In the era of information overload it’s easy to forget that the best wisdom often comes from conversations, not content. (Except the posts on this blog, of course!)
This was the thought that led author, writer, and podcast host Srinivas Rao to start interviewing every interesting person that would talk to him.
Since starting his podcast, The Unmistakable Creative, Srinivas has interviewed over 700 people from all walks of life—from bank robbers to performance psychologists to authors and entrepreneurs. Along the way, he’s uncovered patterns of how the most focused and successful people spend their days.
In advance of his new book, An Audience of One, Srinivas shared some of the best advice he’s collected over the past decade, from why intensity of focus beats endurance to why he writes all his emails before opening his inbox, and how to prioritize downtime and stop working when you’ve done “enough”.
The productive magic of flow and why intensity beats endurance
We’ve written before about the productivity boosting magic of Flow—that special place where your skills are perfectly in tune with the challenge at hand and answers just come to you effortlessly.
In fact, in Steven Kotler’s book on the subject, The Rise of Superman, he found that top executives are 500% more productive when they’re in a state of flow than when they aren’t.
And while Flow is an exciting yet elusive state of mind, according to Srinivas, it all comes down to being able to focus intensely.
“What matters more than the length of time you put into a thing is actually the intensity of focus. Because if you have an intensity of focus you can actually reduce the amount of time spent doing it to get the same or better results.”
In this way, Flow and intense focus are the same thing. Both allow us to do more work in less time and are immensely satisfying. And while the idea of “finding Flow” might sound like workplace mysticism, we all understand the idea of being focused. But this doesn’t mean we know how to do it properly.
“Most people in today’s world suck at intensity of focus. That’s mostly because we don’t realize it’s something that has to be trained.”
“We’re inundated by distractions and dealing with a world of problems that are relatively new. In 1999, no one was concerned with constantly checking email or becoming addicted to social media.”
Today, if we want to see those benefits that come from Flow and intense focus, we need to be able to work for long stretches of time uninterrupted by the thousands of different things all competing for your attention.
Here’s a few ways Srinivas suggests we do this:
1. Commit to single-tasking
“How we get to that place of flow where we can amplify the intensity of focus is by single tasking,” explains Srinivas. “You can’t possibly intensify focus if that focus is scattered across three different things.”
This could mean closing or hiding other tabs, or only opening the file you’re working on and committing to a set period of time working on it. However you do it, it’s smart to realize that while you might have hundreds of things you want to get done in a day. You’ll only get through them if you take it one task at a time.
2. Be ultra clear on what you’re trying to accomplish
Another quote Srinivas shares from Kotler’s book is that “when you’re not clear on what it is you’re trying to accomplish ever day, it’s going to be a disaster.”
To get into a state of intense focus, you need a goal and a means to reach it. So for example, if you wake up and say “I’m going to write,” this doesn’t really give you anything to focus on intensely.
Instead, intensity comes from clarity and specificity:
“Nothing offers more clarity than putting a number in front of your goal. All of a sudden it’s very clear whether you accomplished it or not.”
3. Use tools to block distractions
Srinivas is an active RescueTime user, and uses the app to help see when he’s reached a level of intense focus. However, he also explains how you can use it to block distractions and protect that focus.
“I think RescueTime exists because we’re dealing with a world of problems that didn’t exist in the past,” he explains.
Along with RescueTime, Srinivas suggests finding tools that give you less chances to be distracted. If you’re writing, this might mean using a distraction-free word processor like iA Writer, Calmly writer, Bear, or FocusWriter. Or simply using something like HiddenMe to hide all the icons on your desktop.
Why mornings are the best time to find intense focus
It’s all well and good to talk about Flow and intensity of focus. But how do they actually fit into your life?
Most of us are immensely busy. We have commitments and deadlines and people asking for our attention all day long.
“Reaching that intensity of focus is all about finding space and time for it, and that’s hard to do if your day is literally back-to-back meetings. And for many people in the modern working world, that is very much the case.”
To find Flow in our everyday lives, Srinivas explains that we need to be especially diligent about protecting what focused time we do have:
“For the most part, with very rare exception, almost all of us are at our best early in the morning.”
“There are people who are night owls and are wired differently. But if you look at all of the science, early in the morning our willpower is at its highest. We haven’t had the opportunity to deplete it with all of the hundreds of tiny decisions we need to make like what to wear. What route to take to work. What to eat for breakfast.”
