Finding Focus While Trying to Work

How I try and occasionally succeed at finding focus.

Ambient information and notification is killing me; so much so I'm mostly avoiding email, I'm disabling Growl notifications for apps, and looking at stuff like Tweetie on my own time rather than leaving it always on. I have to admit that I occasionally have a hard time focusing on tasks and have sometimes put more effort into tweaking my systems for getting things done than I should. All for the greater good of finding a better way to be productive, I say. I am of course fooling myself.

I have found some practices rather useful for getting things done, and mostly they involve 2 things: 1) turning off the ambient noise and, 2) looking at what needs to get done and getting to work. Here are some of the ways I try to do this.

Reducing Noise

Checking Email

Email is the one of the worst offenders for delivering noise to signal. When I need to focus, I try to turn off email for the greater part of the day. I check 2-3 times a day, e.g. 10AM, 1PM, 4PM. I use an app on the Mac called Alarm Clock Pro that reminds me to check email at those intervals every weekday. I try not to look at email in between. I got the interval email reading idea from Caterina Fake, who captured a whiteboard of a single tasking strategy that apparently someone must be using at Hunch.

Mozilla Labs is also working on a project called Raindrop, led the by the Thunderbird team, to address the issue of managing email and the countless notifications we get. Some of the ideas in their first design iteration look interesting if they can keep the experience simple. I just don't want another feed I have to watch if it doesn't boost signal to noise.


I've lost control of email, largely because of newsletters, email lists, and commercial advertisements. I used to be good at filtering out the noise, but somehow I got lazy and didn't continue to keep the noise out of the inbox. What I do when that happens is send those newsletters to folders via filters and check them on a periodical schedule if I must. Better yet, I unsubscribe to the ones I really don't read anymore but still receive. If they're good lists, they'll have an archive you can search when you need to. IXDA's email list is an example that does the web archive exceptionally well.

Dealing with RSS

I've left and returned to my feed readers so many times, saying I couldn't deal with reading everyone anymore. But when I started blogging again, I realized that I wanted to find a way to manage my feeds. I've tried using Email systems that digest daily all the most important feeds that I can't do without. I've tried using folders to filter my feed reader. I've tried watching the stream through a Friend Feed app. Every one of those just seemed to do nothing to turn down the stream and only let the interesting things through. What I do now is use a combination of services, and use the appropriate one for the amount of time I have available to read.

Tabbloid is a service I use for a handful of tech industry rags that post too often. I want to skim them daily so I use Tabbloid to give me a daily email digest of posts. I send it to trash after I skim the titles if there's nothing of interest.

Google Reader's Explore Popular items is useful for surfacing the most popular entries in your feeds. You seed the reader brain by telling it what items you liked (by clicking smiley icons) and it uses this information to help recommend items to you in the future. The Sort By Magic feed setting is another feature that surfaces items that may be of interest to you, based on what you've read and shared in the past.

I've also been using Shaun Inman's Feed a Fever app, which surfaces the most linked to entries from your subscriptions and shows you a listing of all of the posts pointing to the original item. It has the other category filtering mechanisms you'd expect, but the Hot view is where I spend most of my time. The design is also very light and very easy on the eyes, which I can't say really for the Google Reader unless I use Helvetireader.

Setting IM status

I leave IM on, but use status messages for focus time. For example, I set to busy when busy. Duh. If I set status to available and I'm trying to get things done, I don't always respond immediately unless the IM is from a co-worker.

Turn off Twitter

I have to treat Twitter like email on focus days. I check only replies and DMs a couple times a day. Twitter can be a rathole that leads you down a trail of links that will suck your time dry if you let it. It's also full of great finds and useful information, but during focus time, it's just another hose to turn down.


Setting priorities

For me this is the set of near and far set of targets. For some projects I create roadmaps. They can have 1 year and 5 year goals. For product development, I lean on the product roadmap, and I break those down into goals which can be plotted annually, quarterly, monthly, daily. But that exercise is kind of academic with so many factors and people involved—it's a moving target. Goals on the design projects I own are easier to plot. But the general idea is to get the far out goals down, then work backwards listing all the steps that need to happen for the goal to be reached.

I know tons of books talk about how you do this, but for me it's just easy to do for a single project, up to a point. If you're good at this kind of thing, then it just means using some methodology, like David Allen's GTD to record it all and order it.

Using tickler folders

I'm a fan of David Allen, who created the productivity system "Getting Things Done," although I follow his system somewhat loosely using a combination of OmniFocus and notepads. The main idea that works for me is setting up tickler folders for recording the tasks/actions that need to be done and reminding myself of what needs attention. Works with simple paper files to record and a system of tickler folders to hold the ordered files, as Allen demonstrates in this video.

Asking your computer to nag

Making note of the time is one of those simple things I started to do to create a sense of awareness and urgency. I'm one of those people who tend to get lost in an activity and lose track of time; so much so that the day gets away and I wonder how mindful I've been while I was bobbing along. I use the Date/Time system preferences to announce the hour. It alerts me to how much time is passing away. Some people would find this annoying, I'm sure, but it actually keeps me in a state of constant, subtle panic. It's kind of like having a productivity pace maker.

Using single app mode

This is perhaps one of those things that writers do all the time, and I've only recently started using it when I'm writing. Option-Command-clicking an app in the dock opens it in single window mode, hiding other apps. This kind of happens automatically for me when I'm in Adobe tools in full screen mode, but in other tools that use floating palettes, it's easy for background applications to distract.

Getting out

That is to say, I try step away from the computer when I can. I am a remote guy on my team. I used to have an office, but now I work from home. Working from home can be kind of tough, so I try to get out a few times a week to work around others, and to have lunch or coffee with other designers in the NYC area.

When I have to focus, especially when I have to work out designs, I go out and sketch on paper in a cafe. I bring my computer usually, but sometimes it helps to go out without one and sketch somewhere different, where where I'll feel free from the constant bing of alerts. If people need to reach me they have my cell phone number, and I'm never far away from my office at home.

Sometimes it actually works

These are most of the things I can think of that I do. Sometimes it helps me focus, which is really good, because I have a hard time not getting distracted. The irony of this article is that because of it, I've whiled away an hour or so writing this when I could have been productive. What do you do to find focus?