Simple Tools to Help You Focus and Be More Productive

Santa Cruz West Cliffs

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.

Sometimes you need help to accomplish that mountain of work.

Sometimes you need help to accomplish that mountain of work. (Mt. Shasta, California)

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.

This guy obviously has things in balance.

This guy obviously has things in balance.

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.

When you're done with the work, I recommend hiking someplace like Palouse Falls in Washington.

When you’re done with the work, I recommend hiking somewhere like Palouse Falls in Washington.

Digital Nomad Life – Tools to Work Remotely Instead of Sitting in a Cubicle

A day in Grand Teton National Park. Verizon signal throughout most of the park!

A day in Grand Teton National Park. Verizon signal throughout most of the park!

Ten years ago, there is no way I could travel so often. I’d be a stationary desk jockey, working from the same location every day.

LUCKILY, it’s the 21st century and technology is on my side. I’m an early adopter of new tech, and I’m frequently testing new systems, devices, and online services attempting to streamline my life. There is always a period of adjustment trying new tech, but a few years of tweaking and those lifestyle-design enablers are in place and working for me like enterprising Binary Gnomes.

(Side note: If you don’t already run a business you can operate remotely and are looking for ideas, check out my friend Sean’s awesome post. He’s not selling bullshit multi-level marketing gimmicks, and these projects will take actual work, but they can help you create a true digital nomad life if that’s your goal.)

The benefits of working remotely totally transformed my life. Instead of hanging around the office water cooler, the last 1.5 years included:

  • An eight-month road trip in our camper van to mountain bike the best trails in the western US
  • A 4,000 mile unsupported bicycle tour from Washington to Maine
  • Big city living in Manhattan for a month (we saw seven Broadway shows!)
  • An extended Spanish language immersion course in Tulum, Mexico
  • Exploring the islands and jungles of Belize (I updated this literally swinging in a hammock with a view of the Caribbean)

I always get questions on how I’m able to work remotely, so here’s how! I’m leaving out industry-specific items and focusing on tools that would work for any business.

The Tools

  1. First, and most importantly: a wifi hotspot – This handy-dandy device runs off a standard phone network and provides wireless internet wherever you might be. I’m using the tethering feature on my iPhone these days, which turns it into a hotspot. In the past, my hotspot was a Verizon MiFi Jetpack 4620L with 5gb of data per month.
  2. iPhone and Laptop – everyone has these!
  3. Power source – gotta have this! We have 200w of solar on the Sprinter, which then routes through an inverter (to switch from DC to AC current). Easily enough juice to power laptops, not to mention all the other accouterments of a working road trip like an espresso machine, foot massager, and indoor fountain. Ohhhh, if only life were that good! When we bike tour, I use the Goal Zero Venture 30 power pack, which keeps everything charged up.
  4. Google Apps – I power the back-end to my email, calendar, documents, and chat with Google Apps. It’s very affordable, ties most daily functions in seamlessly together, and I’d be a wandering hobo in the desert without it. (As compared to a hobo in a van with it?) My team and I email all day, update shared Google Docs, and chit-chat via Google Chat yet rarely speak on the phone. And it works great!
  5. Dropbox – this is my favorite file sharing service. I share a folder with every new client, and also have a main directory that I share with my team. It automatically keeps everything synced to both computers and to the web, plus backs it up. It also avoids having to email secure info or big attachments.
  6. Echosign (now Adobe Document Cloud) – many people assume legal documents need to be signed in person. Nope! Almost everything, thanks to President Clinton back in the late 90s, can actually be signed electronically. Echosign delivers clearly labeled electronic documents that are easily signed. I L-O-V-E electronic signatures for avoiding missed signatures, hungry fax machines eating client documents, and other technical difficulties.
  7. Efax – an old standby at this point. Instead of sending/receiving faxes, it’s just delivered to your email inbox. I use MyFax, which works great.
  8. Youmail – this is a great FREE visual voicemail service that allows custom voicemails (a fun, or annoying, way to let your friends and colleagues know you care) and also lets you receive voicemails as emailed MP3s, which is great for someone like me who filters, labels and saves all emails for reference later.
  9. Boomerang for Gmail – a helpful productivity tool that allows you to schedule when you send an emails, or set up reminders related to an individual email. This is now built into Google Inbox, which I started testing in November 2014. (Not endorsing it yet.)
  10. Toggl – time tracking software. I track all my time down to the minute as a way to maximize productivity. Since I started using this a couple years ago, my work hours have decreased by over 30% as I nixed the stuff that was wasting my time and not producing revenue or satisfaction for me. Classic Pareto simplification – someday, I’ll write a post on that.
  11. Skype – the old standby online phone and chat system. Great for hearing impaired clients (the chat feature), and then the voice/video feature for those times when you can’t get a cell phone signal or you or the client are overseas. I can run this on wifi while showing my cell phone number so I’m not calling from an unknown number. Working from Mexico or London much?
  12. – a great tool to run tutorials remotely. I use this to train employees on the tools mentioned above.
  13. The Secret Weapon – I use this to keep track of everything in my life. Here’s the full write-up for how I use it. Can’t recommend it enough. In short, it’s Evernote paired with the Getting Things Done method. It’s the one thing I recommend to people who want to streamline their lives and knock off bucket list goals.
  14. – this free, handy rental management service helps us keep our passive income more passive. A simple, efficient way to screen tenants and arrange payment for rental properties. Check out my blog post about them.

