Focus is something I struggle with a lot. In my freelance writing work I have to spend hours at a time researching, writing, and editing. When I’m working on Exist, my company’s personal analytics app, I sometimes spend whole days writing blog posts, or working on our iOS app.
With so many different types of work on my schedule every week, I find it hard to stick to one task until it’s done. Too often I pick up my phone or start browsing Facebook without even thinking about it. Before I know it, I’m struggling to even remember what I was doing before.
I’m not the only one, either. A study from the University of California at Irvine found that the participants (who worked in the tech field) could only work on a project for 11 minutes before being distracted, on average. What’s worse is that it took them 25 minutes to regain their focus.
25 minutes for every distraction can quickly add up. For work like writing and software development, your best work can only be done in a state of deep focus, since you need to keep a lot of information in your head as you work. If you’re only doing 11 minutes of work every time you hit your stride, and taking another 25 minutes to get your focus back, you won’t have much to show for your efforts after a full day of work.
So what can we do to stop this vicious cycle from holding us back from productivity? According to science, there are quite a few actions we can take to improve our ability to focus for longer periods.
Take breaks more often, and get away from your computer
Looking at Facebook or checking your email isn’t a real break. Taking real breaks means leaving your computer, standing up, maybe even going outside or walking around your workspace. A real break takes your mind away from what you’re doing completely, giving it the ability to reset before you hit the desk again.
Research shows the kind of unfocused, free-form thinking we do during breaks helps the brain to recharge.
If you find it difficult to fit in real breaks, try scheduling ten-minute meetings with yourself throughout the day.
Spend more time near trees
Spending time in nature is great for your brain. When I say nature, I don’t mean the nearest city street. I mean somewhere green and leafy. And, in particular, somewhere with lots of trees.
While walking is a healthy activity, when we walk in busy areas like an urban street, our brains have to stay switched on to keep us safe. There’s a lot of stimuli demanding our attention in this kind of environment—advertising, stores announcing sales, other pedestrians, cars, bikes, and maybe even trams.
When we walk in a natural area like a park, the peaceful surroundings allow the brain to relax, which helps us recharge our ability to focus. But more importantly, make sure there are some trees around. Trees don’t just add to the natural vibe, they also do something special to the brain. Research has shown just seeing trees is enough to improve our health.
Spend time on a hobby you enjoy
If taking a walk outside isn’t your thing, or you’ve already tried it an need another option, finding a hobby you enjoy could do the trick.
Daniel Goleman says doing something that’s passive, but requires focus, is key. For instance, playing a song on piano or guitar that you already know well, or cooking a favourite meal could work. It needs to be an activity that keeps your attention, but doesn’t work your brain too hard beyond that.
The key is an immersive experience, one where attention can be total but largely passive. — Daniel Goleman
Goleman says this type of activity can give the brain a chance to recharge. By staying passively focused on what you’re doing, you’ll stop yourself from continuing to think about work. If you don’t already have a go-to hobby that fits the bill, you could try cycling, knitting, drawing, or even colouring in.
Move your desk
For those times when you can’t leave the office, or you need to push through without a break but you’re struggling to focus, this may be the most simple change you can make. Research has shown working in natural light can improve productivity and decrease how many sick days employees take.
Unfortunately, most of us work in offices with artificial lighting that can cause eye fatigue and make it harder to focus. If you can, try moving your desk closer to a window so you can get more natural light during the day.
Take a flow day
Author, university professor, and productivity expert Cal Newport says the idea of batching similar tasks together sounds useful, but rarely works. This process introduces more complexity, says Newport, and “most people will abandon a tactic as soon as it makes their life more difficult.”
Newport tried a day of batching tasks himself, to see how it affected his productivity and focus. He established firm rules and stuck to them for an entire work day. The rules stated all work had to be done in 30-minute blocks.
If he needed to do a small task that would only take a few minutes, he had to spend that entire 30-minute block doing small tasks. If he needed to check something in an email, he had to spend a full 30-minute block on processing and replying to emails.
Newport concluded after his experiment that the type of strict rules he used are necessary for batching tasks to work. But he also found these kind of rules “will absolutely make your day more difficult.”
There’s no avoiding the reality that there will be times when you have to take convoluted action to solve a problem that could so easily be handled with just a quick bounce over to your inbox.
This is a pain in the ass.
Despite the extra effort and frustration that came with the experiment, Newport found his day was more focused and more productive than normal:
Even though I dedicated 6 hours in one 10 hour work day to uninterrupted focus, another 1.5 hours to exercise and eating, and another 1 hour to a doctors appointment, I still managed to accomplish an impressive collection of logistical tasks both urgent and non-urgent.
