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Working From Home: How to Stay Focused



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(clock ticking)

It all sounds so simple.

Sit down and do the work.

But it isn't, is it?

Ever since you merged your workspace with your living space,

ever since the days begin to bleed into one another

in an undifferentiated cycle of light and dark,

and ever since your social interactions moved

to small, fake islands, you haven't been able to focus.

Shia's impassioned calls to action fail to stir you.

And you're starting to wonder if you'll ever be able

to concentrate or get anything worthwhile done ever again.

This is really dramatic, isn't it?

Okay, so I've heard this a lot lately.

It is way harder to stay focused

when you're working at home versus your office

or a coffee shop or wherever it is that you normally work.

The lack of separation between your work

and your personal life,

not to mention lots of additional distractions

floating around, means that your home is kind of like

the final boss of difficult workspaces.

Well, no, that would probably be

a Chuck E. Cheese, actually.

But still, today, I want to talk about how

you can actually stay focused on your work,

not to mention get started on it in the first place,

when you're working from home.

And first, we need to talk about intentionality.

Intentionally, the most useful thing you can do

when you sit down to work

is to set a strong intention first.

If you're anything like me,

I'm sure you can think back to a time when you sat down,

and instead of working intentionally,

you found yourself bouncing between mostly useless

busywork tasks, things like answering your email

or checking your credit score.

How is this even possible?

These tasks are easy,

and they give you an immediate feeling of accomplishment.

So they're tempting to work on.

But they also cause you to procrastinate on the work

that you really should be doing,

work that's truly meaningful to you.

So really, they often end up being a net negative.

And setting a strong intention before you work

helps you to avoid them,

at least until the real work is done.

Now, one useful way of setting intentions

is to follow the Rule of Three.

This is a concept from Chris Bailey's book

"The Productivity Project," and it's really simple.

When you're writing out your daily plan,

choose no more than three meaningful tasks

that you intend to get done.

And if you write your daily list on a white board like I do,

then you might wanna tweak how you use it

by writing these three intentions at the top

and listing any smaller tasks below them

in a de-prioritized way.

Don't worry about those until you get the main intentions

taken care of.

Then when it's time to sit down for a session

of focused work, look at your list and choose

just one item to work on.

Really mentally commit to devoting this working session

only to that item.

And just like that, you now have a strong intention

that will help to guide you and keep you on task.

Or at least you would,

if you happen to be sitting in an empty room

in like a monastery with no phone or internet access

or anything else to distract you.

But since you're at home,

I would wager that your environment

is absolutely teeming with distractions.

And if your intentions are gonna be translated

into action, then these need to be dealt with.

There's just no getting around it.

And that has to deal with how your brain is wired.

The human brain has evolved

over millions of years to be a highly sensitive instrument,

ever attentive to the small changes

in a constantly shifting and often dangerous environment.

And while this has enabled the very survival

of our species, it has also made a lot of people very angry

and has been widely regarded as a bad move.

And that is, not least of which,

because it renders us easily distracted

when we're trying to do complex work,

even if we set a strong intention beforehand.

Because meaningful work is hard,

because it requires us to really tax

our higher brain functions,

we are naturally resistant to doing it.

And we'll take any excuse to fixate on something else.

Additionally, our brains also have what's called

a built-in novelty bias.

Even when we're not resisting difficult tasks,

we are drawn to new things,

kind of like flies to a light bulb.

An analogy can be found in an observation that I made

back when I was in middle school.

See, when I was a student,

I used to carry a pack of chewing gum in my pocket

for, you know, myself.

And any time that I would get a piece of gum out,

again, for myself, any one of my classmates

who saw the pack of gum come out of my pocket

would stop what they were doing

and instantly become a mooch.

- I will literally die if you do not give me

a piece of that right now.

- And saying the word no to any of these classmates

was like hitting them in the face with a brick.

The wounded looks in their eyes told me

that in denying them that stick of Big Red,

I had ripped apart their dreams,

torn their hopes to ribbons,

and extinguished every spark of happiness and joy

that had kept them pushing forward

in this cruel, cruel world thus far.

And yet, seconds before this exchange would happen,

not one of those classmates was thinking about chewing gum.

Hadn't even crossed their mind.

And this is how our brains work.

We have this novelty bias,

but of course a novel object

has to be brought to our attention for it to be engaged.