The Mindset

Technology doesn’t solve a damn thing if you don’t apply some mental juice to why you’re doing a task.

Put another way, being efficient gets you nowhere if you didn’t effectively choose the project. For instance, I could have figured out efficient ways to attend final document signings with my clients. Instead I tested not attending them at all, which worked fine. A magic gift to myself of 5-10 hours per week (!) freed up simply by asking the right question. That’s a day per week mountain biking instead of sitting in a conference room.

In the end, it’s about having a choice about how you spend your time. Whether it’s time off or space to focus on bigger, higher value-added efforts for your business, the below items put you in command and allow you to be in control, not just be a harried self-employed person. Ask yourself this: are you running your business or is your business running you?

Here are some of the things I’ve learned that made me more effective.

1) Be willing to let some clients go

It took awhile, and still is painful every time (progressively less though), but you can’t work with everyone. And you don’t want to.

For my work, some clients want to sit down and meet in person. I have all the online tools to make this unnecessary in a purely practical sense, yet completely understand when this is a request. It’s one of those trade-offs. Lose some revenue, gain some inspiration and happiness points working remotely. (GDP ain’t the only measure of one’s success in life.) For me, flexibility trumps gross revenue.

2) Don’t do it all yourself

Hire people, even when you don’t think you can afford it! Trust that your freed-up time will yield benefits. Hiring my first employee was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, and one of the best. (HOW to hire amazing people is another subject entirely! I’ve been blessed with fantastic people joining my team.)

Don’t want to bring someone on payroll? No worries. I’ve outsourced via and; both are great for temporary workers to save you time or crank out a project you can’t do yourself. (Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired Magazine, says his advice to himself at 20 would be to hire out projects whenever possible.)

3) Challenge yourself to see how little you can be involved with your company

Initially, it was all me. Then I cranked hard on the 80/20 Pareto lever using #1 above.

Over the last year, my goal was Pareto squared: 4% of the hours while still making 64% of the revenue compared to doing all the work myself.

I challenge you to do the same.

At 30 hours a week, it’s hard to find the mind space to really create. At 2 hours a week, time in spades floods in and allows you to create, connect and envision your next challenge or contribution to the world.

And that’s not to say you can’t work more when you want to – it’s all about creating choices for yourself. Even hedge fund managers with billions in their funds use the Pareto principle. It’s all about being more effective with your time.

4) Have confidence that following your inner compass results in everything working out, even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time.

This is probably the most important. Ping mentors and close friends for their opinions, but trust your gut. Change leads to dislocation, which is always uncomfortable. And that’s where the good stuff is.

For me, the simple lens through which to view work is this: does it contribute to living the life I seek? There are periods where busy work and boring projects are required, but focus on a long-term goal, while appreciating what you’re building at the moment, and power forward.

In the end, ask yourself whether you’re building an intentional life that allows you to pursue goals that make your heart sing. If you’re doing that, life is good.

Anybody out there use anything not mentioned that I should know about? Shoot me an email or a telegram, or comment below. I’m always interested in learning new tricks.

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