How to stay focused and be productive

I get distracted a lot. For example I was doing something for work just now and in the middle of it I got distracted, opened a new tab and started writing this post. I should get back to what I was doing and come back to this over lunch…

…right. Where was I? Ah yes writing a poem… nope that’s in another tab. Oh yeah, getting distracted.

I’ve always been a bit of a daydreamer, inclined to stop halfway through a task and just stare into space with my thoughts. It used to drive my friends nuts when I was at school if they sat behind me at an exam. From their perspective I spent half the allotted time staring at the ceiling, counting the tiles, but still finished with plenty of time and managed to pass.

My mind tends to jump from subject to subject and I get very easily sidetracked by whatever shiny thing I’m obsessed with this week (snorkeling at the moment if you’re wondering). However I do somehow manage to function as a human being despite this, so I thought it would be useful to share some tips on how I manage to keep my productivity roughly on track.

Some of these ideas are apps either on your phone, on your PC or both. Some of them are simply mental exercises or can be achieved using good old pen and paper. They all help me stay on track throughout the day and hopefully most of you will find them useful too.

Wunderlist
wunderlist
To do lists are one of the best tools for staying on top of your day-to-day tasks. A few years ago I started making a point of writing out a list every morning when I got to the office which made it a lot easier to plan my day and order my work into manageable chunks. Sometimes having a list written out can be a little daunting, especially if that list doesn’t change much from one day to the next, but if you embrace the positives it can help you identify quick wins and you’ll learn to love the feeling of ticking off task after task.

I made the switch to electronic to do lists recently and Wunderlist is a brilliant example. It gives you multiple folders and lists, recurring tasks, the option to mark important or urgent tasks and it syncs across multiple devices. All for free.

Outlook Tasks
If, like me, you spend most of your day in an office hooked up to a corporate email server then you’re probably familiar with Microsoft Outlook. It’s array of meetings, appointments and tasks which can be configured on your calendar with various reminders and alerts are great for popping up a detailed reminder on your screen when you need to do something. I use it all the time for reminding myself about work tasks like catching up with a client to mundane household tasks like booking my car service.

These days with many large companies moving to Office 365 and cloud solutions it’s likely that you can access all your reminders on the move as well.

Google Calendar
If you don’t use Outlook or you want a calendar environment which syncs seamlessly with your mobile experience then Google’s offering is perfect, at least if you’re an Android phone user.

Like Outlook, you can use this to remind yourself about appointments, deadlines and anything else you might want your phone to prod you about throughout the day. Plus being a cloud service means it will sync across your phone, desktop and tablet devices wherever you go.

Forest
Forest
I find it hard to stay focused for long periods. My brain flits between subjects every few minutes and I often find my hand creeping towards the web browser any time my concentration dips. However recently I’ve had some success at improving my concentration using a simple program on my phone called Forest.

The idea is you plant a tree in the app, which will slowly grow over your chosen time period. Any attempt to do anything else on your phone – check twitter, open email or play a game will result in a tree that’s withered and dead. If you can resist playing with your phone for the set time then you end up with a fully grown tree which gets added to your personal forest.

Continued success gives you points that can be turned into different species of tree to add to your forest and there’s various paid extras (e.g. no ads) that can also be purchased.

The only drawback for me is that while it acts as a decent mental reminder that I should be doing something other than browsing the web, a lot of the time my phone isn’t my problem. I need to find a similar app that works on my laptop at home and prevents me from checking YouTube or logging into Eve Online.

Google Drive
drive
I use Google Drive a lot. I use it for financial management (the ability to jointly edit spreadsheets between myself and my wife is great), sharing photos and other files, and I use it a lot for planning.

Whether I’m thinking about a poem, story, article or even home improvements and hobby projects, often the first step for me is to open Google Drive and get a file saved with a few details about what it is I’m planning. If it’s a story this could just be a couple of sentences of synopsis, for a poem it will be a title and maybe one verse (or often a whole first draft, I write poems quickly) and for hobby projects it could be a parts list or just a description of the concept and a high level overview.

