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Focus is one of the most valuable assets when it comes to making meaningful progress on your work. When your focus is challenged, it can cost you a lot of time due to the fact that you’re simply not able to work as efficiently.
People who understand the power of focus go to great lengths to ensure their focus is protected by making sure their work environment is as distraction free as possible. But what about when you work from home where distractions abound?
In this episode we’re going to talk about some best practices for finding focus and some strategies you can use to combat distractions at home so you can do your best work.
Highlights, Takeaways, & Quick Wins
- Batch similar work so your head can stay in the same mode as you’re working.
- Practice focusing daily to build your focus muscle.
- Spend 25 minutes doing focused work, then you take a five minute break.
- You don’t know how much better your work could be if you’re not taking breaks.
- Schedule tasks in advance to give a gift to your future self.
- Identify where you have a tendency to get stuck.
- Work early in the morning to help you focus.
- To completely focus on your work, somebody else needs to be responsible for the kids.
- Designate a specific place in your home where you work and be consistent with that.
- Always have a list of light work ready to go in case you have to be pulled out of focus for a time.
- The quality of your time is more important than the quantity of it.
- Accomplish more faster by focusing on one thing at a time.
- You don’t have to return somebody’s message right away.
- 05:27 Ben: I wanted to do this episode because I was inspired one night when Rachel and I were sitting down on our bed, looking at some whiteboards where we do brainstorming from time to time. Rachel wanted to write down all of the writing projects that she has going on. She wrote all of them down for the next two years, plus all of the stuff she’s finishing up this year. As she was sitting there, walking me through everything, I was looking at it in awe. This was so much, especially when I think about the limited amount of time that Rachel has.
- 06:19 I was so inspired by that that I went straight into the Community chat and I wrote something about focus and how valuable it is. We underestimate how big of an asset focus is to the work we’re doing. We can be very hard workers, very skilled, and very good at what we do, but if we lack focus, we’re not able to accomplish nearly as much. The work we’re doing is not as meaningful. For those of us who have constraints on our time and outside responsibilities we’re dealing with, focus is so precious. Some days, it’s the difference between moving the needle and not making any progress toward our goal.
- 08:05 I know that Rachel’s personality is an INFJ, and that personality type tends to lean toward being focused and not as distracted by outside things. I’m an ENFJ, so I’m very outgoing, but I’m also very emotionally driven. That’s also true for Rachel, but it’s almost like my personality tends to look for distractions. If I’m not careful, I can believe that focus is just not something that comes as easily to me, and I should accept that. Though focus does come easier for some than others, I think of it like any other talent. Some people are born with a higher baseline talent for a particular thing, whether it’s playing an instrument, drawing, or singing.
- 09:19 It’s those who practice, work, and put in the time and the effort who end up trumping those with natural talent. Natural talent can give you a head start, but it’s the work that gives you the edge. I feel that way about focus. You may be somebody who has a natural talent for being focused in your work, or you may be somebody who feels like it’s a little bit more difficult to have focus in your work. Don’t let that be what determines whether or not you believe you can achieve great focus.
Practice focusing daily and build the muscle that will get you the kind of focus you’re looking for.
Batching Like Work
- 10:19 Batching is something that Rachel does quite often with her writing.
- 10:24 Rachel: Whenever I’m writing, I try to write on the same things in a certain amount of time. I’ll set my timer for an hour and a half, and I’ll write all of the blogs for a week. Because it’s non-fiction, that way I’m not shifting gears between fiction and non-fiction. That might not seem like a huge difference, but it is. I try to batch those things together so I’m using that time most wisely. I also do that with business sessions. I’ll batch a couple of business sessions together where I’m working on something like newsletters, something that takes a certain side of the brain that doesn’t feel like it’s the same side as when I’m creating from other worlds.
- 11:13 Ben: Not having to shift gears is the huge key there. Any time you have to switch the way you’re engaging in your work, it takes away from your ability to focus. Even if it’s just for a small amount of time, that adds up. In your work week, you have several different tasks. Maybe you’re putting together proposals for potential clients. Maybe you’re returning emails. Maybe you’re sending out invoices. You’re doing all those different things, and maybe you sprinkle those activities between major tasks like working on a project. If you do design and development, maybe you switch back and forth between doing a design portion of the task and then a development portion. Constantly switching from one mode to the other sounds exhausting, first of all. Secondly, there’s such a lack of focus when you have to do that.
