How I focus (and live)


Jason Collins


April 19, 2018

This post is a record of some strategies that I use to focus and be mildly productive. It also records a few other features of my lifestyle.

Why develop these strategies? On top of delivering in my day job, I have always tried to invest heavily in my human capital, and that takes a degree of focus.

The need to adopt many of the below also reflects how easily distracted I am. I have horrible habits when I get in front of a device. The advent of the web has been a mixed blessing for me.

My approaches can shift markedly over time, so it will be interesting to see which of the below are still reflected in my behaviour in a couple of years (and which continue to be supported by the evidence as effective).

If there is a common theme to the below, it is that creating the right environment, not reliance on willpower, is the path to success.

Periods of focus: Most of my productive output occurs in two places. One is on the train, with an hour commute at the beginning and end of each day that I travel to work. The only activities I do on the train are reading (books or articles) and writing. Internet is turned off. This is now an ingrained habit. The train is largely empty for most of the journey, with half through a national park, so it’s a pleasant way to work.

The rest of my output occurs in productive blocks (pomodoros) during the day. At the beginning of each day I schedule a set of half-hour blocks in my diary around my other commitments. In these blocks, I will turn off or close everything I don’t need for the task. I am typically less successful at putting up barriers to human (as opposed to digital) interruptions, except for occasionally closing my office door.

Ideally I will have several blocks in a row (in the morning), with a couple of minutes to stretch in between. I aim for at least 20 half-hour sessions each week. I average maybe 30. I block out the occasional morning in my diary to make sure each week is not completely filled with meetings (with eight direct reports and working in a bureaucracy, that is a real risk).

I also read whenever I can, and that fills a lot of the other space in my life. I read around 100 books per year (about 70-80 non-fiction).

Phone: My iPhone is used for four main purposes: as a phone; as a train timetable; as a listening device (podcasts, audiobooks and music); and for my meditation apps (more on meditation below). It also has a few utilities such as Uber that I rarely use. I don’t use my phone for social media, as a diary, or for email. Most of the day it stays in my pocket or on my desk. All notifications, except calls and text messages, are turned off. I rarely have any reason to look at it.

Even when I do look at my phone, the view is sparse. These are the two screens I see.

One thing you can’t see in these screenshots (for some strange technical reason) is that my phone is in grey scale. There is little colour to get me excited (although I am colour blind….). Except when I make a phone call, message someone, or (loosely) lock the phone with Forest, I use search to find the app. They are hidden in the Dump folder. When I go to my phone, there is little to divert me from my original intention.

iPad: I have an iPad, and it is similarly constrained. All notifications are turned off. It has email, but the account is turned off in settings, with account changes restricted. It takes me about a minute to disable restrictions to turn email on, which slows me down enough to make sure I am checking it for a reason. More on email below.

I also use the iPad for reading and writing (including these posts) on the train. When reading, I use my Kindle in preference to my iPad when I can, as the Kindle has far fewer rabbit holes.

Internet: I subscribe to Freedom which cuts off internet for certain apps and certain times. Among other things, I use it to block the internet from 8pm through to 7am (I don’t want to be checking email or browsing when I first get up), and on Sundays (generally a screen free day). I also use Freedom to shut off internet or certain apps at ad hoc times when I want to focus.

I try not to randomly browse at other times. I have little interest in news (see below), so that reduces the probability of messing around. I have previously used RescueTime to track my time online, but don’t currently as I can’t install it on my work computer, phone or iPad. The tracking had a subtle but limited effect on my behaviour on my home computer when I tried it.

Email: Currently my biggest failure, particularly when I am in the office. I aim to batch my email to a few times per day, but I check and am distracted by new emails more often than I would like. Partly that is because part of my workflow occurs through email, so it is hard not to look.

Social media: I have a Facebook account, but zero friends, so it provides little distraction. (I also like that when I run into people who I haven’t seen for a while, I don’t already know what they have been up to.) I only have the account because this blog has a Facebook page. I try to limit my visits to Twitter and LinkedIn to once a week (normally successful with Twitter, less so with LinkedIn as direct messages sometimes draw me in). Freedom helps constrain this.

Paper diary: My paper diary is an attempt to keep myself away from distracting devices. I also find it faster than the electronic alternative. I have an electronic calendar for work, but it is replicated in the paper diary.

News: I consume little news. I don’t have a television, don’t purchase newspapers and don’t visit internet news sites unless I follow a link based on a recommendation. I rarely miss anything important. If something big happens, someone will normally tell me.