Most importantly, Newport found he was able to find more of that elusive “flow state” than he usually would. “Flow” being that state of getting so caught up in what you’re doing that time passes without you realizing it. Newport found the 30-minute block rule helped him achieve this by making small distractions a non-option:
…the percentage of time spent in a flow state was as large as I’ve experienced in recent memory. I ended up spending 2.5 hours focused on my writing project and 3.5 hours focused on my research paper. That’s six hours, in one day, of focused work with zero interruptions; not even one quick glance at email.
Since the strict rules can add effort and complications to your day, it might be best to save this approach for those rare times when you really need to spend a whole day focused on one big project. Scheduling a “flow day” once a month or so may help you get more done than you thought was possible.
It might sound strange, but research shows chewing gum can boost mental performance. Gum has been shown to improve cognitive abilities more than caffeine, but the improvement seems to be short-lived. One study found gum-chewers only performed better than those not chewing for around 20 minutes, after which they stopped seeing any benefit.
Researchers have tested gum that includes sugar and is sugar-free, but glucose content doesn’t seem to have any affect on performance. The best suggestion of why this happens seems to be something called “mastication-induced arousal,” which just means that the act of chewing wakes us up and makes us focus.
If you’re not a fan of gum, you could try this trick from author Gretchen Rubin: chew on plastic stirrers or straws. Rubin says the act of chewing helps her focus while writing.
It’s taken me longer than I care to admit to finish this article, thanks to constant distractions. With this list handy, next time I’m struggling I’ll have a few options to try that may just improve how much I can get done in a day.
Working late at night is sort of great. There are no distractions, fewer obligations, it even feels sort of weird to send someone an email once it gets too late. It’s a fantastic time to focus.
But if I get carried away with it, I really end up paying for it the next day. The satisfaction of a late-night work binge is a lot less awesome when I’m dragging through work like a zombie. Sleep-debt is real and it hits me hard.
But I’ve found a great way to make sure I don’t let myself get completely consumed with work late at night.
I scare the hell out of myself with an automated phone call after I’ve done more than 30 minutes of productive work after midnight.
“Hi! RescueTime has a message for you: What the hell are you doing working so late! Go to bed!”
The phone call works because of the timing. Phone calls during the day, whatever, kind of annoying, actually. But a phone call in the middle of the night is really jarring, no matter what. It freaks me out. “What the hell? Who’s calling me? What’s wrong!? Oh yeah, It’s just me working too late.” Even though I snap back to reality and realize what it is pretty quickly, it’s just enough of a jolt to knock me out of the hole I’ve fallen down.
It’s scary, and that’s why it works. 😈
You can set the specific details to suit your needs. This is your rational self sending a message to your preoccupied future self, so adjust the message accordingly (My personal message is more aggressive than the one in the template 🙂 ).
Step Two – Option A: Use this Zap on Zapier
Hope that helps those of you with workaholic tendencies spook yourself into less long nights! Happy Halloween y’all!
Email is a fast and convenient way to communicate with coworkers and family. When email first became popular, it was because the recipient could respond to the email at their leisure rather than right away. More urgent matters could be managed with a telephone call.
However, checking and replying to email has replaced simple and quick calls to those same people. It has become the standard for urgency given the immediacy of delivery. Where once it helped to expedite work production at the office, it now consumes over a quarter of an average employee’s work week according to McKinsey Global Institute. Some companies are trying to reduce time spent reading emails by including email management in their time management workshops. Others have gone as far as axing company email altogether. And then there are those who either see no problem or have given up and accepted it as a necessary evil.
Email Overload and Addiction
Our internal data at SaneBox shows a twenty percent increase over the past few years of the amount of unimportant emails in the average user’s mailbox. Workers are copied on emails that do not require them to take action, the amount of promotional and cold sales emails continue to rise, and people are sending emails when they should be calling or saying nothing at all. Reading and deciding what to do with these emails is an incredible drain on workers’ productivity. The Danwood Group study published in 2015 reported that it takes approximately a minute to process the email interruption and return to the flow of work. This interruption dramatically decreases productivity.
Studies are being conducted around the globe relating to the amount of stress induced by email access. In the U.S., study participants wearing heart rate monitors were discovered to have reduced stress when given limited access to emails. This same study also showed that participant focus on tasks was higher in the group that had limited access to emails as opposed to those that had unlimited access. This shows an absolute correlation between unlimited access to emails and decreased physical health.
