In the last two decades, we’ve become connected to more and more people and information. We used to find our information in books, and be reachable by landline or mail. Now, we find our information on any of a bazillion websites, and we’re constantly connected to at least a handful of digital channels.
As a result, more and more distractions are fighting for our attention. We feel like we must check facebook every five minutes, otherwise we miss out. Even just reading a good old-fashioned Wikipedia entry is difficult; all those links, too much temptation!
Oh, and ever felt like your phone was vibrating, while it wasn’t even in your pocket? Phantom vibration syndrome (a.k.a. rinxiety, fauxcellarm) is a real thing!
The problem is that even small distractions draw us out from focused states in which we do actual, valuable work. Shallow attention is becoming the norm, while so-called deep work—the type of work that actually brings the world forward—eludes us.
Essentially, by steadily acting on these impulses, we train ourselves to become good at shifting focus. And how can we resist? We’re like a space monkey frantically trying to do his rocket science homework while being bombarded with bananas.
In this article, I will present a few tips that might just help you be a little less distracted by actually working with your brain, not against it—and I’ll tell you why you’ll be ahead of the pack if you train yourself to control where your attention goes.
Focus creates value
Creating things of value is not easy. It requires real focus, real effort, and applies to many things. For example, a good conversation with your mom takes effort—cutting off her smalltalk to talk about things that really matter to you is certainly not comfortable. Yet it’s amazingly valuable.
Being able to truly focus on what you’re doing doesn’t just increase the quality of your work, it’s also the essential ingredient to developing skill in any field. As you’re reading Agile Existence, you probably want to make money other than by working for The Man. It’s surprisingly hard to convince people to give you money, unless you have something valuable to offer them. And be that a product or service, you need skill to create the value.
Cal Newport, a great thinker on producing things of value, calls this "career capital", which is essentially leverage through skill, meaning that if you want things of value—freedom from The Man, passion for your work, work that has meaning—you need to be able to give value in the form of skill and effort.
Unfortunately, focus costs willpower, which is a resource that can be depleted. Ever wondered why your New Year’s resolutions fail even before the ‘R’ is out of the month? Indeed, willpower. It’s finite.
Luckily, it gets a lot easier if we know how to work with our willpower. Plus, it’s a muscle that can be trained, as we now know from Roy Baumeister’s research, culminating in his definitive book on the topic. For now, all you have to know is that your ability to strain your effort muscle can be trained, but is finite. The definition of willpower is:
"the capacity to override one response (and substitute another)."
Starting to work on something often costs quite some effort, there’s this initial hurdle which you can only get over by running up to. Every time a distraction takes you out of it, you’re back to the bottom of the hill, and you’ll have to run up that slippery slope time and time again.
So distracting yourself is pure self-sabotage! Now for the practical part…
Tip #1: You don’t have to be good at email and social media
Unless you work in customer service or social media marketing, you don’t have to be quick to respond to email or social media. Actually, it’s perfectly fine to be shitty at it!
In this wonderful interview, the great physicist Richard Feynman tells about his strategy of active irresponsibility, to be able to continue to do what he’s good at, instead of mundane tasks that would interrupt his deep thinking.
"To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time … it needs a lot of concentrating, that is, solid time to think … and if you have a job administrating anything, you don’t have this solid time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible. I’m actively irresponsible, I tell everybody. I don’t do anything. If anybody asks me to be on a committee to take care of admissions, no, I tell them, I’m irresponsible." — Richard Feynman
What would happen if you’d stop constantly tending to all things digital? If you’d just delete all your fb notifications? Or if you’d ignore email for an entire week? Kittens will die, sure, but they die anyway, all the time.
Even if you’d like to keep your digital life going strong, there are ways to prevent it from fragmenting your solid lengths of quality time. Block all social media websites (perhaps even email) during the entire day except one block of time, time that you specifically allocate to processing email and commenting on funny videos. This window preferably has a hard deadline—like the end of your workday—in order to fight Parkinson’s law (what you do fills up the time you have to do it).
