Image Credit: Dimitris Kalogeropoylos

Creative work takes focus.

We humans like to create things. We like to make things that help people, and we like to communicate new and profound ideas.

If you're like most people, you are either in the midst of creating something, or dreaming about it. Maybe you want to build a small business, craft a compelling sales presentation, code the next Facebook, paint the next Mona Lisa, or write the next screenplay that takes an indie film festival by storm. Whether at work, or in your spare time, slowly but surely, you are building your portfolio.  

But creative work takes repeated blocks of focused effort. And in this hyperconnected, busy world it’s difficult to focus for even an hour, let alone the weeks and months required by some projects.

Have you ever had writer’s block? Or caught yourself spacing out while you were writing? Have you ever tried working from home and found yourself cleaning instead, or getting lonely?  Have you ever tried to work in an office and couldn’t get anything done because of all the interruptions? Have you ever tried to work at a coffee shop, and got distracted by other people’s phone conversations? Have you ever sat down to do 3 hours of work, made a minor breakthrough after one hour, and told yourself that was good enough for the day? Have you ever tried to work in the evening, and just didn’t have the energy?

Creative projects require many bouts of intense focus. And many things conspire to prevent this. Fortunately, there are some habits we can cultivate, and tools we can use, to achieve this precious state of intense focus more often.

You can improve your ability to focus.

Here are five focus “hacks” recommended by many experts:

1. Circadian Scheduling.  Loehr and Schwartz call it “managing your energy, not your time”. [1] Tim Ferriss calls it “circadian scheduling.” 

In order to do creative work we must block out distractions and keep our minds from wandering. But that takes energy, and our energy levels will ebb and flow throughout the day. So the advice is to do our most demanding mental work during our periods of peak mental energy.  Fortunately, there’s a rhythm to all this. Most days, our peak mental energy will occur at roughly the same time of day. For most people it’s sometime in the morning, right after their first cup of coffee. For others it’s at night after everyone else has gone to bed.

Figure out first what time of day tends to be your period of peak mental energy. Then arrange your schedule so you can get 90-120 minutes of high-octane creative work done during that period every day. If you can do just this one thing you will likely make more progress on your creative projects than the average creative worker.  Then you can do the less mentally taxing and more socially engaged parts of your job or life during the periods of lower mental energy.

2. Work-Rest Rhythms.  Circadian scheduling is one kind of work-rest rhythm.  But sometimes we can benefit from breaking down our creative time blocks even further.

If you have a 2-hour block of creative time set aside, you can structure it like this: 25 minutes of work - 5 minutes of rest - 25 minutes of work - 5 minutes of rest - 25 minutes of work - 5 minutes of rest - 25 minutes of work - 5 minutes of rest.  During the rest period, you can get a cup of coffee, go to the bathroom, or just sit and daydream.

The rest period can allow neurotransmitters to re-stock and give your unconscious mind a chance to sort through the new possibilities and problems you’ve uncovered during your 25 minutes of conscious effort. You might even find that, when you turn your conscious mind back to the problem, you immediately see things from a new angle, or get a key insight. This effect is known as the “incubation effect”.

There are many work-rest rhythms to try. You can work for 50 minutes and take a 10 minute break. You can work for 25 minutes and take a 5 minute break (this is known as the Pomodoro method). And you can even break things down so you’re doing 10 minutes of work with a 2 minute break (repeat 5 times to fill an hour).  Whatever the rhythm, you can use a simple kitchen timer to tell you when it’s time to rest or get back to work.

3. Studio Design. If you arrange your workplace carefully, it can help you focus.  Arrange it poorly, and you invite distraction.  Here are some questions to ask as you consider changes to your workspace.

If you work in an office with others, does the location of your workspace allow you to shield yourself from interruptions? Or does it leave you wide open to them? Can you focus with a cluttered desk? Or do you need to tidy up after working, so you can start your next session with a clear desk? Do you focus better with your back to the door? Or does that make you paranoid about what might sneak up behind you?  

If you work at home, do you get lonely? Do you have too many alternative activities (such as cleaning, eating, or watching television) tempting you away from your work?  If you work at a coffee shop, do you get distracted? Or does the random movement of mostly strangers actually help you focus?

If your workspace is distracting, consider ways you can change your workspace to reduce distraction. If that’s not enough, consider changing workspaces. If you can’t change workspaces, a simple pair of headphones might help you create a cozy little bubble in the midst of chaos.

4. Music. Music can be magic. Sometimes it helps us focus better than complete silence. On the face of it this is a little strange. Listening to music while working is a form of multitasking. And multitasking usually kills creative focus. So how is it that we can add music to our primary activity, and not only do it well, but sometimes even better than without the music?