Work on things that are similar, even if they’re for different clients or projects, so your head can stay in the same mode as you’re working.
- 12:39 Rachel: I just had a picture in my mind that might seem a little bit silly. Maybe it’s because we visited my old junior high, but we used to run these things called “horses.” We would start at the baseline and then go to every other line on the gym floor before going back to the baseline. It was this excruciating thing. We were running as fast as we could. I don’t really know why they call it a horse. Every time you hit a line, you have to slow down a little bit before you get there. You slow down a little bit and change directions, and you’re trying to gain momentum again and go as fast as you can, but then you come up on another line and you have to slow down and change directions again. That’s how I think of it when we try and shift gears in so many different places.
- 13:32 Ben: That’s such a great way to think about it, because if you take the total distance that you’re running and you timed a person having to run back and forth vs. a person who gets to run the entire distance in a straight line, the person who runs in a straight line is going to get there faster. That’s a great metaphor.
Set a Timer for Yourself
- 14:07 The power of setting a timer does opposite things. It takes your mind off of the amount of time you’re spending on something, but it also makes you aware of the impending beep of the timer finishing and knowing that that’s coming. In some ways, it sets your mind free from having to think about that. In other ways, it becomes this challenge. How quickly can we work through this step? Not to the effect that you do sloppy work, but especially for the things that are mundane—every job has parts that are kind of tedious—it becomes a challenge to see how quickly and efficiently you can work through those things.
- 15:06 That’s one of the reasons I really like the timer. I can’t remember where I heard this, but there’s a study that said that an hour and a half of focused work, for someone who really focuses and doesn’t allow themselves to get distracted, is the equivalent to the amount of work the average person gets done in an eight hour work day.
- 15:39 Rachel: Do you think that’s true?
- 15:41 Ben: I remember working a nine to five, and I would say that’s probably pretty accurate. I probably got a good hour and a half’s worth of real work done. There are meetings and stuff like that going on, too. An hour and a half can be a long time to sit down and focus on one thing. That may be something you have to build up to. A lot of people swear by a 25 minute timer, and they call it the Pomodoro Technique. I don’t know if it is a time specific thing, but if you go to tomato-timer.com, you can set a timer for 25 minutes to have 25 minutes of focus time.
- 16:34 Rachel: I feel like that would annoy me.
- 16:36 Ben: That’s because Rachel goes for longer stretches.
- 16:38 Rachel: I go for like three hours.
The idea behind the Pomodoro technique is to spend 25 minutes doing focused work, and then you take a five minute break.
- 16:53 Ben: It’s basically in 30 minute chunks, which leads me to my next practice.
- 17:02 Rachel: I’m not good at this one.
- 17:09 Ben: Rachel is a very disciplined person. Where I usually go when I think about breaks is that when I reach a place of resistance and I start to feel uncomfortable, I start looking for distractions. I will gravitate toward checking Facebook or Twitter, and if I know that I have a break coming, it’s easier for me to say no for those things, because I know that there’s a time and a place to check those things. It helps me feel like I have a little bit more endurance. There’s also more going on there. When you take a break, whether you’re checking social media or sitting in a chair staring at your screen, it allows your brain to breathe and recuperate a little bit.
- 18:18 Over time, that improves the quality and effectiveness of the work you’re doing when you’re focused. If you’re not in the practice of taking a break but you are a very highly disciplined person, it can seem like you’re getting a lot of really great work done, and you probably are. You don’t know what you’re missing out on if you’re not taking breaks. You don’t know how much better your work could be if you’re not taking breaks. It’s worth exploring, taking a week and saying, “This week, I’m going to schedule in breaks, as much as that makes me cringe, because I know that I could do something with each of those five minute breaks.”
- 19:03 At the end of the week, or maybe a couple of weeks so you have time to acclimate to that, measure your productivity. Measure the results, and let the results be what helps you decide whether or not that’s something you should do for yourself.
