Skip down a bit and follow these three tips: Eliminate notifications, Maximize your apps, and Use a Pomodoro timer. Later on, come back to read the rest! :-)
I recently finished Nick Carr's book "The Shallows", which describes the impact that technology has on our brains. While I can't say I enjoyed the book (a shame, I was very keen to read it), part of the author's introduction resonated strongly with me:
"Over the last few years I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain [...]. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I'm reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. [...] That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. [...] The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."
Carr states that the single biggest change in his professional life over this last decade has been the internet. The many boons it brings come at a price:
"[W]hat the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I'm online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
As the years pass I've noticed the same thing: checking email, reading new blog posts, or perusing interesting tweets sometimes have an almost inescapable appeal. What's worse is that, according to Carr's book, the more information I take in this way, the greater my appetite for it, and the harder it becomes to focus for any length of time.
In my experience, the "consumer half" of me crowds out my "producer half". I end up preferring the consumption of other people's work over the creation of my own.
Here are some of the techniques I've found useful in keeping both halves happy.
Eliminate notifications, or at least audible / visible cues
This is one of the basic rules: information should not announce its arrival. It's hard enough to resist infodrugs without arming them with a way to pull you in. Turn those notifications off!
Process information on your schedule
You'll find it difficult to live without notifications at first: the desire to frequently check for emails, tweets, and facebook updates will be hard to resist. Don't give in! If you do, you'll defeat the purpose of turning off notifications. Instead, make it a point to check at regular intervals, or between activities.
Maximize or "Full screen" your apps
There are many studies showing that multitasking impacts focus. Context switching is expensive. By maximizing your current application's window, it's harder for other apps to pull you away from your task. If your eye catches movement in a twitter client, or your Inbox suddenly becoming Inbox (1) you know what will happen next! :-)
David Allen's Getting Things Done is full great advice. A few principles I've found particularly useful to combat attention:
- Keep your Inbox at zero: Knowing you've dealt with all your emails makes it easier to focus on other things
- Log all thoughts / ideas / todos: Write them down, if you keep them in your head they waste precious "mind cycles"
- Schedule tasks for the future: I found this technique particularly powerful yet I rarely see it mentioned. When you capture a todo that doesn't need to be done today, set its start date accordingly, and use a tool that can hide all future tasks. I've always found it disheartening to see a never ending stream of future todos, which is what most task managers show you. The feeling you get when all the day's tasks are accomplished is a powerful incentive to stay focused.
Organize workspaces by activity
I covered this more in-depth in an earlier post but the gist of it is to leverage tools like OS X's Spaces to keep your communication tools (i.e. distractions!) on one screen, while keeping productive work well away on a different screen.
Use a Pomodoro timer
The premise of Pomodoro (Italian for tomato) is simple: if you focus for 25min without interruptions, you can reward yourself with a 5 minute break. As long as you can stick to your side of the bargain (no distractions for 25min!) that 5 min of relaxation does wonders to recharge your concentration. There are lots of Pomodoro apps out there (mobile, web, and desktop). Or you can just use a kitchen timer :-)
Listening to music also helps me concentrate, as long as it's music I know well, otherwise my minds pays too much attention to the new lyrics and music.
Reclaiming your attention does a lot to "protect" your creativity in my experience but here are a couple techniques more focused on creativity itself..
I've stopped listening to podcasts and audiobooks while exercising (usually running or cycling). I've found that physical exertion combined with being outside frees my mind to think new thoughts. Many of my ideas for blog posts, applications, or activities come during this time. Bring a means of capturing those ideas with you!
That's the name of a daily activity in my task list. It's there to remind me that I want to create something every day. It doesn't have to be big, it doesn't have to be amazing, it just needs to be something: a draft of a blog post, a drawing, a poem to my lovely wife. They all count. And the great thing is that once you get started doing something creative, it's a lot easier to keep going.
Finally done with this post! Can't wait to see what's arrived in my twitter feed! :-)