Out of sight, out of mind.

It's why marketers and advertisers talk so much

about the AIDA framework,

Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action.

It's the order of operations that governs

most of the actions we take,

including the ones that lead us

to indulging in distractions.

Also, if you don't chew Big Red, then.

Fortunately, you can use this knowledge

of human psychology to your advantage.

If you know that being merely exposed

to a potential distraction is gonna put you aboard

the AIDA Express on a one-way journey

to wasting the rest of the day

and looking at more cat pictures than you probably need to,

then all you need to do is ensure

that you are not exposed in the first place.

So, Anna was gonna help me film a skit

for this part of the video.

Then, she fell victim to the worst distraction

in the entire house.

In other words, remove any potential distractions

before you start working.

Dealing with them ahead of time

is infinitely easier than trying to fight them

in the moment.

I swear, I'm just getting footage

to make this point more visual.

Six ours later...

Now, you're not always going to be able to do this.

Chris Bailey's book, "Hyper Focus"

breaks distractions down into four different categories

based on whether or not you have control over them

and whether you find them fun or annoying.

And those that you have no control over,

like loud colleagues, construction noises,

or calls from your mom,

are hard to plan for ahead of time.

The best you can do is to deal with them

while keeping your original intention in mind,

and then get back on track as quickly as possible.

But the distractions that you can control

can also be dealt with in advance.

And let's start with your phone,

because it's probably the worst offender.

Now, in the past, I have been a bit soft on phones.

"Put it on Do Not Disturb," I said.

Use features like Focus mode on Android

or Screen Time on iOS to simply limit the time

when you can access distracting apps.

But you know what,

I think it's time to get a little bit tougher.

If you don't need your phone for your work,

and let's face it, you probably don't,

then keep it out of arm's reach.

Personally, I've been setting my phone

to Do Not Disturb mode for most of the day

and also putting it on the printer

on the other side of my office so, again,

it's out of arm's reach.

I also have it set so my favorite contacts

can get through Do Not Disturb

so my phone does actually work as a phone.

But everyone else gets silenced,

along with all app notifications.

Your computer is also a huge potential distraction,

and that is mostly due to the fact

that it's connected to the internet.

And if that's a particular;y big problem for you,

then you might want to actually disconnect it

when you don't need it,

either by disabling your WiFi

or by actually unplugging the ethernet cable.

Barring that, there is one rule

that I highly recommend you follow.

Don't keep email or any instant messsaging apps

like Slack or Telegram or whatever, Microsoft Teams,

whatever it is, don't keep any of these open while you work.

These are constant sources of novelty,

so they are distracting by nature.

But they also come with the additional social pressure

you feel to respond to a message when it comes in.

Personally, I'm part of several different Slack groups.

And over the past few months,

I've gotten into the bad habit of keeping them open

while I was working.

And I realized that I would sometimes spend

entire workdays just chatting with people.

So now, I only check Slack and email

at specific times of the day,

and I respond to everything in batches.

To remove other computer-based distractions,

you can look into getting a distraction blocker,

which would block any websites or apps

that you put onto a block list.

I use one called Freedom, which can be set up to block sites

during prescheduled windows of time

throughout the day or enabled for timed work sessions.

Now, I'm not gonna spend a ton of extra time

talking about apps here.

But if you're looking for other ones

that can help you focus,

I've recently published a page on my website

called The Focus Toolkit which recommends several more,

and I'll have that linked in the description down below.

Lastly, since you're at home,

ask yourself if there are any other potential sources

of distraction that are particular pain points for you

that you should address.

Like maybe your game consoles are a temptation.

Well, if that's the case,

put the power cord in another room

until you're done with your work.

Make it inconvenient to access them

so you don't do it impulsively.

I'd also recommend keeping a distraction journal nearby.

And whenever something pulls you away from your work,

make a note of what it was and why it pulls you away

so you can figure out how to eliminate it in advance

the next time you sit down.

Now, once you've taken care of all those distractions,

the last thing you need to figure out how to do

is to get rid of the resistance you feel towards starting.

And this is serious.

Mental resistance towards difficult tasks is a big issue.

For just one example, there was once a study done

on people who felt high levels of anxiety

towards doing math.

And the study found that the mere anticipation

of having to do math caused increased brain activity

in some specific regions of the brain,

namely those that deal with threat detection

and even physical pain.