Schedule Tasks Before Your Day Begins
- 19:38 I’m talking about the night before, at the very least. On Sundays, I’ve been in the practice of sitting down with my entire task list. I have my week scheduled out into blocks, and I’ll take different tasks and assign them to different time blocks throughout my week. Sometimes, I’m not able to do the entire week, but at the very least I can get Monday and Tuesday done. Waking up Monday morning and already having my day planned out is a gift. Think about waking up and knowing you have a list of things to do, but before you can start on anything, you have to decide what is the most important thing to get started on.
- 20:36 Rachel: It’s nice to have that already done.
When you schedule tasks in advance, you give a gift to your future self.
- 20:47 Ben: Because you’re not having to spend any mental energy on deciding what to get started on, it’s a lot easier to dive in and actually get started on that work. You can reach flow a lot sooner and be more focused that way.
- 21:02 Rachel: There’s also research that suggests that, when we make our to do list the night before, our subconscious is working on it the entire time we’re sleeping. If we put something like, “Design that logo for whoever” on our to do list the night before, our subconscious is working on that as we sleep. That’s a really neat thing.
- 21:34 Ben: Lately, I’ve been really in love with this idea of giving gifts to your future self—making decisions in the present that help your future self. That’s something we don’t think about often, how our mind is able to work on problems we didn’t know were there and prepare us mentally to work on something when we’ve given ourselves the proper space instead of diving in and feeling like we have to improvise. You can take care of a lot of stress that way, too.
Know Where You Get Stuck
- 22:17 I talked about how I’ll meet resistance sometimes. Sometimes, it has to do with a place where I haven’t quite learned everything I have to know. Sometimes, it’s because it’s something very tedious, and I don’t want to have to sit there and do whatever it is over and over again. Sometimes, I have to wait for something to load or render, and I have several of those in a row. When that progress bar shows up, my tendency is to check out and go do something else. What ends up happening is that I miss when the progress bar is done, and I come back, even a minute later, and that’s a minute lost when I could have been right on top of the next thing.
- 23:17 One of the things you can do for yourself is you can identify where you have a tendency to get stuck, to start to feel like you’re dragging in your work and losing focus. Prepare for those things ahead of time. Going back to gifting your future self: ahead of time, anticipate those things and come up with a plan for how you’re going to deal with them when you reach that moment.
- 23:49 Rachel: One of the things I like to do is sometimes my laptop takes a while to boot up, and I’ll have a writing book in my hand, where I’m constantly learning new things. As I wait for it to boot up, I’m learning.
- 24:11 Ben: It’s so much more valuable to do that than to do what I normally do. If you don’t have a schedule already, this is something I highly recommend. I know that this is one of those things that most people do, or that a lot of people say that they do but they don’t really. As much as you can, get a regular schedule going for yourself. If you find that you have things that you don’t normally schedule because it seems silly to put them on a schedule, put those things on a schedule, too. The fewer things your brain has to think about to manage on any timeline, the more your brain is able to focus on the work that you’re doing.
- 25:04 If your brain is not having to think about when you’re going to take care of the administrative stuff that you didn’t put on a schedule, it has more capacity to assist you when you’re doing your creative work to help you stay focused.
Make Time for Focused Work
- 25:29 I want to focus specifically on the early morning time. Whether you’re a morning person or not, and I’ll admit that I’m not a morning person, I’ve found that working early in the morning helps me focus and accomplish more because it’s a quieter part of the day. It’s before the kids wake up, before people have sent me messages or emails, and the rest of the world is still sleeping or getting ready, and I’m already working on things. When I got into the habit of doing that, I fell in love with that so much. Now, when I don’t get to do that and I work later in the day or at night, I don’t feel like I can focus as much.
- 26:28 My brain is preoccupied with everything that happened that day. This is another thing that I encourage you to test out. It might mean going to bed earlier so you can wake up earlier, changing your routine a little bit, but test it out. Try that for a few weeks, and see what changes in your productivity. For me, it has been a huge difference between what I’m able to accomplish.
