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how to concentrate

November 22, 20194 min read

A few years ago, I switched careers from market research consulting to software engineering. As a consultant, I was constantly in meetings, on email, and on our internal messenger app.

One of the first hurdles to learning software engineering is that it requires extreme focus; you have to unlearn your plugged-in, busy habits. This continues for the first few years on the job (if you’re lucky), before you start managing projects and people again, and your schedule is once again cluttered with meetings.

Nowadays, long periods of focus come easily to me, but I can remember when the draw of social media could distract me several times a day, or times I would procrastinate by snacking or texting or doing anything but the task I was intending to do.

Here are a few of the tricks I’ve used along the way:

Use Blocksite to remove distracting websites
When I’m trying to concentrate, I use a Chrome extension called Blocksite to block facebook, twitter, reddit, and any other sites I find myself addictively refreshing.

Turn off and/or lock your cell phone
When I want to focus for a few hours, I turn off my phone and put it in my backpack. Sometimes I still find myself reaching for my phone, but the delay time of having to reboot my phone helps curb addictive behavior.

If I’m really having trouble concentrating, I sometimes lock my phone in a lockbox that stays locked until a specified time (with no override). Sometimes, even locking my phone away for 5 minutes is enough to get me over the hump of starting a task, and by the time 5 minutes have passed I’ve forgotten about my phone completely, and can work a full hour.

Remove the time from your computer
I removed the time from the upper right corner of my work computer. When I’m in a distractible mood, it’s easy to check the time to see how much more time I have left. I also find that if I only have, say, 15 minutes before a meeting or event, I might use that to justify to myself why I can’t do any work in that time.

Instead, I set alarms before meetings so I don’t miss them. (Note that this probably works for me because I only have 1-2 meetings a week, so I can sometimes afford to ignore the time for a whole workday. I’m not sure this tip is a generalizably good idea).

Keep your monitor visible to others
Sometimes your motivation slips and you can’t rely on your discipline to ensure you follow focus techniques. A helpful backup I’ve found is to set up your work environment so your work is visible to co-workers or classmates. You’ll feel a little more awkward about procrastinating when you know people are watching, and that’s often enough motivation to keep at a task for just a few extra minutes, until your intrinsic motivation and excitement kick back in.

Pomodoro technique
Concentration is like a muscle. It’s easiest to increase your concentration by slowly increasing your reps. If you can only concentrate for 5 minutes at a time, try concentrating for 10 minutes before you take a break. At the end of the 10 minutes, be sure to reward yourself with a 5 minute break doing anything you like. It might feel inefficient to only work for 10 out of every 15 minutes, but you are training your discipline muscles and implicitly telling your brain: if you concentrate fully for a period of time, you will be rewarded. You’ll start to associate periods of concentration with good feelings. And you can continue increasing the length of your period of concentration until you can work for a few hours before needing a break.

Make a to do list
In the morning, when my brain is fresh and I’m excited about the day, I think about the day’s priorities and then make a to-do list. Having a to-do list helps ensure that I don’t let any one task drag out. I feel like I have deadlines for my tasks, because if I don’t finish them soon I won’t have time for my other tasks; otherwise a task might extend to fill the whole day, per Parkinson’s Law.