Tip #2: Set backgrounds to black
That background of your cute baby dog or the latest FHM model is of course pleasant to look at, but might be pretty distracting—research has found that boobs decrease a man’s productivity by 76.2%.
I made up that value, but still advise against boobs on the desktop. I set the background of both my laptop and smartphone to black (or some pastel color when I’m feeling kinky), and I love it, especially compared to the fighter aircraft slideshow that changed every minute. Simplicity, no distraction. Great!
Protip: I also make sure there’s not many icons on the desktop, I put them all in folders, and delete the shortcuts I never use.
Here’s a convenient .png to use on your smartphone, if it doesn’t have a fill color setting. Download it, then set it as background. (I’ve thrown in kinky pink too, as a bonus!)
Tip #3: Limit open tabs, and blank new tab page
This one might seem very straightforward, but it’s incredible how many tabs occupy some people’s browsers. I call this phenomenon Chronic Tab Pileup Syndrome (CTPS), which you can be diagnosed with if you have more than 8 tabs open on average.
on restart, resume where I left off option in your browser will help against CTBS. Some general caution will do the rest.
Something else that I find distracting is the ‘new tab’ page, where a wall of all your most-visited websites is presented for you to endlessly move your cursor over while you decide which one to click next. Besides locking you into a certain range of websites, it’s very distracting—I prefer a totally blank new tab page. For that, I use a plugin for Chrome called Empty New Tab Page.
In Safari it’s as easy as going to
preferences>general, and setting
new tabs open with: to
Empty Page. In Firefox, type
about:config in the address bar, search for
browser.newtab.url, click the preference, then change it from
about:blank. With IE, go to
control panel>delete a program and click
Tip #4: Go nuclear!
You can try to resist the urge to visit cutecats.com, but eventually them cute cats will get to you, and resisting will cost you willpower. So ultimately, you’ll want to just blast all distractions out of the water. I use a great plugin for Chrome called StayFocusd. The Safari and Firefox equivalents would be Mindful Browsing and LeechBlock, respectively.
StayFocusd can be set to allow you a certain amount of time on the websites you block, but I just go all-in and block them entirely from 8AM to 6PM, every day of the week. This is what my settings (
StayFocusd>Settings>The Nuclear Option) look like (don’t forget to actually block sites first before nuking ‘em):
I cannot tell you how happy I am with my quora-ebay-facebook-reddit-free days! It might feel radical at first—perhaps slightly exacerbated by the radiation sign—but it’s easy to get used to.
Tip #5: Hide distracting features on websites
Here comes the real fun stuff! Have you ever started listening to a song on YouTube, only to end up in an online video frenzy, finally coming back down to reality after 5 hours of fail-compilation filled obsession? Well, no more! The cause of your troubles here is the related video column. Let’s take care of that.
In Chrome, click
Block element in ABP’s menu, then click on the element you want to hide.
But doing it this way has its challenges—sometimes an element comes back the next time you visit the website. The solution is to clean up the blocking rules a little, which is where some knowledge of HTML elements comes in handy.
Of course I wouldn’t let you sweat for nothing, so here’s two rules that you can put into ABP through
Options>Add your own filters, and then clicking
Edit filters as raw text (the small link below the text box). Copy-paste this:
! Hide YouTube sidebar youtube.com##*#watch7-sidebar ! Hide comments youtube.com##*#watch-discussion
I couldn’t think of any other elements I’d want to block, but if you’re annoyed by parts of other websites, let me know in the comments, and I’ll give you one of these rules to take care of it once and for all.
I hope these tips help you preserve some willpower and enable you to devote many hours of razor-sharp focus to marvellous things. Because, let’s face it, your mind is pretty powerful; better work with instead of against it. So remember that you don’t have to be good at email and social media—unless your job title says "autoresponder" (I’ve always wondered who those people were)—, set that background to black, paint the new tab page blank, and nuke the rest of ‘em.