A poster on the wall of an office that I worked in said, "Being a Good Developer is 3% talent and 97% not being distracted by the internet". As a junior developer learning to find focus on my daily job, that sentence really resonated with me; I've been researching techniques and refining my method for focusing since then.
Fast-forward a few years, and Covid-19 happened — forcing us to work from home, where distractions abound, the fridge is always near you, and you don't have colleagues' eyes lurking around you, making you feel guilty if you end up surfing the web.
So, how do you find focus while working from home? It turns out it's not that different from the techniques used to find focus in an office environment.
The need for focus
First of all, it's important to define the importance of focus in the technology line of work.
Cal Newport calls deep work the type of focused work I'm referring to, in his book with the same name:
"Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit."
These activities are the ones knowledge workers nowadays need to perform every day, especially in the technology world — from designers and project managers to developers of all kinds.
However, with the introduction of faster communication tools and an ever-evolving information economy, deep work has become both scarce and valuable, being replaced by what the author calls shallow work:
"Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted."
Recognize any tasks that match this description? I immediately think about all the pings and notifications that plague our day — from Slack channels to emails begging to be answered. These same tasks and tools are the ones that are "distracting us from work that requires unbroken concentration, while simultaneously degrading our capacity to remain focused."
To focus properly and develop your best work, you have to have some tricks up your sleeve.
Just now, when sitting down to write this article, I:
- got a cup of coffee;
- put on some noise-canceling headphones;
- played a specific playlist on Spotify;
- turned off all notifications on my Mac;
- took off my Apple Watch and turned on “Do Not Disturb mode” on my phone;
- started a Pomodoro timer.
As you can see, focus doesn’t come easy to me, especially when I’m most stressed and my brain just wants a quick fix of dopamine, be it social media or answering my friends’ texts.
To focus, you need, first of all, to define a ritual for yourself and adapt your environment to be suitable for a focus state. The examples above are what works for me. I've heard of some similarities between my ritual and other people's — a colleague here at Pixelmatters listens to a specific album whenever she needs to focus.
This isn’t a one-time thing — your ritual needs to keep adapting as you unfold what works best for you — my ability to focus is something I’ve been honing for years.
Set up your environment for success
An environment that isn’t tailored for focus will inhibit your chances to perform at your best.
If I, for example, keep my phone where my hand can reach it, I know that I’ll eventually pick it up whenever something comes along that puts me in a state of boredom — like a build on the project I’m working on that’s taking a bit too long. Our brains need constant stimulation, so we instinctively and irrationally hold onto whatever keeps us engaged whenever we get bored.
Ideally, when working from home, you should have a space set explicitly for working — with good lighting and a comfortable chair to reduce friction and distractions to a minimum.
This means no phone with notifications ringing, no TV, or other gadgets that may steal your attention from the task at hand. If you have a shiny Playstation right where you work and a new game just came out, it’s going to become difficult to resist it when you need to focus.
So, if possible, this place should be separated from where you have fun in your house — restricting your deep work to a particular space reinforces that notion.
As I mentioned in the introduction, the problem with being a developer or another skilled professional working in front of a computer is that, no matter what we do to eliminate distractions in our environment, there’s still a lot to be distracted with right in front of your eyes. Social media, YouTube, news outlets, online shopping, emails, and Slack notifications — all these can become a source of distraction if your brain is craving it.
Here are some tips and tricks you can use to minimize their effect.
Block Distracting Websites
If the source of your distraction is the whole World Wide Web, you can easily remove these distractions from your reach. I’ve been using an open-source tool on macOS for several years now called SelfControl. This app blocks your access, during a given time, to a list of distracting websites that you either provide or get from the app.
The feature from SelfControl that I particularly like is mentioned on their website — “until that timer expires, you will be unable to access those sites—even if you restart your computer or delete the application.” This is great for someone like me who lacks some self-control (pun intended) when it comes to distractions.
There’s also an alternative for Windows called Cold Turkey and several Chrome extensions that you can use — although I’ve found these to be ineffective as I would eventually gain the habit of opening up another browser to look something up.
Get some good headphones
This is a simple one, but a trick that works really well for me is putting on a good pair of headphones when I’m about to work. I bought a pair of noise-canceling headphones when I worked in an office full of people. Despite now working from home most of the time, the ritual of putting them on still automatically puts me into a focus state — I feel isolated from the world and ready to tackle anything.
This is especially helpful if you work in a noisy environment or a house inhabited by small children.
When trying to focus, the "Do Not Disturb" mode on your phone and computer are your best friends. In the last few years, both Apple and Google have been making some advancements in how these systems work. They acknowledge how much time notifications take from us and how these small but powerful distractions can affect our ability to maintain a state of focus.
For example, I’ve realized that I can’t have those little red badges being displayed on some apps — if I glance at the bottom bar on my computer and see one of those while working, my brain automatically feels the urge to click them.
These complex systems are designed to be addictive, and there’s a specific reason why the badges are red — red means urgency so that you feel the need to click that button.
You should, therefore, make the most out of the tools the system provides you when preparing to focus and make your notifications work for you — disabling certain parts of them like the badges, turning them off completely, restricting them to a specific time... You have the power and flexibility to turn the game in your favor.
Let the world know you’re focusing
Considering we work connected, it’s also important to let people you connect and work with know that you’re focusing.
Lately, I’ve been noticing a pattern in Pixelmatters’ Slack when looking at the people list - many have been making their focus state public by using Slack’s status. By letting other people know that you are focusing, you reduce the kind of inputs coming through — someone needing to talk to you will only send that message if they really need your immediate feedback.
I go one step beyond Slack and also let my friends or whoever I’m talking to know that I’m going to enter a focus state so that they do not expect a speedy response from me and, on the other hand, hold me accountable if I reply too soon.
Set a timer
One of the most popular techniques for focusing on everyone’s list is the Pomodoro Technique. Its name comes from the small kitchen timers in the shape of tomatoes (hence Pomodoro, which is tomato in Italian). Francesco Cirillo created it in the ’80s and works by dividing your work into 25 minute periods with short breaks in between them.
You set a timer for 25 minutes and then focus on the task at hand; when the timer stops, you get to take a short break from 3 to 5 minutes. If you can complete four 25-minute blocks, you get a longer break, from 10 to 30 minutes.
There are variations to this technique, but its main goal is not to religiously adhere to the time blocks — it is to get lost in work and ignore the breaks altogether. By pledging to work those 25 minutes with no distractions, you enter a focus state that is difficult to break and end up just ignoring the timers and working for however long the task takes — not ignoring the need for rest, of course.
While writing this article, I got distracted by notifications, ended up losing some time on Facebook after looking up a restaurant, and got sidetracked on Spotify looking up a song’s lyrics — distractions are normal and are always going to happen, especially when working from home.
But I also applied some of the techniques mentioned here to reduce these distractions and produce the piece you’re currently reading:
- I turned on the blocking app to remove social media from the equation;
- I let my team know that I was focusing and turned on “Do Not Disturb” on my phone;
- all while listening to “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse — my go-to album for focusing.
The trick is precisely this! Use these techniques and find a balance between giving your mind some rest — feeding it the distractions it needs — and producing your very best work.