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Jonathan Speek

onFocus: Achieving flow

Remote work3 min read

Espresso at Ozo Coffee in Boulder, CO

One of my biggest daily obstacles is being able to sit down (or stand) at my desk and focus on one task at a time. With Slack, Twitter, email, and the barrage of other notifications constantly popping up on my devices, it can be difficult to attain any semblance of a flow state. After struggling for years, I finally spent some time (I focused 😅) to address my shortcomings. Here are some of my takeaways.

Have your laundry done

You've finally started working on a project when suddenly, your brain starts streaming thoughts of, "I need to clean the dishes", "I need to call my brother back", etc. It feels like you have something hanging over your head. It's because you do. It can be terribly difficult to focus when you don't have your metaphorical house in order. This was a tip I picked-up in college from my professor (I was a music performance major). He always said, "don't start a practice session until you have your laundry done". For me, at the time, this was literal. I would get my personal to-do list completed to then free my mind of these distracting thoughts.

Todo lists

Speaking of freeing your mind, make a todo list. Spare yourself the cognitive overload of trying to remember everything. Make a list first thing in the morning and set your intentions. It can be super helpful to get everything down and time-box some pieces of your day so that the more important priorities receive focus. I often change the format in which I keep a todo list, but I always have one. Some of the forms this has taken have been:

Limit notifications

We are constantly receiving notifications on our devices. Take stock of the different apps you always dismiss immediately. Just turn notifications off for those apps. When you go to focus on something, turn off notifications altogether. Slack and email are asynchronous forms of communication, but in recent years we've become addicted to fast responses. You can easily set boundaries by blocking-off "Focus time" in your calendar or setting a "Focusing" status in Slack. It can be especially helpful to have conversations around this topic with your team/family/etc. If others are on-board it helps establish a culture that values focus. A tool that I use to schedule focus time and set my Slack status is Clockwise. Highly recommend it!

Establish headspace

Getting in the right headspace to focus can be very tricky and it's one of the things I struggle with the most. Pre-pandemic, I would often leave home to go work at a coffee shop. Often, I would even change coffee shops (I really love coffee). There were two things working for me here: changing my environment (being in a different physical location, coffee shop music and background noise) and giving myself a mental gap (traveling to/from the shop). Since coffee shops aren't really a possibility, I had to come up with other ways to establish the correct headspace. Here are some things that've helped me:

Other useful tips

  • Clean out your email and unsubscribe from any newsletters or promotional emails you aren't going to actually read. I greatly reduced my email woes by using Hey email.
  • Only have apps open that are relevant to your current task. I use Alfred workflows to open specific apps for common tasks and use the quit all command to close all apps that are open. I also use Hazeover to dim apps that aren't in focus.
  • Use an app like Flow to work using the Pomodoro technique
  • Have a clean desk and surrounding environment
  • Eliminate as many meetings as possible and/or re-schedule meetings to give yourself chunks of time to focus. A broken-up schedule is not conducive to quality focus. This is another feature of Clockwise!
  • Get some noise cancelling headphones that help you take control of your audiological environment. Some great headphones with ANC (active noise cancellation) are the Bose QC 35's and Sony's WH-1000XM4 (there are cheaper options, though).
  • Arrange your day so that you follow a draining task or meeting followed by something that gives you energy. I've found that I am drained by meetings longer that 30 minutes, so I like follow those up with tasks I can easily complete and are energy positive.