France recently passed a law that included a right to disconnect amendment. This portion of the new labor law was designed to help workers achieve a work-life balance and separation by urging companies to limit the amount of work done during off hours and at home. Workers worldwide are struggling to balance their private and professional lives because of technology, and now France has potentially set a precedent for other countries to follow.
But are policy changes the best course of action? And whether they are or not, what good will future regulations do to help us today?
Strategies to Help
For those in search of a more efficient, less stressful, and overall better email environment today, look no further than these strategies.
- Don’t get stuck doing email—use the Scan-Block-Ask system to keep yourself honest. Its steps include a) scanning for urgent items that need attention now, b) establishing scheduled blocks of time to tackle less urgent and less important email, and c) when you get sucked into your inbox, asking yourself if that’s the best use of your time l right now.
- Notify colleagues and clients that you value their communication but have to limit responding to emails to certain times of day. Stick with that time. By establishing and sticking to a schedule, you help others break the horrible habit of using email for urgent matters. In general, responses required within an hour should get a phone call or face-to-face visit; those requiring a response within a few hours can be addressed via text or instant message; and those needed within 12 to 24 hours can be emailed.
- Turn off mobile and desktop notifications to save yourself from continuous distractions. If you don’t know that you received an email, you can remain focused on the task at hand. If you hear that ding or see that push notification, your brain will be pulled in a different direction even if you don’t act on the new message at that time. Over the course of a day, these disruptions add up.
- Move your email app off of your phone’s home screen. As with notifications, simply seeing the app icon can distract you or incite you to check your email. Removing the visual cue, like removing junk food from the house when you are dieting, can prevent you from checking email out of boredom, habit, or mental weakness.
- Stop responding to every email. Not every message needs an answer and most do not need an answer right now. Some emails are sent to you for informational purposes only while many others are spam, bacn, or solicitations. Aside from saving time by writing fewer emails, sending fewer emails has the amazing added benefit of receiving fewer (and therefore reading fewer) emails.
- Adopt an email system with automated and intelligent filtering. This can be one that you create yourself by setting up rules within your client or can be an email program. When only important emails arrive in your inbox, you save an incredible amount of time and boost your clarity and focus.
- Keep yourself accountable by tracking and even preventing your time in email. We at SaneBox have been big fans of RescueTime for a while now for this reason. Anecdotally, it’s easy to feel that you are spending too much time in email, but seeing actual numbers and trends over time is impactful in a way that prompts better choices. Beyond the data, blocking distractions is paramount for times of weakness that occur when you need to get things done.
- Remember that it’s important to disconnect to recharge. Constantly being plugged in can have emotional, physical, and psychological consequences that compound over time. When you are stressed, distracted, and overwhelmed, your work-life happiness and output suffer. Take time for yourself, away from digital devices, to reset and recharge. Your sanity and your career will thank you for it.
Recognizing that you have an addiction to email is the biggest step in breaking the cycle. Adapting your work and off-work habits can help reduce your stress, increase your focus, and achieve a better work-life balance. Adopting an email management strategy also will help you save time.
There are many other ways to eliminate email addiction and increase your focus and productivity at work—which strategies are missing?
Remember when email used to help your productivity, not hurt it? SaneBox gets you back to those days again with intelligent filtering, one-click unsubscribe, follow-up reminders, and much more. Start your 14-day free trial today, then enjoy an additional $20 off for being a member of the RescueTime community. Clean up your inbox »
We just made some exciting new updates to the RescueTime IFTTT channel. You can now use weekly summary reports in your Recipes and log offline time from other apps (like your Google Calendar).
IFTTT is a service that connects hundreds of applications via simple connections that let one application respond to actions in another. You can use the RescueTime IFTTT channel to connect to hundreds of apps to automatically log time, export data for reports, respond to alerts, and add daily highlights. You can even use it to control your FocusTime sessions!
Here are some of the things you can do:
Log Offline Time
This is something a lot of people have asked for. You can connect your Calendar (or any other app that exports events with a start / stop time) and automatically log offline time.
Export Weekly / Daily Summaries
Every day at midnight a new summary is available with details of your time. Use this to construct your own custom email reports, log time in a spreadsheet, or update a personal dashboard.
FocusTime just got a LOT more powerful. Mute your phone, or post a do-not-disturb note on your calendar. You can also control FocusTime from other apps. Like starting a FocusTime session when you park your car at the office in the morning.
Respond to Alerts
Whenever your RescueTime alerts are triggered, you can respond by taking an action in another app.
Log Daily Highlights / Action Datapoints
Daily Highlights and Actions help you keep track of your accomplishments. Any trigger from another app can automatically log a highlight or action in RescueTime.