- 27:04 Rachel: When we have kids, it’s important for me, as a mom, to get up before the kids and have a little bit of time to myself. The first thing I usually do is to write in a journal, but then there’s some reading and just some quiet time to be had before kids get up and it’s super crazy, trying to get everyone to school. If I didn’t have that time, I feel like I would start the whole day off on the wrong foot.
Even if you don’t start your work first thing in the morning, you can spend your time on things that help you feel more relaxed and get rid of stress.
- 27:56 Ben: Doing things like writing, meditation, and exercise, things that help you be a more healthy person, are going to indirectly help you be more focused when it comes time to do your work. Even if you’re not using those early hours to get work done, it can still be hugely beneficial, spending that time on yourself and getting yourself ready.
Working at Home
- 28:34 The home is a very different environment than the traditional working environment. When I started working for myself, I would split my time between working at home and going out to a coffee shop or something like that. I found more and more that I wanted to work from home and I kind of needed to, because I have a better machine at home now that’s able to accomplish more fore me. It also makes me more available to other things that are going on, like if I need to take a break from work to take care of something with the school. I like having the ability to do that.
- 29:24 Working from home is kind of half necessary and half a choice, but along with that come all these factors that can take away from your focus. We want to talk about a few of those. When working from home, one of the best things you can do is to designate a specific place or places in your home where you’re going to work, and be consistent with that. Sometimes, that’s easy, because there’s an actual office space and you can set that aside. Maybe you’re in a home without a room designated as an office—we don’t have an actual office, so we use an offshoot of our bedroom as a makeshift office. It’s one of the quietest places in the house, so it works really well.
- 30:31 This is where I do most of my work. The importance of doing this consistently in a single space is that when you go to this physical location and you know that that’s where you work, your body will actually prepare you for that. Your mind recognizes the environment and says, “Oh, we’re in this place again. That means we’re going to work.” This is one of the reasons why they say that your office should not be in your bedroom, so we may need to work on that a little bit. Also, you can’t have the possibility of interruption.
- 31:28 Rachel: Which is hard when you’re a parent.
- 31:32 Ben: It means that if you want to truly do focused work, you can’t be responsible for the kids. You can’t be thinking about what they’re doing, what they may or may not be getting into, whether or not they’re taking care of their responsibilities, or anything like that.
You need to be able to completely focus on your work, which means that somebody else needs to be responsible for the kids.
- 31:58 That can be really difficult. Even when you have somebody that’s responsible for the kids, because you’re home, you’ll feel more of a pull toward intervening when something goes wrong or being attentive if it seems like your spouse or whoever is taking care of your kids might need help. You have to fight that tendency, but because that exists, there are some other things you can do to pad yourself from that. You should always have a list of light work ready to go in case you have to be pulled out of focus for a time. If there’s anything on your list that you can do while you’re responsible for the kids, while you’re watching, monitoring, or in the same room as them while they’re doing other things, have that ready to go.
- 33:02 That way, you have something you can jump into that doesn’t necessarily require all of your focus but helps you make progress. The first place you’ve got to pad yourself from those distractions is with whoever is taking care of your children, whether it’s your spouse or another caretaker. Everyone needs to be on the same page. This might mean that you have to sit down and actually have a meeting, establish boundaries, and set expectations. For us, once we both decided to work from home and split our time between the kids, we had to sit down and say, “From this time to this time, I’m going to be doing focused work, and I can’t have any distractions.” We set some rules about how that was going to work.
- 34:03 Rachel: We still get a little bit lax every now and then about barging in, so we have to constantly revisit that.
- 34:13 Ben: It’s not necessarily a one time thing. You want to continue to check back and make sure that everybody’s on the same page. The person or people in charge of your kids, your home environment, or any other thing, needs to understand your expectations and know how to protect you from those distractions. You can only do that if you communicate that regularly. Another thing you can do is to use headphones. This is something Rachel really likes to do.
- 35:05 Rachel: It blocks out the noise. It’s hard for me when I can hear the kids, especially the baby, crying downstairs. There’s something about it that pulls at my heart, and I get really distracted, so I try to always wear headphones when I’m doing my focus work.
When you wear headphones, you don’t hear the noise of people needing things, so you don’t feel responsible for that.
