How to stay focused in a world of distractions: think like a train
8 minute read
a month ago
We all know that feeling of being in the zone when you’re working on something and you’re so focused that you lose track of time and everything else around you. It’s a great feeling, but it’s also incredibly rare. Most of the time we’re distracted by something, whether it’s a notification on our phone, a colleague asking us a question or just our thoughts. It’s hard to get into the zone and it’s even harder to stay there. In this article, I’m going to share some tips that I’ve found useful for staying focused and getting into the zone.
I’ll use the analogy of an old-fashioned steam train on a track to illustrate how certain things can keep you on track and how to avoid being derailed by distractions. We’ll think of you as the driver, and the passengers as your thoughts and ideas that need to be brought to life/transported to their destination.
Your environment matters
We all know that it’s nearly impossible to work if there’s a jackhammer going on outside our window, but people seem less concerned about how to reach the other end of the work-environment-zen spectrum. Roald Dahl used to work in a shed at the bottom of his garden and Maya Angelou would rent a hotel room to write in because she knew she wouldn’t be distracted there. I’m not saying you need to go to those extremes, but you should be aware of how your environment affects your ability to focus. Having a good work environment is like having a well-maintained train track. It’s not going to make the train go faster, but it will make it easier to stay on track.
So how can we set up an anti-distraction work environment? Let’s deal with the low-hanging fruit of distractions first and then focus on how to set it up for flow.
Turn off all the notifications on your phone and laptop. This is such a simple thing to do, but it’s so effective. You don’t realise quite how many times you get distracted by your devices until you look at the number of pickups on your iPhone screen time report. It’s actually astonishing. Our brains are terrible at context switching, so every time you get distracted by a notification, it takes you a few minutes to get back into the flow of what you were doing. That’s like bringing your train to a complete stop and then having to get it back up to speed again. So much wasted time!Even better than turning off notifications is to put your phone in another room. This Dataquest article is a simple explainer of the so-called phone proximity effect. In short, you get distracted subconsciously by your phone even if it’s not making any noise.
Use sound to get you in the zone. A good playlist can change your mood entirely. I usually go with classical/electronic music without lyrics as that seems to work best for me. There are also some great white noise apps out there if that’s your thing. Anecdotally, music helps occupy the part of my brain that is seeking distractions subconsciously. Turning on some music occupies that part just enough that it doesn’t go seeking out extra dopamine hits in the form of checking my phone or opening a new tab. On our train it’s important to have some music playing to keep the passengers entertained, but not so loud that it distracts the driver. we don’t want any passengers jumping off the train when we slow down because they are bored with the journey.
Environmental consistency. If you set up your environment the same way each day and get into a nice habit of focusing and doing work once in that environment then you will find it easier and easier to enter the flow state each day that you sit down to work. This is like having a well-maintained train track. You know that the train is going to run smoothly and you can focus on the task at hand. If you’re not worried about the track being broken up ahead you can go much faster.
The more momentum you have the harder it is to stop the train, that’s obvious, but it’s also true that the more momentum the train has the more damaging it is if it gets derailed. This is also true with distracted work, if you’re deep in the zone and have many ideas flowing perfectly through your brain they can all come crashing down in one go and then you’ve lost a huge amount of productivity as you’ll have to pick up the pieces again once you restart.
The solution to this is to break your work down into the smallest discrete tasks you can and then focus on them one at a time. This is beneficial for two reasons. Firstly, it’s easier to get started on a small task than a big one. Secondly, if you get distracted while working on a small task it’s much easier to pick up where you left off. I built Tatask for exactly this reason. It’s a simple task management app that lets you break down your tasks into subtasks and then focus on them one at a time. Back to the train analogy, this is like building more stations along the track so that you can get passengers to their destinations quicker, the more stations, the closer the station is to the passenger’s final destination. If we have small tasks we can also focus all our effort on getting that one task done and moving on, plus we’ll get a nice dopamine hit/feeling of accomplishment when we tick it off the list. Closer stations mean less coal (willpower) needed to reach each station and we get a nice top-up of coal (dopamine boost for completing a task) when we reach each station.
Do the hardest thing first. In order to build momentum we should try to pick the hardest task to do first. If we can conquer the biggest hill then all subsequent stops along the track will be easy by comparison and we’ll have some nice downhill momentum. If you know that something difficult is coming up then it will take your attention away from everything else. It’s like having an enormous mountain in the distance down the track, if it’s so daunting then all the passengers are going to be looking at it and not focusing on their destinations.
Take breaks wisely
A trick I learned fairly recently that has been amazingly useful is to schedule breaks not when you’ve finished a task, but when you’re in the middle of a task and know exactly how to proceed. If you know you need a break then having everything set up and ready for your return is going to greatly improve your chances of getting back into a flow state quickly. I am sometimes writing code, need a break and I’ll write some pseudo code for what I need to do next so that I have a springboard to jump off when I get back to work. This is like having a downhill section of track to use after you’ve stopped at a station, all it takes is a tiny push to get going and then you’re moving. Don’t make it difficult to rebuild momentum by having to do hard thinking without any momentum to back you up.
Drifting a train across 2 sets of tracks would be incredibly cool, but also wildly inefficient and slow. Focus on one thing at a time and you’ll get it done much quicker. Imagine that on your train’s journey, you need to visit a point due north of your current location and then a point due east of there. If you go north for a bit, then east for a bit, then north again, then east again, you’re going to be wasting a lot of time and energy turning the train in a slow arc to avoid derailing. If you go north all the way, make one turn and then east all the way you’ll get there much quicker. Breaking your tasks down into discrete chunks also helps you plan your journey as you can order them such that you’re minimising wasted time redirecting your train of thought. I find it useful to work on tasks of a similar genre one after the other. If I have coding tasks, writing tasks and design tasks it makes sense to group them as my brain is going to get used to one mode of thinking for each type of task.
There are extensions for Chrome and Firefox that block you from opening new tabs and try to ensure that all links open in the current tab. I find these extremely useful as they force me to get what I need from a page and then move on rather than opening multiple tabs for research and then having them clutter up my mental space. This is like having a train that can only go in one direction. You can’t get distracted by a shiny new track if you can only go forwards.
I hope that you’ve found this article useful in your productivity journey. It’s a journey and you’re not going to reach productivity nirvana straight away. It takes time to build up the habits and discipline to get into a flow state and stay there. I’m still working on it myself, but I’ve found that these techniques have helped me a lot. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article and any other techniques you’ve found useful. You can reach me on Twitter @mgirkins. If you’d like to try out Tatask you can find it at tatask.com. It’s designed to be as simple as possible so that you can get started quickly and not get distracted by the app itself. Happy productivity!