For my entire life, I have had difficulty focusing and retaining information. Like many others, I live with a form of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) — specifically a variation called Inattentive Presentation (ADHD-I). But while I could write an entire series on these struggles, today I wanted to share some things I have found to be beneficial for anyone who battles any type of attention issues.
Chances are at some point you’ve experienced a time where it feels like there is an endless backlog of things to accomplish. Whether it’s messages to respond to, projects to work on, or a shiny new thing to play with, it can be hard to focus. If we don’t keep these distractions in check, they can quickly lead us to burn out.
But don’t fret — it’s not all doom and gloom! There are ways to push back. By being preventative and using various practices, routines, and useful tools, it can get easier to keep on track and limit the negative effects. I’ve by no means “cracked the code” — I’m constantly tweaking my routines and processes — but I’m at my happiest and most productive, when I’m doing these things.
Beyond a baseline of a healthy amount of sleep and regular exercise, I’ve found meditation to be the most helpful practice in clearing my mind — especially in the morning.
When I initially discovered meditation, it didn’t stick because I wasn’t tuned into the subtle ways it was affecting me. But around the end of 2017 when I was doing a yearly retrospective, I realized that when I had meditated regularly, I experienced more clarity, focus, and general happiness. I gave it another chance by setting a goal to meditate at least once a day for about a month. Before long, I was sold.
These days, using Calm (the meditation mobile app) is now a critical part of my day — so much so that if I haven’t meditated for even just a day or two, my mind starts to feel “foggy”. As a result, I generally have a harder time focusing and getting work done. When I am sticking to it, it has amazing knock-on effects.
✍️ Weekly Planning
The next thing I’ve found impactful is writing a weekly planning note or document at the beginning of each week where I spend time mapping out my plans and goals for the week ahead. I have a custom template for each of my note-taking apps (Notion, Evernote, Apple Notes, and Simplenote) that includes current projects, tasks, goals, schedule, and daily standups. Writing this doc at the beginning of each week (and most importantly, sticking with it throughout each week) has really helped me start the week on the right foot.
☕️ Morning Routine*
Having kids complicates routines (that’s an understatement), but it’s also important for your health to set (and stick to) a routine — especially a morning routine. Doing this can have a huge impact and be almost therapeutic.
There are many different opinions out there but after some trial and error, I’ve found a template that works for me. Without going into exhaustive detail about my entire routine, here’s an example:
- 🥱 Wake up (6:30-7:00am)
- 🧘♂️ 5-minute meditation exercise and/or journaling
- 📰 Daily news briefing while getting ready
- 👔 Make bed, wash up, get dressed, etc.
- 👨👩👧👦 Help get the kids out the door (by 8am)
…and continuing to work…
- 🚗 Drive to work, grab a coffee ☕️
- 🧘♂️ Before starting any work, I meditate for 10-15 minutes
- ✅ Write initial daily tasks list, standups, etc.
- 📬 Catch up on email and Slack, add tasks
- 👋 Say “hi” to team and start my work day
My recommendation: try something that you think will work for you and iterate on it!
🧠 Deep Work
If you’re in any type of creative field, you likely understand how beneficial it can be to have extended, uninterrupted periods of time to focus on a single project or task. Scheduling and sticking to times of deep work can provide a dedicated time to really focus in on something for without interruption.
Try blocking off some time in your calendar specifically for deep work, even if you don’t always use it. And of course because it’s so easy to get distracted by communications, sign completely out of Slack, e-mail, and messaging apps.
Note that sometimes inspiration comes spontaneously and then and there is the best time to harness the energy in the form of deep work, so be willing to shift things around when inspiration strikes!
🚧 Removing Distractions
Another thing I’ve done to set myself up for success is to proactively remove physical and digital distractions. In addition to meditation and keeping organized notes, I’ve found that grooming my phyiscal and digital spaces — the battle ground for my work — is also important.
Starting the day with a tidy workspace is a subtle and important reset for me. Because I am easily distracted, a clean desk and limited visual clutter helps remove additional distractions. I try to clean my desk at the end of each work day, but if I don’t get a chance, I’ll start my morning by decluttering.
I also try to block distractions from my peripheral vision. I have a large external display, my laptop, and a secondary external display set up in a way that blocks my peripheral vision from distractions. As much as I love my coworkers at Appleton Coworking, I need this separation to focus. 😁
Inevitably, things pile up throughout the day, so I also try to remove any physical distractions from my desk, such as my phone, tablet, notebooks, etc. until they are required. Side note: when I started doing this, I was amazed at how often I instinctively reached for my phone, even when absolutely unnecessary.
After years of going to war with notification settings on various devices, operating systems, and apps, I decided to try turning do-not-disturb on on my work computer. This was so freeing that I ended up trying it on all of my other devices sometime in 2018-19 and haven’t looked back. It’s not a perfect system — occasionally I will miss a call or a text — but it is much easier than going through app-by-app to turn on/off notifications, only to have all of that work wiped out when an app is updated, re-installed, or when I switch devices.
Distraction-Free Home Screen/Desktop
In the spirit of limiting visual distractions, all of my devices (from Mac to iPhone to iPad to Android phone) have a clean home screen/desktop and solid black/almost-black backgrounds. Not only does this limit visual distraction but as a bonus, it is beneficial for battery life.
And because dark mode is all the rage right now, I have all of my devices set to dark mode (unless I’m walking outside in the sun). Some apps don’t necessarily look as good in Dark Mode, but I have found it gives me less eye strain. 😎
On Mac, I use an app called HazeOver, which dims everything on my screen(s) other than the currently used app. Often I’ll have a dozen or more apps running and only the app I’m currently working on is visible — all other apps fade into the background. It’s made a “non-dimmed” desktop almost unusable.
Bartender is another Mac utility app that lets you clean up your Mac’s menu bar by letting you organize, group, and hide icons. I use it mostly to save room but also to avoid visual distractions via notifications.
And last but certainly not least, I almost always have music playing in the background. I’ve been a musician for almost 25 years, so music is in my bones. The only problem I have with listening to it is that I have a habit of dissecting music instead of just listening to it, which is not usually a good habit to have if you pair music with deep work.
What I’ve learned to do is harness the power of music’s many varieties and listen to whatever aligns best with the task at hand. Deep focus tasks call for calm, ambient music without vocals, whereas exploration and discovery call for hip-hop, folk, rock, and generally more energetic music.
Here are some of my go-to’s on Spotify, on the scale from focused and calm, to more energetic music for exploration and discovery:
How do you find focus?
What types of things do you do to focus on what matters most to you? Are there things you try to stay away from? I’d love to hear from you — after all, it’s all about improving, little by little!
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading!