The Joy of Not Distracting Yourself: How I Ended Concentration Self-Sabotage
The subtle art of single-tasking
By the end of the workday I feel twitchy, slightly irritated, dissatisfied with the day’s work. Absent-minded. Or perhaps it’s the opposite. So deeply intertwined with the urges of my mind that I feel absent from my body.
For the rest of the day, I keep habitually picking up my phone to do the drill: check Instagram, check Facebook, check the news. Put it down. Resume the commuting, cooking, cleaning. Interrupt myself and do it all over again.
This is how I feel after spending the day swiftly switching from one task to another. This is how I behave after allowing the smartphone rule over my brain.
I don’t like it.
Lately, there’s been a lot of discussion about young people, especially women, suspecting ADHD. I’ve learnt that it’s often underdiagnosed among women because we may exhibit different symptoms from men. I’ve also learnt that one determining factor for getting a diagnosis is whether symptoms were already present in childhood and adolescence. That’s why I haven’t suspected ADHD in myself.
Growing up, concentration was one of my strengths. I’ve never been particularly intelligent or fast at learning so my straight A’s were mostly the result of being able to sit down for hours doing homework or studying for exams (add discipline to the mix and you have a formula for good grades). In other words, I know my body is capable of focusing for prolonged periods of time.
Despite not worrying about ADHD, I do worry about my ability to focus. Am I losing the skill I can thank most of my achievements for, the trait I only now realize I should be immensely grateful for?
Although concentration often isn’t a pleasurable state to get into (you have to cross a threshold of agitation and ambiguity), it’s a pleasurable — while intense — state to be in.
My worries, however, aren’t derived from a lack of present-day productivity only. I could probably accept this state of mind if it didn’t cause me suffering. But I find the twitchiness I described highly unpleasant. I miss my focused and calm self. Although concentration often isn’t an enjoyable state to get into (you have to cross a threshold of agitation and ambiguity), it’s a enjoyable — while intense — state to be in.
To see if I could again feel more focused, engaged, and joyful throughout the day, I decided to reflect on and tinker with my habits. I began with an inventory.
The inventory: How am I actually spending my time?
Since I spend half of my waking hours at work five days a week and am pretty happy with my morning routine, the hours at the office appeared to be key. I began by making a note of the ways in which I was using technology — the biggest distraction machine.
I often start my workday looking at devices. I check my phone (apparently I need to know if someone has replied while I was biking to the office) and fifteen minutes pass almost imperceptibly while I’m scheduling bouldering sessions or checking a Twitter thread a friend of mine has sent me via WhatsApp (I’m not on Twitter myself, thank God). Sometimes I also open email or Slack — and just like that another fifteen minutes have passed.
The rest of the day looks something like this: During or between work tasks I pull out my phone, check the news or react to a few things and get back to work. If I have some visual work to do like editing a flyer or poster, I often simultaneously listen to music or a podcast. When I get home, I start the drill I described in the introductory paragraph excluding when I’m at my hobbies where I’m forced to focus unless I want to screw up the new reggaeton choreography or fall down (less) from the climbing wall.
The analysis: How is it working for me?
Yeah, how is it working? Not that well, I’m afraid.
I easily throw away the first 30 minutes of the day reacting to things. As a morning person, these are my most alert and sharp minutes; 30 minutes in the morning probably equal 50 minutes in the afternoon. But it isn’t only about the time.
Failing to start the day intentionally is discouraging. It can foreshadow the what-the-hell effect, giving up entirely after giving in on one small thing.
Failing to start the day intentionally is discouraging. It can foreshadow the what-the-hell effect, giving up entirely after giving in on one small thing: I already bombed the day, no use trying to be disciplined. Unfortunately, the back-and-forth between work tasks, Slack, and email makes me feel flimsy and results in less progress than I would like.
Even the practice that on the surface seems so innocent — listening to podcasts or music while working — doesn’t serve me well. I can neither enjoy the work nor the listening. Why? Because my mind is constantly negotiating between two things like an automatic camera lens struggling to find focus.
I end the day feeling dissatisfied. It’s like I’m self-sabotaging my ability to enjoy work. I’m ruining my concentration by trying to do two things at once or constantly interrupting myself so I never enter that prolonged and pleasurable state of focus which some call flow.
Task switching strains us cognitively and drains us of efficiency. The productivity loss is estimated to be about 40 %.
To me, shifting attention from one thing to another appears to be the most draining, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Experts on the brain and mind have long known the disadvantages of task switching, colloquially known as multitasking (or in Finland, derogatorily as multipasking, derived from the swear word “paska” which means shit). Instead of doing two things at once, we’re actually continuously shifting our attention. Task switching strains us cognitively and drains us of efficiency. The productivity loss is estimated to be about 40 %.
Apparently there might be some individual differences between how draining people find task switching. It’s detrimental to most people, but perhaps less detrimental to some. I suspect I lie on the extreme end of the spectrum as I do with sensitivity. Maybe they’re even related; sensitive people get easily overwhelmed by most stimuli so why not also focus-shifting.
So what did I do to rescue myself from this sinking ship of focus?
The rescue attempt: What did I do to regain my focus?