“If you log into Facebook first thing in the morning, every link you click on and every article you read is a decision that’s naturally eroding your willpower. If you start your day this way, you’re going to feel distracted all day long.”
How we spend our mornings primes us for how we’ll spend the rest of our day. Whether that’s Facebook or emails or meetings. When we let ourselves get distracted early on, we put our brain in context-switching mode, rather than focused mode.
“I think what people generally find is that by setting aside an earlier hour in the day for focus and flow, that carries into the rest of their day.”
This isn’t to say that this is an easy proposition for most people.
“For the average person, the first three hours of your day are absolute chaos. And I’m speaking as someone without kids,” says Srinivas.
“There’s this joke that if Tim Ferriss had kids, all his routines and productivity hacks would just shut down. But the truth is that no matter what, you have to find that time that’s yours.
“Look at someone like Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work. He has a family and has still managed to write multiple books and run a popular blog, all while working as a university professor.
“That kind of workload is unfathomable for most of us. But he understands the power of intensity of focus and finds time for it.”
Why he writes all his emails before opening his inbox
And even then, there is no guarantee that you’ll be able to find Flow.
“There’s this idea that the most productive people are somehow just able to block out distractions. That’s simply not true. We’re all distracted. I get distracted every single day.”
One of the most interesting ways Srinivas protects himself from distraction is in his approach to email. Rather than check in periodically, Srinivas will keep a list and write all his emails before going into his inbox.
“I try to plan out all the emails I’m going to send so I know why I’m in my inbox. So often, people just jump into email out of default. They’re not deliberate decisions. So I will say ‘these are all the emails I need to send today’ and I’ll even write those emails before I go into my client. And that speeds up the time I spend in your inbox.”
How to stop when you’ve done “enough”
The trap of talking about “intense” work and productivity hacks like getting up early is that it naturally leads people to assume they should simply be doing more.
But the goal of increasing your focus and intensity is so you can do more work in less time.
However, as Srinivas (and others we’ve interviewed) have all explained, where we fail is in not being able to say we’ve done “enough.” You can’t sprint 10km. And working in an intense way means needing self-imposed constraints.
“When it comes to productivity, there’s a law of diminishing returns where at a certain point, the output you’re going to get from your efforts, despite the same effort, is going to decrease,” says Srinivas.
The problem isn’t just that this time is being used for less productive tasks. But that without doing a chunk of intense work, we never feel like we’ve done enough. Rather than work in intense bursts, we spend 8+ hours a day slowly working through our to-do lists, reading emails, and distracting ourselves with news and social media.
As Srinivas explains, this kind of work—long hours of excessive consumption—limits our ability to do creative thinking.
“Many neuroscientists talk about the Default Mode Network—a state of our brain that happens when we’re bored or daydreaming. That’s often where many of our creative breakthroughs happen. But these days few of us even get to experience it.
“One of the best examples he gives comes from Gay Hendricks, the author of The Big Leap. When asked his best piece of advice, Gay told him that everyone should set time aside each day to disconnect and contemplate what he calls the “genius questions.
“He credits 15-20 minutes of meditation a day as why he’s been able to grow and sell multiple companies. Now, if these are the outcomes from taking more downtime? Why are we so obsessed with productivity?”
Or even better, Srinivas says we should follow Brian Tracy’s advice: For success in life, turn things off.
“In a world that’s increasingly digital, one of the great ways to enforce downtime is to use analog tools. Write by hand. Read paper books. Slow the pace.”
“Downtime is often where we get the most ROI on our thinking.”
Intensity of focus only happen when you’re excited about the work you’re doing. And the greatest take away from all of Srinivas’ advice was simply to look for that excitement in the process.
“Ryan Holiday once told me that success gives you the conditional opportunity to try again. But I think most people fail to realize that. They think ‘Oh, when I get the book deal, I’m going to be happy.’ But fail to realize that the ultimate reward is that you get to keep doing this thing you love so much.”
“It’s rarely, if ever the outcome that provides you with the reward. It’s almost always the process.”
To follow up with Srinivas’ work, follow him on Twitter and check out his books and podcast on The Unmistakable Creative. His latest book “An Audience of One” explores how to focus on yourself and boost your productivity and happiness by doing the creative work that excites you.