Being focused and productive within a distracting and noisy day
Written: 04-28-2017

In a world that is full of distractions it can be challenging to find the space to work uninterrupted. The physical space or mental space. To be effective and have a high work rate, I find that it requires consistent stretches of time that is interruption free. This is especially true when I am writing or programming. Since the Awesome Inc Web Development Bootcamp started, I have worked at fine-tuning how I can achieve such an environment. At the moment, I have found a system, that works for me. Here is my current process, I hope that it gives you some ideas. I would love to hear your process, if you are trying to work on your productivity.

Taste, Smell.

The first step I take in creating the right environment is to think about all the senses and how they can impact the work. I do not normally have to worry about taste or smell, however I do like to sit in A Cup of Commonwealth to write. The smell of coffee shops is wonderful, plus I tend to drink a lot of coffee and their coffee is much better than anything I ever brew myself.

Sight.

What about the distractions created by other customers? When I am at a coffee shop, I almost never program. I instead spend that time writing (as I am right now). The advantage of  doing this is that I can close my eyes and type without looking at the screen. This is a trick that I picked up from Luke Murray when he came and spoke to the bootcamp. The idea being that when you look at the screen while you write, your mind is on constant edit mode. It causes your writing to be slower and overly critiqued. On a first draft, the idea of being overly critical is not a good one. By closing my eyes to write, I can just work on letting the thoughts make it to the screen, I then go back and edit at least once, sometimes more. (This post is pretty basic, so it’s had one edit). The only distraction I have with this part of my process is that I can begin to feel self conscious as I type in public with my eyes closed.

When I need to program, I have to be in a different setting to optimize things visually. I have not yet figured out how to effectively and productively program with my eyes closed (still working on the eyes open programming). I also love to have multiple monitors when I code. That way I can have the editor (currently using Atom) and terminal open on one screen, with another screen free to run a browser.

To minimize the visual distractions, I also turn on the mac’s ‘Do Not Disturb’ setting, along with closing any messaging applications such as iMessage, Slack and Riot. Having the little notification number go from zero to 1, or 1 to 5 becomes very difficult to ignore when you are trying to be focused.

Sound.

I can be distracted by visual pollution, however I have found that sound is a much bigger problem. In the coffee shop it is the sound of customers ordering an interesting drink, or the random conversation by strangers that you want to avoid but don’t seem to be able to. In order to fix this I always try to write and program with headphones on, listening to Spotify. Here are some of the things I have done to optimize this:

1. I used to use my standard Apple headphones, but I often found noise leaking into my bubble. I ended up getting some Beats Headphones, which was a major improvement. At some point, I could see the investment in some noise cancelling, over the ear headphones being another step forward.

2. I listen to the Spotify ‘Focus’ channels. I change it up at times, but my three favorite channels tend to be “Chill.Out.Brain”, “Deep Focus” and “Mellow Beats”. I use these channels because they are background tracks to my work, which do not include song lyrics. I have tried to use normal channels with music I like to listen to, however the right song can really ruin my concentration. I can be writing a post about productivity hacks one minute, then be taken to an old dirt road back home the next and be completely lost. That doesn’t happen with the tracks on the focus channel. A second upgrade I recently made was to start paying for Spotify Premium. I found that the commercials were interrupting my concentration, so for $10 a month I solved that issue. I listen to Spotify at home on my Amazon Echo and when I run on my iPhone, so $10 a month is amazingly cheap, in my opinion.

Touch.

The only requirement that I have in regards to touch, is making sure that the chair I am sitting in is satisfactory. I don’t require a super comfortable seat, but something that is comfortable enough that I can sit for 25 minutes at a time and feel like I’m not being tortured is helpful.

Managing time and focus.

No matter what type of environment I have created to write or program, I can only maintain focus for so long before my mind begins to drift into another place or time. This is something I used to fight, but today I just accept that it is human nature. I know that there is a decent amount of research on the topic. For performance in athletics, I used to study all I could on getting into a Flow State (read ‘Rise of Superman’ if you are interested). I would love to say that getting into a flow state, where time disappears was a common practice, but that has not been reality. Therefore, I take advantage of this understanding and utilize it.

I use a pomodoro timer to manage these “focus” and “relax” periods throughout the day. I have my timer set for 25 minutes of focus, with 5 minutes of break time. This has been effective for me. Thomas also uses a pomodoro timer, which I believe he has his set to 15 minutes of focus and 5 minutes of relaxing. I would encourage everyone to test out using a timer and see how it works for them. Once you have determined if using the timer is something you want to stick with, begin to test different intervals and find where you feel most productive.

A tip that I have learned from Thomas, has been to use that 5 minutes of relaxing to completely shift the type of activity I am doing. When I am programming, I am thinking logically and trying to solve puzzles, therefore I try and switch to something that is less analytical. During the bootcamp, I would stand around and talk programming during breaks with other students. I didn’t think about it at the time, but it didn’t give my mind the space it needed. I have completely copied Thomas’ approach, which is to read something different during the breaks. I am currently working through ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’.

What have been the benefits of working in this way:

I don’t use this process for all of my work. For example, I do not always use a timer while I am answering email or responding to various networking pings. I use this process when I have work to get done that needs focus, consistency and progress. I have enjoyed the habit of using the timer, because it creates a process that I can repeat each day. It makes the days that I don’t feel like sitting down and programming or writing much easier to initiate. In many ways, it is similar to the run/walk strategy that I have used to coach some of the runners I have helped finish marathons. A task is much easier to start when the challenge is to run 2 miles (or whatever your splits are), then take a break and reassess, compared to getting started with the task of running 26.2 miles. The same is for my 25 minutes of focus.

The other benefit to this process is tracking my productivity. By using the pomodoro timer, I have a log of how many cycles it takes to work on a project. For example, I’m 2 cycles and 20 minutes into writing and editing this post, completed over two days. This type of tracking allows me to manage how I allocate my time and look back on how it matches what my intentions are. To continue with this writing example, I have a goal to do some personal writing for two pomodoro cycles each day (a total of 1 hour). I can see that this week, I have only accomplished it 2 of the 5 days.

Creating an environment where you can be successful, productive and focused can be a challenge in a world designed to distract you. Hopefully some of these ideas are helpful, if you have similar needs for your work environment that I have. If you have other ways to improve upon this practice or processes, I would love to hear them.