Once that’s done I know the idea is safe. I won’t forget it. I can go back and flesh it out at a later date or pick through them during moments of writer’s block. The important thing is that I have the idea and get it down somewhere safe and accessible from anywhere so I can work on it and keep track of its progress.

I find this really helpful for me to see things through to a successful completion and again because it’s in the cloud I can update it on my phone, laptop or tablet wherever I am.

Mindfulness
Now I know what you’re thinking but hear me out! Mindfulness might be the hippy technique du jour at the moment with lots of press coverage over the last few years as it gains traction with the alternative therapy community. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day and mindfulness is being adopted in a big way by the NHS and clinical psychologists to treat a host of mental disorders including depression and anxiety.

Basically mindfulness is a type of meditation which trains you to focus on the present moment and your state of mind now, instead of worrying about the future or regretting the past. It can be very powerful and enlightening for practitioners.

Personally I find that anything which forces you to take a few minutes time out to gather your thoughts in peace and settle your mind is definitely worth trying.

There are many courses you can take on mindfulness but to be honest I’d recommend just buying a book with an included CD of meditation examples. Then once you’ve gone through that you can use a timer on your phone or a specialist meditation app to track your times and take you through different types of meditation.

Listen to music
music
I’m often at my most productive in the office when I’m sat with headphones on and listening to some tunes from my phone. Drowning out the background noise of colleagues having heated discussions, the traffic to the communal kitchen nearby or the bus station outside our office window really helps me focus on the piece of work in front of me and I seem to get distracted a lot less.

A few months ago my ageing iPod classic finally bit the dust to my great dismay, meaning I no longer have access to my entire music collection on the move. For now I’ve replaced this with connecting my phone to the office Wi-Fi and using Amazon’s cloud music app to at least have access to the large number of albums I’ve purchased there over the years. But I think soon I’ll need to see if I can set up a streaming service on my backup server at home, so I can make sure I still have access to all those 80s and 90s metal albums I grew up with!

Get outside
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One of the most powerful tools to clear and focus your mind is fresh air and exercise. Even if you just take the opportunity to go for a walk at lunch time or if you go a bit more gung-ho and use your lunch times like I do to fit in some running or gym sessions then I guarantee you’ll see a big benefit in your focus levels.

Plus if you’ve stared at the same piece of work all morning just getting away from it for half an hour so you can sit down feeling fresh and maybe approach it from a new perspective on your return can work wonders.

The downside of an always connected lifestyle

I’ve just finished reading an article by Jemima Kiss on the Guardian’s website which really resonated with me. Normally I don’t bother with the comment pieces on the site, skipping to interesting news, sport or the tech, food and culture sections as I spend my lunch time idly catching up on the world. However the title of the piece – Turning off technology is about mental wellbeing – not becoming a digital hermit - fell in line with a thought that’s been in my head for a while now. I used to be happier before the internet.

Now, in general I am quite a happy person. I’ve got a lot going for me including a nice house, wife and newborn child, friends and family; plus plenty of hobbies to occupy myself with. But I’ve found the last couple of years to be a struggle mentally in many ways, the independence referendum was a long emotional journey with a crashing comedown on the day of the result, my career has gone through a number of recent changes with added pressures and then there’s the big life changes that moving back to my home town and a new baby bring. That’s a lot of load to put on a person.

So where does the internet come into this? Why does it specifically make me unhappy when I can weather (mostly, I have my moments) those other pressures? I think it’s partly my own fault – having all that information constantly at my fingertips is too tempting. During the referendum I would be constantly checking twitter for the latest comment or news from the campaigns and as a result I spent most of last year feeling angry all the time. It’s not a nice feeling. Now with the general election I find myself doing the same thing. At least if I just check into the teatime news on TV I only shout at lying politicians once a day, that’s if the TV even reports what’s happening! There I go again…

