How to sit down and focus on your work

I've struggled with chronic distraction and ADD issues all my life.

I was a terrible student, a pretty forgetful friend, and have missed lots of days of productivity at work just because I couldn't set my mind on a task and do it.

It's been one of the biggest sources of frustration and insecurity for me nearly all my life because I felt like "my brain is broken. I can't focus like other people."

That all changed in December 2020 when I finally found out a process that is absolutely fool-proof for me.

It's now been 182 days, and the only workdays that were unfocused were because I was sick in bed.

If you struggle with focus, here is a quick guide to hopefully put you on the right path:

You have to quit saying "I can't focus"

I said this for something 33 years in a row. It's a lie, and a crippling one if you hold on to it.

How do you prove that it's a lie?

  1. Hold up your left hand
  2. Point at your left hand with your right pointer finger
  3. Count each finger and say the number out loud

Could you do it?

I'm guessing you could. That's because we are able to command our focus for tiny things without much effort.

Now that's not the same as sitting down to work on something important, but it proves that "I can't focus" is a lie.

Don't try to balance distractions with meaningful work

The day that I learned to focus, I woke up with a migraine, my son was throwing a massive tantrum in the next room, and I was feeling very small for having nearly seven days of zero-focus in a row.

Here's what I did that changed everything for me:

  1. Close your laptop, turn over your phone, take off your smart watch
  2. Pull out a notebook or sheet of paper
  3. With a physical pen, write out exactly how you're feeling. Write "I'm not feeling focused right now..." This reminds you that you have the ability to focus and finish a small task like writing a single sentence.
  4. Decide the very next thing that you need to do. Maybe that's making a list of things to do.
  5. Write down a checkbox and just that ONE item. No more.
  6. If it's "answer that email", sit and think about the exact steps that are needed to complete that: "Open laptop", "Open email", "Read the email", etc.
  7. When you open the laptop, close out every single window (I've squinted my eyes before doing this so I couldn't see clearly enough to get distracted by anything else).
  8. Complete the steps you set out for yourself.
  9. Repeat this for each task

Build a personal focus process

In the beginning of my recovery, I had to do this strict process every single day, multiple times a day.

Now, I just do some quick "focus journaling" at the beginning of every workday and it gets my brain primed to do focused work.

It would be no exaggeration to say that this has been completely life changing for me. That's why I feel the need to share it with fellow IndieHackers.

If you have questions, or if you try this, let me know what you think!

I share more stuff like this daily on Twitter, so would to connect with you over there too: @JamieHoward

Thanks for reading!

  1. 3

    Good on you
    This is also a small part of the "Getting Things Done" (GTD) system, if you haven't take a look at it, might find some of it useful

    1. 2

      Yep, I love GTD! I think it breaks down into two categories personally: focus and prioritization. Sitting down to work on anything was such a struggle for me, but once I got past that, I had to learn how to properly prioritize my work.

      Do you use GTD regularly?

      1. 1

        I kinda fall into and out of the practices
        I partially blame the fact there isn't a really good product to nudge me the right way to keep me consistent and/or bring me back in, and I looked at many and keep considering making one...
        but it could also just be my personal life cycles, crossroad times, and such...

        1. 2

          Yeah, I'm in the same boat. At the end of the day, I can't find anything that beats a notebook and pen + iOS reminders.

          I don't obsess over it though. If my focus is right, then I usually get enough done every day to feel good about it.

          1. 2

            @hatkyinc I see what you mean about no product out there "nudging you the right way". This is one of the reasons I started working on my product timeivy.com.

            One of the features would be a nudge sound when you switch your attention to something distracting (ie. social media) so you get back on track.

            I'd be thrilled to hear any idea you guys might want to share with me to help me make it better and solve this problem.

            @jamiehoward thanks for sharing. I'm a big fan of the "one ITEM" only, which has literally changed my productivity for the best.

            1. 2

              Well my meaning was more in the context of tasks management, a task that doesn't get handled and/or just doing the GTD reviews that kinda make sure you have the org. Part done, so you keep your mind clear and executing

              Like most chances you start procrastinating with distractions cause you don't have a well organised action to execute... Thinking vs doing stage switch and/or by context like low energy

              1. 2

                Agreed. Having a clear definition of what to do is a must before even moving a finger towards actually doing anything. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. 2

    Pomodoro Technique has done wonders for me and made me become a more productive person. It allows me to immerse myself and reward myself for some extra minutes fully

    1. 1

      That's awesome. I've loved the pomodoro technique in the past. It's not a technique that I've been able to stick with unfortunately, but I think the key is finding a process that works for you.

  3. 1

    I am looking into this now as we get ready to launch because post-launch is the marketing phase, we have a multi-step launch planned and have to also do a complete marketing channel analysis. There are so many moving parts to it I am on the verge of total brain-lock!

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