Sometimes we get distracted from our work by little pangs of hunger or minor discomforts. The right kind of music can make us feel good, and block out those pesky little internal sources of interruption. Music also occupies our auditory channels, and keeps us from noticing every little noise in our environment. And, if we listen to our music with headphones on, it signals to other people that we should not be interrupted. Just knowing that might allow us to settle into a work trance, even in the presence of others.

In general, the right kind of music will interfere with the things that would otherwise interfere with our focus. It’s like a teammate who sets a pick on an opponent who is trying to make us miss our shot. [2]

The key is to make sure that the mood of the music promotes creative productivity, and that it doesn't compete for the same mental resources we need for the primary task.

If our primary task requires fine auditory discrimination (perhaps we're editing an audio interview), we might be better off working without background music. If we're doing a task that requires verbal processing, we should probably opt for instrumental music. If we're doing a task that does not require verbal processing (such as driving or working out), then music with lyrics might be fine, and might even be preferred.

5. Planning and organizing tools. Planning and organizing tools can also help us keep our minds clear as we work. Putting ideas and plans into a trusted planning and organizing system gets stray thoughts off our minds, and frees us up to focus on solving problems instead of remembering where we are in our process.

There are many kinds of planning tools. A simple to-do list, written on a scrap of paper, has its place. An outline-styled planner (such as Fractal Planner) has its place. Calendars can be very useful. “Maybe later” lists can help. Checklists can help. Tickler systems can help.

These hacks don’t always work as advertised.

All five of these focus hacks can help, but they’re no cure-all. In fact, sometimes a given hack can impede focus rather than enhance it.

For instance, if you’re in the midst of creative flow, and your work-rest rhythm timer goes off, it makes little sense to take a break at that moment. The wrong kind of music can distract you.  A workspace that works for one kind of task might not work for another. A planning tool that works for one kind of task might not work for another.

It would be nice to have a single recipe for productive focus. For instance, do your core creative work in the coffee shop, between 8 and 12 every day, listening to epic instrumental music, using a 25-5 work rhythm, and planning your task as you go in a fractal planning tool.

The problem is that the requirements for peak focus can be different for each kind of work that you do.

Different work requires different recipes.

In my own work I write, code, make audio recordings, design slideshows, and do interviews, among other things. And even these broad kinds of work can be broken down into sub-kinds.  For instance, when I write, I explore, research, outline, free-write, edit, and work on presentation.

And here’s the thing.  I can’t use the same focus hacks for all these different kinds of work.

I write and code best in a coffee shop. But that won’t work for doing interviews or making audio recordings. Music helps me focus when I write or code, but not when doing an interview. I often use a 5x(10+2) rhythm while free-writing, because I find it helps me get through writer’s block. But this rhythm would kill my flow if I’m coding, exploring, or editing.  While coding, I plan my tasks in a fractal planning tool. But while writing I do my fine-grained planning in my working document.

Sometimes a productivity system won’t fit us, because we have different needs than the person who invented the system. But even if we find a system that fits us for one kind of task, we might find that it doesn’t work for another kind of task.

So, what can be done?

Create a different recipe for each kind of work.

If we can determine all the different kinds of work we do, we can create a custom focus recipe for each different kind of work. Then we will be able to sink into a work trance more easily, and unleash our creative genius more reliably, no matter what we’re working on.

It’s as simple as this:

  1. Determine what kinds of creative work you do. Start with basic kinds of work, such as computer programming, writing, or event planning. Then, if it seems relevant, you can break down a main kind of work even further (as I broke writing into exploration, research, outlining, free writing, editing, and presentation).
     
  2. Create a focus recipe for each kind of work. For each kind of work, determine the best a) time of day, b) work-rest rhythm (if any), c) place, d) music (if any), and e) planning tools you need.

Here are a couple examples:

If my creative task is “free writing”, my recipe might be:

  • time of day: morning
  • work-rest rhythm: start with none, and use a 5x(10+2) if I have trouble getting started.
  • place: coffee shop
  • music: epic instrumental, low volume
  • planning tools: use my outline and plan in the document if needed.

If my creative task is “editing an audio recording”, my recipe might be:

  • time of day: afternoon (I don’t need peak energy for this)
  • work-rest rhythm: none.
  • place: home office
  • music: none
  • planning tools: a checklist i’ve developed for editing audio.

Once you create your recipes, just follow them for a while and tweak them as needed. And once you’ve experimented a bit, come back here and leave a comment to let me know how it’s working for you.

Notes:

[1] Loehr and Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement, Free Press (January 3, 2005).
[2] Jim Stone, "The 7 Laws of Multitasking"

Final Note:

These focus recipes should help you get into creative flow more reliably, but they aren’t everything. You also have to make sure your mind is clear when you work (this mind clearing exercise works wonders). And it will also help if you get plenty of sleep, eat your veggies, get some exercise, and cultivate good relationships with others :)

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