I used to apply a filter to political news of “if this was happening in Canada, would I care?” That eliminated most political news, but I have found that after a few years, I have become so disconnected from Australian politics that most of it flows around me. I don’t recognise most politicians, and I feel unconnected to any of the personalities. Voting is compulsory in Australia, so to avoid being fined or voting for people I know nothing about, I get my name ticked off the electoral roll at a polling place, take the voting slip, but don’t bother filling it out. (And I have almost no idea what Trump is up to.)

I am in a similar place for sports news. Now that I have been disconnected for a while, I have no interest. Any names I overhear mean nothing to me. I couldn’t tell you who won any of the tennis grand slams last year or who the World Series champion is. I don’t think I could recognise a current Australian cricketer on sight.

Blogs: In substitute to going to any news sources, I subscribe to around 25 blogs using a feed reader (Feedly). I scan them around once a day. They provide more reading material than I can get through (through the posts themselves or links), so I have a backlog of reading material in Instapaper (I used to use Pocket, but dumped it when the ads appeared).

Sleep and rest: The evidence on the effect of lack of sleep is strong. I need eight hours a night and generally get it (children permitting). I don’t use screens (except for the Kindle) after 8pm at night. I also subscribe to the broader need for rest and the declining productivity that comes from overwork.

Meditation: Meditation is new for me (around four months), and I am still in the experimental phase. I meditate for around 15 to 20 minutes every day. I find it puts me on the right track at the start of the day (which is when I meditate, children permitting). It also acts as a daily reminder of what I am trying to do.

The evidence of increased concentration and emotional control seems strong enough to give it a go. I suspect I would have dismissed the idea a few years ago (maybe even a year ago), and pending changes in the evidence in favour and my own experience, I am prepared to dismiss it again in the future.

A benchmark I’d like to be able to compare meditation to is focused reading. If I shifted the meditation time to reading, that’s 15 to 20 additional books a year. What is the balance of costs and benefits?

I use three apps to meditate: Insight Timer, Headspace and 10% Happier. I find 10% Happier most useful as a teacher. Headspace is convenient and easy to use, but I don’t like the gamification element to it, and the packages seem relatively shallow and repetitive (although the repetitive nature is not necessarily a bad thing). At the end of the year when it is time to re-subscribe, I suspect I will drop Headspace and stick with 10% Happier if I am still learning something from it. Insight Timer will otherwise give me what I need.

I will post more on my thoughts on meditation in the near future - likely through a review of Sam Harris’s Waking Up in the first instance, as that was the book that pushed me across the line.

I give myself a 60% chance of still being meditating when I write my next post of what I do to focus (planning to do this roughly annually). My lapsing could be due to either changing my mind or failing to sustain the habit.

Diet: I see diet as closely linked to the ability to focus and be productive. I eat well. My diet might best be described as three parts Paleo, one part early agriculturalist, and 5% rubbish. My diet is mainly fruit (lots), vegetables, tubers, nuts, eggs (a dozen a week), meat, legumes and dairy (a lot of yogurt). I eat grains occasionally, largely in the form of rice (a few times of week) and porridge (once or twice a week). I’ll eat bread maybe once or twice a month (I love hamburgers and eggs on toast). A heuristic I often fall back onto is no processed grains, industrial seed oils or added sugar. There’s some arbitrariness to it, but it works. Stephan Guyenet is my most trusted source on diet.

It’s easy to stick to this diet because this is what is in my house. There are no cookies, ice cream or sugar based snacks. I don’t have to go down the aisles of the supermarket when shopping (although my groceries are normally home delivered). If I want to binge, rice crackers and toast are as exciting as I can find in the cupboard.

Exercise: As for diet, part of the productivity package. My major filter for choosing exercise is the desire to still be able to surf and get off the toilet when I’m 80. I surf a couple of times a week. Living within five minutes walk of a beach with good surf is a basic lifestyle criteria.

I did Crossfit for a few years, but don’t live near a Crossfit gym at the moment. However, I don’t think Crossfit is a sustainable long-term approach - at least if I trained as regularly as expected in the gyms I have been to. The intensity would have me falling apart in old age.

That said, I still keep Crossfit elements to my exercise - heavy compound lifts once or twice a week, and a short high intensity burst around once a week (so I’m in the gym once to twice a week). I also walk a lot, including trying to get out of the office for a decent walk at lunch each day. While walking, I consume a lot of audiobooks and podcasts. I stretch for 10 to 15 minutes most days.