And what this illustrates is that certain parts

of our brain view difficult, mentally taxing tasks

in the same way they would view

touching a hot stove burner.

Fortunately, this aversion you feel

towards difficult tasks really only affects you

at the beginning.

Once you get into it, you build up momentum

that overcomes that resistance.

So all you need to do is to reduce your resistance

enough to get started.

And you do this by making the task feel less daunting.

Now, the first method for doing that

is to break down your tasks.

In other words, narrow the scope of your intention.

Earlier on in the video,

we talked about setting an intention

by choosing one of the three meaningful tasks

on your daily plan.

But if those tasks feel too big,

then simply break one down into smaller chunks.

That way, you can pick one of those chunks

and set it as your intention instead.

For example, when I sit down to write,

I never set my intention as write a video script.

Instead, I create multiple subheadings based on an outline,

and then I sit down with the intention

of writing a draft of just a single section.

Now, if I put forward into more sections

during that writing session, great.

But that is not my intention when I'm starting out.

Secondly, commit to working

only for a specific period of time,

and make it low enough that you no longer feel resistance.

So if 30 minutes feels like too much, then go for 15.

Now, whatever time you decide to go with,

set it on a timer,

or at least put it on a timer app.

Using one of these tools creates a little bit

of external pressure so there's one less thing

you have to rely on your willpower,

your internal self-control to handle.

So now you have all the tools and and the concepts

that you should need to sit down

and do some focused work.

But if you'd like to see an example,

here's exactly how I do it.

First, I will look at my white board,

which now lists my top three intentions

separately from other smaller tasks.

And if each of these is too big for a single work session,

I will choose part of one

and set my intention based on that.

Next, I choose how long I'm going to work.

And lately, that has been about 35 minutes per session,

at least for starters,

which means the very next thing I do

is set a 35-minute block timer on Freedom

and choose a block list that supports the task.

For writing and video, or for doing research,

I use my Morning block list,

which blocks Slack, email, all social media,

YouTube, and any busywork sites like Google Analytics,

which are a pretty big distraction for me, personally.

Then I'll chose something to listen to,

which lately has been either the focus sessions

on brain.fm or my Sunday Study playlist on Spotify,

which I'll link to down below.

And finally, I set an actual timer

in a little Mac toolbar app called Be Focused.

This takes all of 30 seconds.

And in that time, I've done everything we've mentioned here.

I've set an intention,

I've removed all distractions ahead of time,

and I've eliminated my brain's aversion to starting

by choosing a manageable time for my timer.

And I've found that doing these few things

enables me to stay focused for much longer

and helps me be a lot more productive.

And it makes sense, right?

Once you've taken the big problem

that seems so difficult to solve,

the problem of not being able to focus,

and broken it down,

you're left with just a few smaller,

easier to solve problems.

And these quick actions neatly take care of each one.

And it's worth remembering that all problems are like this.

Once you've broken them down into smaller parts,

you start to see little angles of attack that you can take

for applying useful solutions.

And doing this is a skill

that you can get better at through practice.

And one great resource for getting that practice

is Brilliant.

The math, science, and computer science courses

on Brilliant are all built to engage

your problem solving abilities,

as they quickly throw you into challenges

that force you to really

interact with the concepts you're learning.

And not only does learning with Brilliant

help you to become a better problem solver,

since you're spending the majority of your time

actively solving problems,

but it can also help you to get ahead

and understand the world more thoroughly.

Brilliant's library features more than 60 in-depth courses

with a full math suite that covers everything

from basic number theory to high-level probability,

along with science and computer science courses.

And that includes a new course on neural networks,

which are a fundamental part of artificial intelligence.

So to start learning and building

your problem solving skills today,

head on over to brilliant.org/thomasfrank

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Link will be in the description down below.

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So that is it.

Thank you so much for watching.

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And you may also want to go follow me over on Instagram,

because today, I've actually put up a little bonus video

with an additional tip for dealing with a particular type

of distraction that I know a few of you deal with

on a regular basis.

So check that out.

Link will be in the description down below.

Otherwise, you can subscribe right there

or check out one more video on this channel

right over here, probably.

I think this is where the button's going to be.

Yeah, smash your face into it

and watch some more videos, dude.

Otherwise, go do whatever you want,

because as always, I'm not your dad.