- 35:36 Ben: I know that’s really difficult for Rachel. I don’t have as difficult of a time with that, so I don’t tend to put my headphones in as much as I’ll just blast music. Sometimes, though, if I’m editing videos, I have my headphones on anyway and I get lost in that world. That can be a great way to get rid of the external noise. You have to trust that if you’re truly needed, someone will be able to break through that and get to you. Give yourself permission to let the outside world fade away, because that’s how you’re going to get your most focused work done.
- 36:27 Rachel: It’s not easy, either. It’s something that takes practice. One of the hardest things for me, when it’s my shift with the kids and Ben is the one working, you know how you get all of your great ideas when you’re doing mundane things? I get really good ideas when I’m rinsing off the breakfast dishes and putting them in the dishwasher. I always want to tell Ben about them right that minute, and because he’s home, I think, “I could!” But he’s working, so it’s really hard to suppress that urge. Sometimes, I can’t, and I just interrupt.
- 37:10 Ben: Maybe I need to be more clear on my expectations about that. It doesn’t necessarily have to look like every time you’re working, that’s your focus time. Maybe there are times when you’re working and it’s okay for those distractions to come through, but you need to determine what those are going to be.
Experiment With Your Schedule
- 37:38 Think of your schedule like a tetras puzzle. Depending on the pieces you have and the shapes you’re dealing with, there could be any number of ways to assemble those to make things fit the way they’re supposed to so you can maximize your focus and have as much uninterrupted time as possible. Especially with kids and the different seasons they go through and how fast those things can change, from one month to the next, you might find yourself in a completely different set of circumstances with different time constraints.
- 38:25 It’s really important to be flexible and willing to experiment and try different things out, to say, “This is going to work for the next three weeks, and then everything is going to change. I need to be agile enough to adjust to that.” The encouraging thing is, the more you practice doing that, the easier it is to figure out how those puzzle pieces fit together in a new configuration. This is a mindset thing, but quantity can be deceiving. A lot of people can feel like if they don’t have four, six, or eight hours of uninterrupted work time, they can’t really make meaningful progress toward their goals.
- 39:16 We talked about how an hour and a half of truly focused work can be the equivalent of an eight hour work day. That says to me that the quality of your time is more important than the quantity of it. Being a parent and having the time constraint that comes with the responsibilities of raising kids and running a household, I’ve found that with the time I do have, I’m forced to treat that more reverently and be more focused. I’m not always as focused as I would like to be, but I’m definitely more focused than I might be if I had a full eight hours.
- 40:13 The more time constraints you have, maybe, the more you appreciate that time. Maybe you have 30 minutes a day, because you have a day job, you’re raising your kids, and you’re trying to take care of household stuff. After all of that, you’ve got 30 minutes to spend on building a side business or pursuing your passion. Don’t look at that 30 minutes and say, “That’s not very much time, so I can’t expect to accomplish much.” Look at that 30 minutes and say, “I’m going to make the most of that 30 minutes and achieve as much focus as I possibly can, so that 30 minutes can truly be meaningful.” As you practice that, it scales.
- 41:08 In the future, as your circumstances change or as your time grows, the practice of focus scales with that, and you’ll find that you’ll be able to continue to have that level of focus for longer hours. You can keep that time as meaningful as possible.
Managing Unpredictable Tasks
- 41:39 This question was from Ayah in the chat. She said, “How can we organize work that involves unpredictable tasks and false starts? For example, getting phone calls throughout the day.”
- 41:55 Rachel: I used to work in journalism, and I was a managing editor for a while. This was one of the things that was annoying to me. I had my plan for the day, and as a reporter, I would always be waiting on calls to come back in. It always felt hard to focus on writing a story and then be interrupted by a phone call. What I did for myself at that time was I set these parameters. Whenever I called people, I would say, “I will be available between the hours of whatever and whatever.” I would have this window of time when they could call me back or I could try and call them again, and the rest of of that time was spent in editing stories, writing stories, designing the paper, or whatever needed to be done.
