Avoid distractions - and focus intensely

Avoid distractions - and focus intensely
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com / Unsplash

It's a cliché, but it's a cliché for a reason: if you want to solve challenging problems, you need to focus for an extended period.

The fiercest enemy of sustained attention is our devices. They are all connected to the internet and are inexhaustible sources of easy distraction, so it's only possible to do meaningful, non-shallow work if you deal with them.

You start working, building up a mental model of your problem as you go. Your phone buzzes with a notification that Claire liked your Instagram photo of your weekend hike. "Great! Let's see what Claire did recently; it won't be long," – you tell yourself, and quickly check a few photos.

Ten minutes later, you're back; your mind is a clean slate, and you must start from scratch.

Equally challenging is that the machine you're working on also has a few dozen ways to help you escape the drudgery of work. I have the muscle memory to switch to my "leisure" browser, hit Cmd+T to open a new tab, and type "t," which auto-completes to twitter.com. Before I know it, I'm looking at a mix of posts that fascinate me and some I can feel outraged about.

Disconnect for focus

Luckily, you can deal with all of these distractions. Put your phone in silent mode, switch it to focus mode, and move it out of sight. On your work computer, install an app that blocks your social media and other apps you can distract yourself with.

Even after you've done all that, your mind will devise ingenious ways to relieve you of the pain of the intense effort. You'll suddenly feel the urge to buy avocados, check in with a friend, reply to a comment on Facebook, and do many other things that simply can't wait.

The fix is easy, though: write these things down as they occur. This will appease your mind, and you can switch back to hard-thinking mode. I use a physical notebook, which is still my fastest way. I also like the variety of switching to holding a pen instead of laying my fingers on the keyboard.

It doesn't matter what tool you use: if you prefer to jot these things down in your favorite note-taking or reminder app, that works fine, too.

Alright, you dealt with that, too. However, you can spend only so much time on intense concentration in one go, and you must also check the life-changing notifications you have received since you started your deep work.

Conquer the task, one tomato at a time

The Pomodoro technique, alternating longer work periods with shorter breaks, is an excellent solution for all of the above. Set the timer to 25 minutes, work with focus, and take a brief, 5-minute break when it goes off.

You can do a lot in 25 minutes if your attention and mouse cursor don't wander. For tasks where you feel you need to concentrate more to avoid losing the context you've built up, you can double both durations: 50 minutes of work followed by 10 minutes of relaxing.

I make sure to stand up in the breaks as I can't stand to sit too much (pun intended) continuously. Irrespective of my preferences, sitting for an extended period has adverse health effects, so get up, make a coffee, drink water, or do a few push-ups. Getting away from the computer is also worth more as a break: as you don't stare at the screen, it suggests to your mind that it should be in rest mode. If you use a stand-up desk, feel free to sit down.

Once you've completed a cycle, restart the timer: rinse and repeat throughout the day.

Let them know you're in work mode

If you work at home and have others in the same place, shut the door and tell them you're working (I'm still looking for ideas about how to make this work with toddlers or little kids). If you work at an office or a co-working place, put on your headphones and play music that doesn't vie for attention. I can only use instrumental music for this purpose as my attention is drawn to lyrics, but you might be more resilient – you'll soon know what works for you, and music streaming services offer lots of "focus playlists."

Creative work is our highest calling as humans; debugging ugly bugs or implementing complex features is our highest calling as developers. You can only do either if you learn and make arrangements to focus.


  • You need sustained focus for deep work, and deep work is the most productive, rewarding, and valuable kind of work
  • Put your phone out of sight and silence it
  • To deal with distracting thoughts, jot them down as they surface
  • Take regular breaks to move your body, to check what you missed, and to recharge
  • Insulate yourself from your physical surroundings: close the door, let them know you're working, and listen to non-distracting music

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