Just Focus Part 1

Like most members of my generation I have a terrible attention span. I have been known to be literally distracted by squirrels while trying to carry on a...SQUIRREL!I need all the help I can get with focus, especially when I have 50 tabs open in front of me on my work computer as well as my phone buzzing on my desk.

Besides yoga and distance running (there’s nothing like a long run to clear your head), my number one focusing tool right now is called a pomodoro. I discovered the pomodoro technique about a year ago, and occasionally use it when working on something that is time sensitive. Last week I realized that my productivity at work could use a boost. My outside life was distracting me from focusing, and my mind kept getting pulled away from my tasks by non-work related calls, texts, facebook messages and emails. So I did a quick search for a pomodoro app, and finally downloaded an app called “pomodroido.” http://www.pomodroido.com/

Smart phones are funny things. They can enhance your focus or they can destroy it. My phone was both the cause of my problems (the messages never stop) and the answer (my productivity apps now keep me on task).

So what is a pomodoro? From the Pomodoro Technique website:

  1. Choose a task to be accomplished
  2. Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes (the Pomodoro is the timer)
  3. Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper
  4. Take a short break (5 minutes is OK)
  5. Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break (10 minutes is good)

Anyway, I started using pomodoros at work. I experimented with different lengths (for instance, working for 40 minutes and taking a 10 minute break) before deciding to stick with the default. For now, 30 minutes seems to be my maximum attention span. Even that was a bit much for the first week - it was a real effort to get to the end of the pomodoro without being distracted. Also, five minutes is not very long for a break. That’s barely enough time to pick your nose and check your favorite blog.

I feel like my focus has definitely gone up after two weeks of using these though. I’m almost ready to go up to a thirty minute pomodoro. The best thing that this does is that it minimizes the time I spend doing useless things like checking my email. If I get new mail during a pomodoro, instead of being pulled away from my task to check it I consciously choose to ignore it until the pomodoro is finished. My email can wait for 25 minutes. It’s not going anywhere. It could probably even wait for an hour to check my email, but I haven’t yet achieved that level of patience and focus.

I also realized that bigger chunks of time, like an entire day, can be used in a similar fashion. Rather than constantly juggle every detail of my life, I can set aside certain days to work on certain things. For instance, I can have a “personal finance day” once a month where I make sure that all my bills have been paid. Or I could have a “chores” day like my parents had when I was growing up, where I do household chores like vacuuming and laundry. Days have been traditionally set aside for different chores, as proven in this old English poem:

Wash on Monday,

Iron on Tuesday,

Bake on Wednesday,

Brew on Thursday,

Churn on Friday,

Mend on Saturday,

Go to meeting on Sunday.

Thankfully, we live in an awesome time when we don’t have to spend an entire day washing (or go to meeting on Sunday) but dividing weeks like this could certainly help with focus. Here is a modern version of the poem that fits my lifestyle better:

Build websites and climb on Monday,

Go to track practice or duck dodge and pay bills on Tuesday,

learn Windows 8 and go salsa dancing on Wednesday,

Run, climb and study app design at the library on Thursday,

Climb, party and network on Friday,

Leave town on Saturday,

Come home and take a nap on Sunday.

It’s not really as catchy as the original poem but it certainly reflects my more modern life.

Historically, humans have always divided their lives into smaller portions and even though these portions, like minutes, hours and weeks, have nothing to do with the seasons or the stars, they make sense. Whether you use a traditional seven day week or a ten day week (like they created during the French Revolution) or an eight day week like the early Romans (or the Beatles), dividing your time into weeks helps to create a certain structure and routine, which can help to make your life more organized. Of course, sometimes I do cheat on the pomodoros.