Check out the RescueTime channel page on IFTTT.com to learn more. There are literally thousands of possibilities. Please let us know your favorites in the comments!
Ask a dozen people what makes someone creative and you’ll probably hear answers like cleverness or mental acuity. But researchers Brian J. Lucas and Loran F. Nordgren of Northwestern University have been digging into what really makes creative people tick.
What they’re finding is that the most creative people – the folks with the truly novel and useful solutions – are the ones that don’t give up easily.
Persist, and then persist again
Lucas and his team are promoting persistence as a principle pathway to creative performance. There’s a load of historical research and anecdotal evidence to support this belief. Everything from Edison testing thousands of theories before inventing the light bulb to Csikszentmihalyi’s introduction of the concept of flow.
The researchers at Northwestern wanted to see if people actually recognize the value and importance of persisting when idea generation gets difficult. Their basic hypothesis: “People generally underestimate the value of persisting on creative tasks.”
After a series of 7 cleverly constructed creativity experiments, a few things are clear:
- People perceive being creative as difficult.
- The best ideas are often produced later rather than early in the creative process.
- People probably abandon the creative process before coming up with their best ideas.
Creativity: The generation of ideas and solutions that are novel or useful to a given situation.
On being creative…
Before we take a look at the studies and results, let’s examine creativity. Specifically, why it’s generally considered difficult to “be creative?”
The researchers identified two attributes of creativity that are illustrative of its perceived difficulty, and I think these are both fantastically insightful.
First, creativity is a two-stage, iterative mental process. In stage one, we scour our long-term memory for anything associated with whatever it is we’re trying to be creative about. In the second stage, we apply, break apart and reform associated knowledge to form new ideas.
People move back and forth between memory and idea generation in an attempt to create something novel and useful. If you think about it for a bit, there are four logical outcomes to this process.
- Booo… We fail, and no association is made.
- Yawn… We come up with something commonplace – an idea that lacks novelty.
- Meh… We make an association, but it doesn’t prove useful. (Remember our definition? We’re looking for creative solutions that are novel or useful!)
- Eureka! We’ve come up with a cool, new idea.
This is a grueling mental process. It’s hard to be creative because of all the false starts and unsatisfactory ideas. Perseverance is necessary to win the numbers game!
The second attribute pointing to the difficulty of creativity is that, unlike defined processes and procedures, it’s really tough to verbalize your progress toward a creative goal.
The example that Lucas and his team used to illustrate this is a math problem. Try adding two large numbers together. It’s pretty easy to figure how close you are to having the correct answer, right?
Not so for creative challenges. Think of the last time you were trying to come up with a creative solution for some problem. At any point, could you tell someone how close you were to a breakthrough moment of insight?
Probably not. That progress isn’t really something you can measure.
And because of these attributes, it’s easy to think that being creative is hard. The researchers at Northwestern put that perception to the test to see if we can be more creative if we keep working when others might give up.
I won’t go into each of the 7 studies in detail. I think the first experiment is the most informative. Also, the paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology is available on Lucas’ website and it’s well worth a read.
Lucas and Nordgren invited participants to take 10 minutes to generate creative answers to a simple question. All they were asked to do was come up with a list of things to eat and drink at Thanksgiving.
After coming up with a list of ideas, each participant was asked to estimate how many more ideas they could make with a subsequent “persistence phase.” The researchers then compared the estimates with the actual number of new ideas produced.
The participants came up with nearly 22 initial ideas on average. When asked how many new ideas they could come up with if they kept working, the average answer was 10 more ideas. Interestingly, their predictions for performance in the persistence period was much lower than the number of ideas actually produced (15).
And here’s the coolest part…
The researchers ran all the ideas past another group of test subjects to determine which were the most creative. This shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point, but the participants came up with their best ideas when asked to keep going.
This shows us that:
- People tend to undervalue persistence.
- We are at our most creative when we keep working on a problem, even after we think we have all the answers.
- People who give up too soon or too easily miss out on their best ideas.
It’s worth noting that time has a very real cost. Sometimes – be it in school, work or with a personal project – it’s more important to be finished than to be creative.
But understanding that we tend to shy away from persevering on difficult challenges because it’s just plain hard to come up with new and useful ideas is a valuable bit of information. Knowing this, we can make conscious, deliberate decisions about when to accept an idea as good enough and when to go back to drawing board in search of more creative solutions.
The next time I’ve come up with a new and creative idea, I’m definitely going to pause and wonder if I’m leaving my most creative ideas on the table. And then maybe I’ll set a timer for ten minutes to see if I can come up with something even better.
