I read this interesting article on Hacker News about how Jiri Novotny stays focused at work. A lot of Jiri’s points resonated with me, and I wanted to share my own perspective on how I achieved a state of intense focus and how possible it really is.
To give a bit of context: the first 22 years of my life, I’ve had trouble staying focused. During college, whenever big deadlines came up for projects or finals, I would distract myself. Facebook, Youtube, or talking to my roommates, I’d do anything but the task at hand. I didn’t know how to will myself through something, largely because I didn’t really give a damn about it.
Things changed once I started working at 23. More was at stake: my reputation amongst my coworkers and manager and future raises in salary. Motivated, I buckled down and worked my ass off. Most days I’d set my alarm 3 hours before work started to read articles and books to hone my craft, spend an hour or 2 extra in my office learning the company’s conventions and codebase, program some more for some freelance jobs, and leave a programming podcast playing as I fell asleep. I fell in love with software engineering, and I strived to become the best damn engineer possible.
But despite my newfound motivation and efforts, I noticed that I still had a focus problem. On an hourly basis, I’d pop open a new Chrome tab to check the scores on ESPN, scroll through my Facebook Newsfeed, or start up a new online conversation. I was still getting distracted! All my past failures weren’t entirely from lack of intelligence or desire: I just didn’t know how to stay focused.
After some soul searching, I went out and sought books that would help rectify this problem. I stumbled upon a blog article about staying focused at work, which introduced me to the book Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky. It changed my life, to say the least.
One important lesson that really opened my eyes was that we as humans carry these innate, irrational behaviors that defy rational thinking, and it’s normal to have them. I’m going to go on a little tangent here, but stay with me. One example of irrational human behavior is is nail biting. Nail biting is an uncontrollable urge for a lot of people (which I was once afflicted with). Everyday was a battle of willpower. We’d start the day telling ourselves “OK [insert name here], we’re going to stop nail biting once and for all!” Thirty minutes later, we’ll unconsciously start biting our nails again in front of our computer screens, and we’ll exclaim in our heads, “Damn it!”
For years, I couldn’t get myself to stop biting my nails. Each time I bit my nails, I lost a bit of confidence in my willpower. If I couldn’t stop biting my nails, how the hell can I get to the top of my work? One day, sick of failing to stop my nail biting, I decided to go outside my comfort zone and bought anti-biting nail gloss. Everytime I bit my nails, the foul taste of slime would violate my tongue. And guess what? I quit within 3 days and haven’t bitten my nails for over 1.5 years since.
So how does this apply to focus? Well, focus is human behavior right? Like my nail biting experience, there must be little actions that we can do to manipulate our behavior to become “better”. So I decided to experiment and tried whatever I could to reinforce better focus. I started creating to-do lists on Producteev, which pushed reminders to my phone everyday of incomplete tasks. That always guilted me into finishing things which I normally don’t do (like laundry or replying to emails).
But you know what was the most valuable tool in reinforcing my focus? StayFocused. Like the anti-biting nail gloss, StayFocused evoked the same my initial reaction: “This seems a bit drastic.” So I had to try it. I put a 10 minute counter on all distracting websites, like Facebook and ESPN.
Within several weeks, my time spent on distracting websites dropped significantly. Now, I typically don’t even look at Facebook or ESPN for more than 5 seconds, and I’ve kept this behavior up for the past 6 months.
So in conclusion, staying focused is a really hard thing to do only if you don’t understand your human tendencies. The first step in making any kind of significant progress in life is to accept that you’re flawed. As humans, we all are. However, we as humans are capable of much much more than we think. Get over your insecurity that you can’t achieve change, and I guarantee that you too can significantly better yourself, such as your focus. You can be the next Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, or Jeremy Lin.