’ve spent some time thinking about this because its something that frustrates me and something I increasingly want to get a handle on because I don’t want the Internet to own me and my life. I want to have command of it to tap its riches, but I don’t want to feel totally seduced by all that it offers which require my attention, for better or worse.
So here is the deal. I read a book. Yes, a book. This takes focus and attention. We read a lot online these days, but we jump around from blog post to blog post, twitter posts, Facebook posts, email, etc. Most of this is short format, sometimes very short, and then our attention is on to the next thing. Reading a book brings one back to the pre-internet time of focusing on one thing and giving it your attention. But, I did not read just any book, I read a book called Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher (2009). I highly recommend this tome to those who may be struggling with focusing on tasks at hand and dealing with the distractions of the Web, not to mention how to focus on things in your life without letting them pass you by.
While there are many gems in this book, the big practical takeaways are this. There is a mountain of research that shows humans really can only handle a limited amount of multi-tasking. We can only do so much before things start to be counter-productive. Actually we can only really focus on one or two things at a time to really be attentive and productive with these tasks. This is a challenge with the Web. And the reason it is a challenge is the way we are wired. Biologically, our brains are just made to focus one a couple of things and not much more for maximum efficiency. So try to focus on one or two things, give them your attention, get them done, or at least to a stopping point and then move on to the next task. Don’t do 5-10 mins here or there and jump around a lot. You will end up not focusing very well on any one thing and will likely feel quite unproductive at the end of the day.
Devote 90 minutes to the most important tasks and try to do these early in the day before you get more distracted. If you can devote this time to one or two big tasks, you can get some things done. If you do get distracted, realize that it may take 20 minutes or so get back on task and focused again. During these 90 minutes don’t jump around on the Web, don’t look at your email, twitter feed or Facebook wall. Just focus on the other things you need to get done. Trust me, you’ll feel a lot better at the end of the day and not to mention more productive.
These are two practical takeaways from the book, but there are more and the book actually discusses in detail the merits of the focused, attentive life. It is not something that comes easy. This takes practice just like exercising the body, you have to train your mind to really concentrate and focus. For some it may take years to develop this skill so its not something you just “do.” But it has tremendous benefits…akin to “not letting your life pass you by” outlook on things by focusing on the here and now
So if you can, I recommend the time to read and focus on what this book has to say. I think it will have an impact on both how I work and how I try to deal with things that come up in my life outside of work.
And then I also use some tools to help me out. I am big fan of trying new software, new tools and seeing if there is alway “a better way.” And so I have installed and tried a number of tools that help my focus and work flow. I am starting to use the better now and I feel better about focusing on the major tasks at hand and getting some things done.
Here are several Mac apps that are working for me at the moment:
Vitamin-R ($14.95) This is a new app that I use every day now. It allows you to set a goal, set a time frame for this goal and go to work. You can keep tabs on how well you focused on the task during this time, keep notes about the task and kill off apps that might be distracting for you. The app is controlled by a Menu bar icon and timer. The app is $14.95 but I paid for the lifetime upgrades for an extra $14.95 which I felt was worth it because I use this app every day now to help me focus.
Think (free) – I use this app often too, especially when writing. When launched you can choose which app Think will focus upon and then it will place a darkened background on your desktop leaving only the app you selected as the one you can see. You can control the opacity of the background making it completely dark or completely transparent. Any background color can also be used, so if black is not your thing you can choose any color. This is a very simple app that works well.
Isolator (free but take donations)- This app works very similarly to Think. I only use Isolate from time to time because I really find Think does what I need, but if you want to try this one out for size too, its worth a look.
Concentrate ($29)- This app will lock you out of certain apps and Web sites that may be distracting for you when you need to get something done, like writing for instance. You can customize this app in many different ways to handle your IM status, run scripts, play sounds when you reach goals, etc. I like the customization of this app and use it when I really need to hunker down on a specific task that requires certain apps. It takes some time to tweak at first but you can create a
Freedom ($10)- This app was written by a grad student who had enough of distractions while trying to write his thesis. This simple app will kill your Internet connection for a time period you specify. If you want to get online during the time that Freedom is running you will have to re-boot your machine. This is heavy handed, but if you really want to get some work done (assuming it can be done offline), then this app can help you focus. There is also a PC version.
An honorable mention is the open source SelfControl which also lets you block apps or websites for certain amounts of time.
Also note that there are other of full screen, focusing apps (many for writers) or preferences built into specific apps allowing for this. Apple’s Pages has a full screen mode, MS Word does too, but its not well implemented. I think the new version of Office will fix this. WriteRoom is a popular full screen app for writers. Many of the Mac text editors now have full screen
I use a number of other tools for productivity and the GTD approach that is so widely touted now. I will cover these in another post as I really wanted to focus (ha ha) on just these few tools and methods I discovered in Rapt.
What do you do for keeping your focus? If you have tools, a system or method that works, I am all ears. Please put these in the comments so others can see these too. Thanks!