Before I get into what I’ve been tinkering with, I want to note that this isn’t the first time I’m pondering these things or making little tweaks. I’m a big fan of Cal Newport’s writing and view Deep Work and Digital Minimalism as must-reads on the topic. I’ve adopted many recommendations from those books as well as other books, articles, and podcasts.
I have an analog alarm clock and keep my phone out of the bedroom at night. I limit phone use one to two hours before bedtime and upon waking up. My phone doesn’t make any sounds except for when I get a call: no beeps or pings from new messages or notifications. My Slack and Microsoft Teams don’t make any sounds either and I’ve blocked all pop-ups. I’ve put automatically recurring blocks of ”deep work (minimize meetings)” into my work calendar which everyone at the company can see when booking a meeting with me.
So what did I experiment with? (Please note that I didn’t do all these at once, but over the course of a few months.)
Deleting social media apps
I deleted Instagram (for like the 5th time . . . will I ever learn?). I also deleted Facebook, but I can still access it on my desktop. And just like that, there were two fewer reasons to check my phone before, during, and after the workday, taking the lure of the phone down a notch.
Respecting the first three hours of work
I decided to check Slack and email only after about two to three hours of work. Instead of reacting to random things, I now start with the most important or challenging task. Due to the nature of my job and the way I’ve organized my schedule, this is mostly possible. I only have meetings in the morning every now and then.
In case you’re worried about my team, don’t be. I’ve let all my team members know that I don’t check Slack all the time — sometimes not for hours — but that they can always reach me via phone. Since I’ve turned off all notifications, I can keep sounds “on” without being disturbed. Voilà, only calls come through!
Planning the day by time blocking
I began using Cal Newport’s time blocking technique to plan the day. It’s a simple daily planning method that you can and should do in your physical notebook (check this video to get started). There’s no need to open any other apps except for your calendar and perhaps your backlog and to-do list (I use Trello). First thing in the morning, I time-block in a regular, lined Muji notebook (no need to get Newport’s fancy Time-Block Planner). It takes about 5–15 minutes.
Time blocking has had a huge impact on how I feel when I end the day. I know exactly what I set out to do and mostly I’ve accomplished those things by four pm if not earlier. If I actually stick to my plan, I get more work done in less time than I’m used to.
Time tracking tasks
Occasionally, work tasks feel daunting or boring and having reserved a time slot for them isn’t enough to prevent procrastination. To help me focus on these scary tasks, I experimented with a simple online timer.
For example, when I needed to make a presentation on workshop facilitation and felt a fear of blank PowerPoint slides, I set a timer for 40 minutes to draft the outline. Now that the goal was to work for 40 minutes instead of finish the entire presentation, the task all of a sudden felt manageable.
Single-tasking for longer periods of time
Time blocking and time tracking have done wonders for my focus. Nevertheless, I needed to practice not interrupting myself while working on something.
Instead of obeying the urge to check Linkedin, WhatsApp, Facebook, Medium, Gmail, or Outlook whenever I felt stuck or bored I began to pause and tell myself something like this: “I know it’s hard, but this feeling isn’t dangerous. You’re going to be OK. So just keep working for a little longer, would you?” I also experimented with not listening to anything while working, however much I wanted to catch up on my favorite podcasts.
I’ve noticed that by single-tasking I can get similar work tasks done perhaps 20 % faster.
I’ve noticed that by single-tasking I can get similar work tasks done perhaps 20 % faster. I’ve also learnt that I can usually work on something for about 30–75 minutes in one go and that I can line up two to three of those sessions if I take proper breaks in between.
Taking a break
Focus isn’t only about doing certain things and trying really hard to stay away from others. Your brain also needs breaks.
After I learnt how to time block, I naturally began to take more breaks. I knew exactly when I would be working on something so I could have a little breather between blocks.
My favorite breaks are going to the office balcony and viewing passersby on the square below or nudging a close colleague to have tea or a snack with me. These activities replenish me; scrolling on social media doesn’t.
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I can already hear the naysayers. You’re doing all this to boost productivity? That’s exactly what the capitalist system wants from you. Sometimes you can just read Twitter or watch cat videos.
If that’s what makes you feel refreshed, go for it. But if I can get my work done in six hours, I’d rather have a long lunch break and leave for the rock climbing gym at four pm. Staring at screens consuming content is not my idea of fun or relaxation. And if the changes I described above make me a more productive and happy employee, I think it’s a win-win situation.
After pushing through the initial discomfort, something shifted. I got immersed into what I was doing. And when the timer rang or it was time for lunch, I wanted to keep working, because I was having fun.
Because guess what happened when I managed to stay on a single task for longer without interrupting myself? After pushing through the initial discomfort, something shifted. I got immersed into what I was doing. And when the timer rang or it was time for lunch, I wanted to keep working, because I was having fun.
It wasn’t a massive revelation. Just the simple joy of doing the work. The joy of being in the process. The joy of getting shit done.
By the end of the day, I felt different. I felt satisfied with the day’s work, even energized. Sure, I was excited to go home and to my hobbies. But I was also excited to go back to work the next day. Because if I kept following the same practices, I’d probably feel good the next day, too.