Battling Distractions by Gaining Focus

by Juampy NR

Recently, I went through a stage where I started to get mentally tired earlier than usual. What is worse: by the time I started feeling tired, I hadn't finished half of what I wanted for that day. The first few days I thought that I just needed more rest and to make time for things I enjoy outside of work. So I did: I made sure that I was sleeping well, eating well, and doing my hobbies. That had a positive effect, but still I was feeling that my productivity wasn’t as sharp. While thinking about what to do about this problem, I remembered something from the book, The Inner Game of Tennis: In order to correct something in your game, you first need to feel and observe yourself. So I did.

Observing Myself

I get the most out of my workday by going to a co-working space. There is something about that place: it’s cozy, I have friends, the lighting is good, and mobile connectivity is bad (which is actually cool because I only go out to pick up important calls). The day that I decided to observe my day of work, I did the following:

  1. Woke up around 8:30AM.
  2. Had a strong breakfast while watching the news.
  3. Took a shower and got dressed.
  4. Walked to the coworking space, arriving by 10:30AM.
  5. Checked personal email and social networks until 11AM.
  6. Looked at Lullabot’s Yammer and internal email for an hour.
  7. Worked until 2:30PM, stopped thirty minutes for lunch.
  8. Worked until 7PM, then headed to play a game of squash.

Overall, apart from the fact of waking up a little late and taking it slowly to get to sit at my working desk and then actually starting to work, it did not look bad. However, there were two things that were making me feel worse each day:

  1. I couldn’t find time to study nor to make progress on the DrupalCamp Spain website.
  2. I felt mentally exhausted at 7PM. In fact, by lunchtime, I was already feeling tired.

Identifying the Problem 

Observing my behavior throughout the day, and what I did get done (not much, to be honest), I felt happier as I figured out a couple things:

If you don’t have time, then wake up earlier

I had to be more efficient in the mornings—which is when my brain is at full speed—to get most of my work done. If I wanted to do other things like studying or working on the DrupalCamp Spain website, I should wake up earlier than usual and start as soon as possible.

Focus just on what you are doing

I discovered why I wasn’t getting much done and why my brain was getting so tired. One thing was the storm of notifications that I was getting from Franz (a messaging aggregator):

Franz

And the other was my mobile phone, so close to my hands:

Phone with notifications

By observing myself, I discovered that every time that a page load or a command execution took more than a second to run, I would either use a keyboard shortcut to check what was going on in Franz or check my phone notifications. This was killing my concentration, and it was the main cause of my lack of productivity.

I felt so happy realizing what the problem was. Thanks to my dad—who used to get upset when I distracted him while playing golf—I discovered that achieving a deep state of concentration takes time and, if you lose it, it takes even more time to recover it.

Once, when I was a kid, I was following my dad playing golf and, because I was getting bored, I got distracted a couple times in the course, made noise, and got him distracted. He then told me, "Juampy, it’s very hard for me to get back into the game if I lose my concentration, so either you stay silent or you walk to the clubhouse."

He knew it! Concentration is like starting the engine of an airplane: it takes a lot of energy to do so. Imagine then what happens if you start and stop that engine dozens of times a day.

In my particular case, I was forcing my brain to concentrate several times throughout the day because every time that I would start messaging someone or reading tweets, I was losing my focus. It was time to see how I could change this behavior.

Making Adjustments

Based on the above findings, I decided that it was time to try the following for a few weeks and then re-evaluate how it worked.

Wake up early

I have read and heard this several times from friends and books: beat the daylight, start early, and you will then have a long day ahead with plenty of time to do everything that you want to. I started waking up between 6AM to 7AM depending on the day and having breakfast while either studying or working on the DrupalCamp Spain website until 8:30AM, when I would take a shower and go to the coworking space to do client work.

Keeping the mind focused on one thing

I forced myself to focus on one thing and avoid distractions until I was done with it. If, for example, one morning I had a lot of email to read, I would tell myself: “I am going to go through all this, which I think may take one or two hours. Then I will chill out for five minutes and move on to the next task”. So I did. I did not switch off my phone, nor did I disable Franz, I just didn't pay attention to them. I set my phone not to ring nor vibrate, but only light up when there was a call so I could see who was calling and decide whether to pick it up or not. As for Franz, I disabled notifications, so all I could see was this:

Franz toolbar widget

Even though it was hard at the beginning, I felt that I started gaining a higher level of concentration, which made me able to see deeper into the problems I was trying to solve, make connections, and come up with better solutions, faster! I felt great, excited, and happy. However, I realized that, since the brain is another muscle, I could train it to get even better at its task.

Meditating to Start the Day

Finally, I had an excuse for starting to experiment with meditation. I'd read about its benefits for life and sports from a few friends and books. Therefore, I thought that I could apply this to my work and my life in general.

I added meditation to my new daily routine. I have a resting mat that I use for working standing up, so the next morning at 6AM, as soon as I woke up, I went there, sat with my legs crossed, set a timer for six minutes, and focused on breathing in and out. I also had a notepad next to me, so in case there was a thought I couldn’t let go, I would write it down there and continue focusing on my breathing. Did you know that Phil Jackson, who won 11 NBA titles coaching the Chicago Bulls, made his team to follow this meditation routine?

While meditating, I wouldn’t be strict at keeping thoughts away. If one popped up, I would observe it with a positive attitude and then go back to breathing. Here are a few thought examples and what I did:

  1. If work related—a complicated ticket with a close deadline—I would empower myself and say: “Relax, there is time, you can do it, you can complete it in time, trust in yourself.” Sometimes I can even hear my voice saying it.
  2. If sports related—a game with a huge guy that hits the ball at 100 miles an hour, I would tell myself: you can beat him, you can absorb his pace and use it against him. I would also picture me playing, controlling the game and controlling my mind over the pressure.
  3. If it were something that I had to do for that day: I would write it down in the notepad, and then go back to breathing.

By the time the timer rang, I felt a mix of energizing peace. The breathing had activated my body, it was ready to go, while the meditation had given me peace and made me feel positive and happy. I was ready to rock & roll! 

Looking Forward

It’s been two months since I started this new routine, and now I tell all my friends and relatives about it because it has make me a happier and more productive person. Not only can I do my work better, but also I have more time to do other things, and I feel that I have better self esteem and confidence in myself and in what I do. This is just my experience with meditation; find yours, make your own kind of meditation depending on what you need. I have just started with this, so I am unable to suggest books on meditation, but here are the books that led me through this journey:

  1. The Inner Game of Tennis
  2. The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari
  3. Sacred Hoops
  4. Golf is a Game of Confidence

Acknowledgements

These folks helped me in several ways to write this article:

  1. James Sansbury and my friend Xenia, who told me about meditation and got me curious about it.
  2. Matt Westgate and Mateu Aguiló Bosh, who inspired me to wake up early.
  3. Jerad Bitner and Marissa Epstein for their awesome reviews and tips.
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