Simple Tools to Help You Focus and Be More Productive
It’s one thing to talk about cutting away busyness at a high level, but how we do it in our day-to-day lives? I suggest using simple tools to remove distractions.
This is no easy task. Most of us work on a computer (a.k.a. distraction machine) for large parts of our day and spend entertainment hours in front of glowing screens as well. Whether we’re at work or at home, how can we carve out the space to focus and think deeply?
As Cal Newport writes in Deep Work, “To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing—a task that requires depth.” Off the grid in a cabin is one method, but not everyone’s work allows that. (Mine doesn’t.) For those of us who must stay connected while maintaining focus and productivity beyond just answering emails, we can use technology to our advantage.
Here are some of my favorite tools or techniques and a brief description of how I use them to stay focused and remove needless distraction. My advice is to sample some of these for a week. If there’s a positive result, try creating a habit the same way you would with exercise or meditation.
Block the ‘Nets: Freedom
Freedom is a great program with one simple function — shutting off your connection to the internet. Simply select the duration and hit Start.
I use this as a formal start to trigger a writing or video editing session. This keeps me from researching minutiae or feeling stuck mid-project, only to end up wandering Internet Land for an hour.
After all, most distractions stem from the online entertainment expanse, a time suck where two hours we slated for a project whirls away down the toilet. Cue up Freedom when you need to sketch a design, write a memo, or perform any concentrated, complex task for an extended period of time.
Track Your Time: Toggl
I quoted Derek Sivers in my busyness post: “If you’re busy, you’re out of control.” Well, how do you know what’s devouring your time if you don’t track it? I had no idea until I started tracking my time via Toggl in 15 minute increments about five years ago.
This wound up dropping my hours worked — it’s amazing how a ticking timer keeps me focused. The best part, however, was that I knew where my time was going.
That awareness helped me determine the core efforts that yielded the best results (Pareto Principle again). I started outsourcing and hiring capable people to handle basic tasks (or those I’d mastered and could delegate) so I could focus on my the best use of my skills. Whether you’re an employee, a solo creative, or business owner, tracking your time is a game-changer.
If you think I’m crazy, I got the idea from Jim Collins, the business consultant and best-selling author of Good to Great. He carries a timer with him everywhere he goes. (I assume he doesn’t shower with it!)
Maintain Focus: Momentum
Momentum is a simple, free extension for your internet browser that helps keep your daily priority top of mind whenever you open a new tab. Instead of a list of favorite sites, news or a search bar to drag you into the quicksand of the interwebs, the new tab simply reminds you to keep on task. There’s also a nice picture and quote to make you feel all warm inside.
Train Your Brain: Music on Repeat
I picked up this hack from Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic. While I often listen to relaxed music (classical or electronic) when I write or edit video/photos, picking a single song and leaving it on repeat keeps me company while staying more in the background. (The song Shimmer by Tracey Chattaway is my current favorite.)
Shut Out Social Media: Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator
Can’t curb the twitch to scan through Facebook when you’re tired, bored, or cranking hard to solve a problem? This browser extension blocks your feed so you have to search for a friend to see what they’re up to.
I use this off and on, but have found that it helps moderate my desire to be constantly connected. If you aren’t feeling so hard core, try the StayFocused app instead, which limits the time you can spend on various websites.
I also highly recommend deleting all social apps on your phone. Spend the time you’d normally use flipping through Instagram or Facebook to allow your mind to just laze about, read a few pages in a book or even talk to a stranger next to you.
Outsource the Small Stuff: UpWork
Some tasks just aren’t worth doing yourself. Data entry, simple research, basic website coding and other work can siphon off hours of otherwise productive time.
My mindset is always to track my time and identify where I spend it, then see if I can automate a task. If I can’t, I try to outsource to someone who does it faster and better than I can. That could of course be an employee or delegated to a co-worker, but if you’re self-employed than a Upwork or other freelance sites are fantastic.
Keep Track of Passwords: LastPass
Websites are only making password criteria tougher. Six symbols, a number, and your favorite calculus symbol make it tough to remember any of them. Resetting passwords or getting locked out and calling customer service sucks, which is why a password vault is a necessity.
If you aren’t using one yet, my favorite is LastPass. I guarantee it will save you time and keep you on point rather than searching for that password iteration you left on a slip of paper somewhere on your desk.
Task Management: Boomerang/Google Inbox or Evernote
I’ve already written about The Secret Weapon, my organization and task management system for keeping my life on track and in balance. If that seems like too much, try using a simple task list coupled with either Google Inbox or Boomerang, an email plug-in whose features are built into Inbox or can be paired with Gmail.
Inbox and Boomerang allow you to “snooze” emails (i.e. hide them after picking a date for them to reappear). You can also set follow up reminders when you send an email, or schedule an email to send at a particular date/time. With Evernote as my external brain, I no longer use these two, but they are a great gateway to a full-blown task management system if committing to The Secret Weapon is too daunting right now.
Automate Your Finances
If you’re anything like me, you hate the process of paying bills. Believe it or not, many people still do it manually, which is why I’m bringing it up.
Take advantage of technology and automate your payments – credit card, utilities, cell phone, car, mortgage, and so on. Go through three months of spending and schedule every single monthly bill. You’ll recoup that initial time investment in a single month, plus not have to worry about when bills are due. Finance guru Ramit Sethi has a comprehensive how-to on all this; his 12-minute video will save you days of your future life.
Don’t start using all of these at once! My approach is to question why a tool is beneficial before trying it out. Too complex and it will take a lot of time to set up and then be forgotten. Simple is great.
We can accomplish more work, free up leisure time, and decrease stress by cutting out the noise. As the saying goes, focus is more important than intelligence. In our increasingly distracting world, I couldn’t agree more.