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One thing at a time: Focus hacking

Bastiaan Terhorst, 6/12 '19

Multitasking temporarily lowers your intelligence by more than 10%. It also results in more mistakes, more annoyance and more anxiety. And perhaps most interesting: a person multitasking lowers not only their own intelligence, but also the intelligence of those around them.

Multitasking, it seems, is a really bad idea.

I experience this myself as well. When I want to get focused work done – such as writing this – I need to put myself in a small closed off room. I need to remove myself from people running around or talking, with no-one around to interrupt me, my phone on do not disturb (which, to be honest, it is on 99% of the time), and only one application running on my computer. I need to be fully present and focused on one task.

The importance of focus was hammered into my working routine in my first year of art school. During our animation classes we worked through the brilliant Animator’s Survival Kit. In our very first class, our teacher made it very clear to take the opening the book by heart: an anecdote of a young Richard Williams asking the legendary Disney animator Milt Kahl about listening to music while working.

As creatives humans, we need to protect our attention. It is the most precious resource we have. The worst thing you can do to your attention is water it down: to be distracted by a text message when you wanted to do deep work. Afterwards, the frustration of being distracted carries forward, leading you to be thinking of that that deep work you had wanted to get done when you’re socialising, later in the day. This toxic feedback loop is preventing you from being fully focused and present in the moment – two of the most rewarding things you can pursue.

I do not want to pretend I am some laser-focused attention guru. I often get distracted. I mess up my priorities. But I also have been trying to improve my attention consciously for a few years. For me, two things have helped me a lot: a weekly routine, and a ruthless approach to communication channels.

1. Create a routine

What has helped me the most to guard my focus is to set a weekly routine that has all of the things that are essential to me built-in. Such as time for deep work, but also time to ‘burn’ with wandering around, ad-hoc meetings and impromptu chats. Time for climbing. Time with my partner. Time for doing nothing. The stress that originates from feeling you don’t have time to do what you want to do is detrimental to focus (and happiness). To do this properly, start with thinking about what you truly value in life and don’t make the mistake of limiting yourself just to work. Make sure you allocate time to all of these things. In my case I found that I needed to work less to make this happen and I switched to working 4 days instead of 5. In most situations, I believe this is entirely possible (also in leadership positions).

My current routine.

Having a routine may feel limiting, but to me it is actually freeing, since I know I will have time to do all the things that are important to me. When I need to, I can make a concious decision to deviate from the routine: it is not a prison but a foundation.

I make an effort for all my mornings to follow a maker schedule. I block a good chunk of time and try to prevent my calendar from looking like Emmentaler cheese. Afternoons I keep open for meetings. When I’m in the office my first priority is supporting my people, and on those days meetings do tend to creep into my maker time. That is fine. My strategy is to vigilantly guard my work-from-home time, and accept occasional interruptions on other days.

Monday morning I start the week by setting my goals and planning them out. Like Covey says, “schedule your priorities, don’t prioritise your schedule”.

2. Ruthlessly cut down on communication channels

The second thing that has helped me a lot is to ruthlessly cut down on communication channels. To some it might seem like a great idea to have an incoming email sound a chime, or to feel a buzz on your wrist when you get a text message, but the only thing these notifications do is drag you out of your focus. And 99% of the time, for nothing. These messages can wait. We humans are so easy to distract, and we have the entire tech industry working tirelessly to keep us distracted. The only thing we can do is remove the tease. Get rid of the distractions. Because resisting the urge to respond is too hard and unrealistic.

So personally, I have disabled all notifications on all my devices. My phone is on perpetual do not disturb meaning that calls go to voicemail and text messages arrive silently. I have a few important numbers set up to bypass do not disturb so when things are truly on fire, I can be reached. On my computer, Slack and Email make no sound, and do not show the number of unread messages on their icon. On my phone, I do not have work email or Slack installed. I also got rid of all social media on my phone, and all but a handful of apps that I regularly use. The hassle it is to set this all up is a topic for another day.

The thinking error that I see a lot of people fall prey to, is that they start to believe that responding to notifications is their job. For most people, it is not. That isn’t to say that communication is not essential; it is. But the quality of communication is that much better when it has our complete attention, and when its purpose is clear to everyone involved. Slack has been described as an “all day meeting without an agenda”, and I agree with that sentiment. So I check email and skim Slack a few times a day, dipping in and out.

While this all sounds nice and simple theoretically, it is actually really hard to follow through on. As I hinted at above, software is generally not set up with your mental sanity in mind – a real bummer. And then there is the FOMO. And the peer pressure from people around you compulsively pulling down to refresh all day and expecting you to do the same. You’ll have to get comfortable explaining that you have other priorities.

Following through on this system has helped me be more focused and less stressed. It is my attempt at creating a barrier between what I find important and the culture of busywork and made-up urgency that our Western culture adopts. I recommend it.