The other big downer the internet inflicts is that it sucks time from you. I have a lot of hobbies, probably too many if I’m honest as it’s hard to keep up with them, but I really enjoy trying to things and learning new skills so I keep wanting to do more. The ones which get me outside (cycling, running, hillwalking) aren’t a problem; I’m outside, away from my laptop, tablet and often even away from a mobile signal. It’s the hobbies inside that suffer. I absolutely love playing music, writing and learning new songs, but I never seem to find the time. Or I sit down with the laptop to write something and find myself staring at reddit two hours later with a blank word document in another window. The same thing happens when I try to work on this blog, or some fiction writing.  I recently developed an interest in electronics and spent some time putting together some project ideas. Every time I think about getting the circuit boards out I run out of time, but I find plenty of time to sit on the sofa refreshing facebook and twitter or browsing Amazon for more hobbies to neglect.

It gets really frustrating. I know that spending an hour or two writing something new or making some progress on the Arduino powered baby toy I thought of would make me a lot happier for the rest of the day.  I’ve been a gamer all my life but my Xbox went untouched for almost two months, despite me making frequent comments about playing a game while the baby slept. I just never seemed to find a gap to fire it up, yet I spend literally hours at home aimlessly surfing the web.  That’s time I could be shooting terrorists! Or getting my arse handed to me by dragons in Skyrim. It stresses me out to know that I’m just wasting time like this and neglecting things that I genuinely enjoy doing.

Lastly there’s my friends and family. Now it’s natural that as you get older you grow apart from your friends. Everyone grows up, moves away, families are started, homes are bought and work pressures build. But I hardly ever see friends anymore or talk to them. We seem to be deluded into thinking we’re keeping in touch these days just because we saw some pictures of each other on our respective holidays or wearing a stupid jumper at Christmas. That’s not keeping in touch, it’s just nodding at each other from across the street if you happen to pass. Funnily enough as I write this I am actually going to meet up with friends this weekend for the first time in a while. In some cases it will have been months since I’ve seen them. They all live within an hour of me.

I lied when I said lastly… but lets not delve into the self-defeating acts of workplace procrastination the internet enables for me.

I think part of the problem is a kind of laziness inertia which happens after I get home and sit on the couch. Inevitably the laptop or tablet come out and I sit checking facebook, browsing reddit or other online forums while I have tea, feed the baby etc. Then I stay there. Before I know it most of the evening’s past and I decide there’s no point starting to do something constructive so I sigh and open up another tab in chrome or maybe I’ll get as far as turning off the laptop and watching an episode of Community on Netflix. By the end of the week I’m fully up to speed on which of my casual acquaintances still plays Candy Crush Saga on Facebook but have made no progress on any musical ambitions or finishing any projects.

What’s the solution for all this?  Before I was always connected to the internet I spent all my spare time doing constructive things like playing guitar, going to the pub with friends, playing video games or being terrible at football. I want to spend more time on the things I enjoy doing, rather than feel depressed because I can’t drag my sorry carcass away from twitter long enough to strum a guitar. Ignorance was bliss as I was unaware of all the underhand shit being perpetrated by politicians and other assorted scumbags the world over. Now I’m overloaded with conspiracies both real and imagined which force me to spend my time in a state of permanent outrage at the endless fuckwittery that’s out there. It’s really fucking tiring.

I could take the nuclear option. Delete the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone, and most of my bookmarks from Chrome. The problem with that is that I do derive some value from the interactions I have online and the internet is of some use as a tool for organising holidays, buying stuff and for learning about things.

I think the answer, like with so many things, is to impose strict moderation. I need to stop reaching for the tablet every time I sit down and push myself to live a life with more interaction in the real world instead of spending it online. Unless I have a good reason to turn on my laptop it needs to stay off.  Ah, but what about writing? I have to use my laptop for that (even I struggle to read my handwriting).  Damn. Maybe I need to dig out an old laptop and never configure it’s WiFi connection so it remains offline. Apparently George RR Martin does that. A Song Of Ice and Fire is written in Wordstar 4.0 on Dos…

If anyone has any better ideas, let me know.