I recently had the chance to kick the tires of ProWritingAid, an online automated editing service. I rarely get to write product reviews, but the timing on this one worked out perfectly. Particularly given all the just-been-finished NaNoWriMo manuscripts floating around out there.
If you’re one of the many first-time NaNo winners gazing bemusedly at your 50,000-word achievement and wondering, “Now what?” – editing is a fine answer. Editing, however, requires a very different skillset than what’s needed to write an original draft. Luckily for us, there are automated tools that can help us along the way.
What is ProWritingAid?
If you’re reading this website, there’s a good chance you’re interested in leveraging technology to quantify and improve your productivity. RescueTime does that by watching how you spend your time and providing tools on how to use each valuable minute more effectively. ProWritingAid works to provide a similar technological edge, applying rigorous proofing algorithms to written works.
Unlike in-line contextual editors you may be used to with Microsoft Word, Google Docs and Scrivener, ProWritingAid doesn’t track words as you produce them. Instead, it offers a series of tests that may be applied to a finished manuscript, work-in-progress, business report — anything written, really.
Most of us take things like spell-checkers and contextual grammar editors for granted in our word processor of choice. We see a word underlined in red and right click to correct it. They’ve worked that way for decades.
ProWritingAid will definitely edit for spelling and grammar, as well. However, the program is intended to do more than simply correct writing mistakes. It is also meant to teach; improving a writer’s skill by identifying overused words and phrases, highlighting cliché passages and generally improving grammar and diction.
Features I liked
There are a ton of editorial tests – called “Checks” – available in ProWritingAid. And both the online and plug-in versions allow writers to mix and match features into a more comprehensive, customized “Combo Check.”
I’ll talk about the online app versus the plug-in installations in a little later, but first I wanted to talk about the editing tools I found most valuable.
Hands down, my favorite tool is the Repeat Words & Phrases report. We all have our little pet verbs and descriptive phrases, right? Those comfortable writing crutches we lean on when we get stuck. This is a great tool to ferret out those overused passages.
I’ve got one of these writing tics that shows up in first drafts of my fiction. My characters all seem to need something to do with their heads, and each one of them comes to the apparently universal decision to nod like a lunatic when speaking. Each time I read one of my early drafts I am greeted by a cast of bobble-heads.
The Repeat Words & Phrases report alone is probably worth giving ProWritingAid a look.
The Writing Style Check is probably most analogous to traditional word processing tools Microsoft Word’s contextual grammar checker. You know, the green, underlined reminder-bits we get every time we try to use a semicolon?
The report seems comprehensive, and it’s interesting to see all those passive verbs and repetitive sentence structures bundled up into a single report.
I have a reasonable grasp on grammar and my drafts are usually pretty clean. Even so, it’s educational to see where I’m leaning on adverbs a bit too heavily or using needlessly complex wording.
The system also makes suggestions to improve readability, and I agreed with the recommendations more often than not. For me these suggestions usually showed up as unnecessary qualifiers like “very” or “some.” I’m curious to see how the mileage varies for other users. If you try out the app, definitely let me know in the comments.
Choose your editing experience
ProWritingTools is available online as a browser-based application, and also as plugin for Microsoft Word or Google Docs.
I tested the app using a premium account and the interface is a straightforward, predictable web utility.
Understanding the results generated by each of the editing checks was also relatively simple. There is a user manual available on the web site, but I didn’t need to use it. Perhaps it’s a valuable tool for interpreting report results if you don’t have a lot of experience with editing and grammar.
Most of my work with ProWritingAid happened in Google Docs. The add-on was simple to install in both Google Chrome and Safari. Again, the interface was intuitive. I tried to duplicate everything I did in Google Docs on the website version. Although the interface was different, I didn’t notice any variations in the meat of the reports.
The one add-on I couldn’t test was ProWritingAid’s Microsoft Word integration. That plug-in is only available for Windows versions of Word, although not through a lack of interest by the developers. The Mac OS versions of Word simply don’t support the creation or installation of add-ons.
Another tool in the toolbox
Don’t expect manuscript editing software to shore up a weak plot or fact-check statistical figures. That’s why developmental editors have jobs. However, content editing and proofreading are laboriously detail-oriented tasks. I think ProWritingAid is a reasonable way to ease that editing burden.
I believe the tool is best suited for newer writers, or writers without a high degree of confidence in their prose and grammar. That said, established writers might benefit from testing a chapter or two to identify overused word or phrases. Or to see if they’re slipping into bad habits.
If you think you might enjoy something more robust than your stereotypical spell-checker, ProWritingAid might be a great place to start.
If you’re interested, head over to ProWritingAid.com and check out their free or premium versions.