It seems that everyone nowadays wants to be more productive, efficient and focused. It makes a lot of sense since we are surrounded by distractions and everything competes for our attention (facebook, co-workers, ads, blogs and friends). How do we stay focused and use our attention wisely? There are many books, blog posts, podcasts and even workshops on this topic. In this article I will share some of the techniques and apps that help me, as well as practices that we adopted at Quizlet to maximize our collective productivity.
Organize your day
Planning and organizing your day is an important step to get into productive rhythm. Execution is probably going to be the hardest part, but if you have a plan it’s easier to focus and follow through.
My strategy is to plan just a little bit ahead. As I wrap up work for today I'll take a moment to reflect and summarize my accomplishments as well as review priorities for tomorrow. I also note blockers or questions that arose during the day. Thus when I start the day tomorrow I don’t have to waste time and mental energy on recalling previous day. I'm already prepared for stand-up meeting and can jump right into working on top priority task.
Hint: if you’re like me and easily forget about little things like stand-up updates, you can set up a Slack reminder by calling a command “/remind me to prepare for stand-up everyday at 5pm”. Slackbot will send you reminders and you won’t forget to prepare for stand-up.
I try to follow "eat frogs first" advice. It means that you start the day with the task that seems the most challenging. A hint that allows me to tackle those most challenging tasks is to define a first step, a simple action item. For instance, writing blog posts is very challenging and frightening to me. I purposefully set very low expectation for myself and start the day with writing just one paragraph. Then the rest of the tasks will be easier to complete and there is no sustained pressure during the day.
At Quizlet we know that task-switching is a productivity killer. Thus we try to group our meetings together and schedule them before or after launch time. It allows to create space for focused work in the morning (for a healthy frog omelet, I guess) and then at least a few hours of uninterrupted time in the afternoon.
Here are a couple more tools and examples to help you structure your day. For daily planning I can recommend this template - Daily Planner v6.5. It helps me with scheduling and identifying important or challenging tasks. The template also goes beyond work and has multiple healthy habits reminders that motivate me to drink water, eat healthy and exercise. Also, check out this post where the author describes how she organizes her day as a remote employee. I think most of it can be applied for regular office day as well. My favorite hint is using snooze buttons on emails and slack messages.
Single Tasking is a super power
In this video, Tim Ferris explains how single tasking is a super power that is used by world famous writers and creators. It sounds simple - focus on a single task to produce meaningful result. Easier said than done. Many of us use computers with Internet connection to get the work done. However, besides work it opens doors to many distractions and temptations of instant gratification (like checking Twitter or Facebook, just for a minute).
There are a few tools that can help you with focus. First is the famous Pomodoro technique. Named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer, it is simple yet powerful. The main idea is that you set a timer for for 10-20 minutes and focus on a single task until the timer is complete. After a session you can take a short break to reward yourself. In digital age there are apps for that and I will talk about them in a bit.
Another important practice from the video mentioned above is blocking out large chunks of time for focused work (5 hours or more). Here at Quizlet we have “meetingless” Wednesdays. We try to avoid scheduling any meetings or events on Wednesday, so everyone can create space for focused deep work at least once a week. We also generally use Wednesday as a work from home day (assuming home is a place where you can focus and be productive). Personally, I found our office quite tranquil and very calm on Wednesdays.
Apps to the rescue
Although daily planning and time blocked for focused work are great for productivity, I already mentioned execution is the hardest part. It’s often hard to sit down and focus on a particular task for me. I often go look for documentation or answers from Google, StackOverflow etc. I'll also check for notifications, news or interesting articles on Facebook only to find myself deeply distracted from my original task 30 minutes later. Here is where apps can help, let's look at two of them:
This app is simple yet powerful. It can block off all the Internet or apps on your laptop or mobile device thus allowing you to keep focused on your task. But what if you need Internet to do you work? Here are the two options.
Neil Strauss (bestselling author & journalist) puts all his questions and things that require research in the Internet into a single document. When Freedom session is over he can go over his notes and get necessary answers at once. Alternatively, you can use blocklists and exceptions for web sites and apps that are required for your work. I'm a software engineer and I need Internet to download packages and search for documentation, so I use the second approach.
Freedom supports most popular platforms and devices and has wide range of blocking settings (websites, apps, blacklists and whitelists). The interface is very straightforward and minimalistic, so you won't get distracted by the app itself :) I use Freedom on Mac and Android to block websites and notifications from various messenger apps I have on my phone and laptop.
One of my favorite features of the Freedom app is scheduling and recurring sessions. You can plan distraction free work for your week, so you avoid any last minute hesitation before starting a session. Freedom keeps history of the sessions and allows you to add notes or list accomplishments for a given session.
As always, everything comes with a price. Freedom app offers monthly/annual subscriptions or one-time purchase for a lifetime access. On the one hand it might be pricey, but on the other hand you’re saving time and hence money :)
Do you want to stay focused and help environment at the same time? This app combines gaming aspect and good cause to help you focus on a task at hand. Every focused work session is your chance to grow a tree. Forest team donates part of the earnings from their in-app purchases to a non-profit that plants real trees!
In a way, it's similar to the previous app. You start a session and while you're staying in the app (e.g. not opening any other apps) the tree will grow. If you answer a text or open a browser during focused session your tree will die :'( However, the use cases extend beyond just focused work. For instance, you can use Forest to avoid getting distracted by your phone during dinner with friends. Isn't it cool?
There is a paid Pro version of the Forest app that allows you to grow trees with your friends. Forest also has in-app purchases for different perks and upgrades. For instance, you can buy new kinds of trees or save a tree in case of interruption.
I used both apps to help me writing this blog post and I found them extremely helpful. However, there are many more alternatives out there (both free and paid).
Pat yourself on the back
I want to remind you about importance of rewards and being kind to yourself. At the end of a productive day take a moment to reward yourself and feel the sense of accomplishment. This will activate a positive feedback loop in your brain and reinforce your productivity habits.
I want to conclude this post with a quote:
"Real work and real satisfaction come from the opposite of what the web provides. They come from going deep into something - the book you are writing, the album, the movie - and staying there for a long, long time."
I hope you find this article helpful. In comments, please share how do you stay focused and go about your day. Are there any tricks you use to get things done or approach challenging tasks?