- 42:49 Ben: With technology where it is today, now, it’s good and bad, because people can get ahold of you in so many different ways at so many different times. Each medium or contact method has its own set of rules. It’s inappropriate to call someone in the middle of the night, but sending them an email in the middle of the night may be okay. In a world where you can be contacted in so many different ways at any time, you don’t have any control over when people decide to get in touch with you.
- 43:32 Rachel: You don’t necessarily have to answer the call or the email.
- 43:36 Ben: Right, so you can communicate your expectations but you can’t communicate what people do with those. You can control whether or not you’re aware of that contact. You can turn notifications off on your phone, set your phone to silent, put it in another room or another space. You can shut off your email notifications. You can turn all of that stuff off. You don’t have to be aware of that.
You don’t have to return somebody’s message right away—it gives you more credibility and authority when you’re the one in charge your communication process.
- 44:28 If you do that, if you turn off your notifications at the times when you want to focus, you can schedule the times when you want to communicate with people. Say, “From this hour to this hour every day, I turn all of my notifications back on, and I can see what emails came in and I can respond to them. I can see what calls come in and I can call them back. I can take care of all that stuff then, and then I’m going to shut it all off again.” That’s one of the great things about where technology is today. You have the ability to do all of that, and that does take some work, but the focus you get from doing that is more than worth it.
One Thing at a Time
- 45:11 Kate said, “I have so many things I want to get done that will all take quite some time to complete. When I get stuck, I just want to skip to the next thing. That happens a lot. Also, I don’t have a lot of free time. My situation is different, as I work a day job. I luckily get a bit of free time where I can do my own thing, so I go back and forth from my day job work and my own work. Probably not the best situation to work in, but I also don’t want to waste my downtime at work.”
- 45:53 If you’ve got a day job where there is some down time, it’s good to make use of that. It sounds like her situation is a bit unpredictable. I might dig a little deeper with Kate and ask: In your day job, what kind of control do you have over the time you spend on things there? Could you set some parameters there to make it more predictable? Then you know what you’re working with and you can actually plan things. If not, at the very least, choose tasks that aren’t focused tasks, that it’s okay to interrupt. I also go back to the idea that it’s not the quantity of time, but it’s the quality of that time.
- 46:41 It also sounds like she is not having a whole lot of time left over to work on the things she really wants to. Even if you have 15 minutes a day, having a lot of focus during that 15 minutes can help you make incremental progress toward reaching your goal. Eventually, also, it opens up more time. She said that she has so many things she wants to get done, and one of the things that I have a hard time accepting sometimes is the idea that you can’t have multiple priorities. I heard in an audio book, Essentialism, that the world “priority” was not pluralized until the early 20th century.
- 47:48 The idea was that it’s a single thing. There can only be one priority, one most important thing that you’re working on at any particular time. You have to decide what that is. If you’re trying to focus on more than one thing, you lose focus. You’re not able to accomplish as much.
It’s difficult, but you can accomplish more faster when you focus on one thing at a time.
- 48:36 Rachel: There’s research that shows that a man’s brain is very different from a woman’s brain, and a woman has the ability to multi-task. For a man, that is incomprehensible. His brain is not made to multi-task. I run three different platforms right now. I know that the growth probably isn’t as quick as it would be if I was only doing one of those, but they’re growing enough for me.
- 49:15 Ben: I agree with that. You get to decide how many things you’re going to focus on at once, and the consequence of that decision is the amount of growth each of those things is capable of achieving and whether or not that’s acceptable for you. For Rachel, she’s able to produce a lot because she’s focused on one thing, which is writing. Yes, she has different projects going on. In this example, Kate says that she has so many things she wants to get done and they will all take quite some time. When she gets stuck, she wants to skip to the next thing. It sounds like she’s not designating time specifically to focus on one thing at a time.
- 50:22 You can’t write for four different projects at the same time. You can’t keep skipping tabs. You have to lock your mind into that specific set of characters, that specific story, and that specific genre. At least for that hour and a half, you only focus on that story. You allow yourself to do that by scheduling ahead of time when that’s going to happen. I think that’s a big key here. It’s great to have time set aside to do focused work, but deciding what you’re going to work on before you have that time is really important so your mind isn’t bogged down trying to decide in the moment what’s the most important thing.