Steve Jobs‘ Focus Routine and 10 More Tips to Eliminate Distractions and Find Your Flow
Distractions kill productivity like nothing else.
For starters, they are time wastes. Let’s say you check email 50x per day, scroll through your Instagram feed 10x, have a glance at your phone 80x, and watch YouTube videos 3x per day. Even if you give only ten seconds, on average, to every distraction, the time adds up to at least an hour or two every day. That’s an hour or two every day that could be used for reading, journaling, meditating, or spending time with your family.
Distractions pull you out of flow, which is the most productive state human beings can operate in. Flow requires intense concentration over an extended period. If you get distracted every couple of minutes, you can forget about ever entering this highly productive state.
Distractions also penalize you via something called attention residue, a term coined by Sophie Leroy to explain why switching attention is so costly: “People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task.” It takes your brain time to “forget” about the last task or project before it can fully concentrate on the new one. That’s why you’re experiencing poor performance on the next task, as Leroy describes. The more often you switch between tasks and projects, the more attention residue you will experience, and the more your productivity will suffer.
Every interruption – every phone call, text message, email alert, push notification, glance at Facebook, or chit-chat with a co-worker – takes your attention off the task and introduces a new target for your attention. You then need to use energy and willpower to pull your attention back to the task. And even if you get back to the task quickly, a residue of your attention lingers with the object of distraction and your performance has just been reduced.
The recipe for minimizing time-wasting and maximizing productivity is to work deeply (adapted from Cal Newport’s idea of deep work), which means to:
- Work with full effort and full focus
- …on a single task
- …for an extended period
- …free of distractions
To minimize time-wasting and maximize productivity, you need to focus hard, while ruthlessly eliminating distractions and interruptions. Here are eleven tips to help you do that.
1. Steal Steve Jobs’ Focus Routine
In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson writes that Jobs had a kind of focus routine. It was straightforward: He would close his door (both literally and metaphorically) and not let anyone in. He completely shut out the rest of the world.
Isaacson writes, “Steve was very, very strict about filtering out what he thought of as distractions. People would come to him with all sorts of problems — legal problems, personnel problems, whatever. And if he didn’t want to deal with it, he would not focus on it. He’d give you sort of a blank stare. He would not answer, he wouldn’t answer email…He would pick four or five things that were really important for him to focus on and then just filter out — almost brutally — filter out the rest.”
Filter out the non-essentials. Close the door and shut out the rest of the world.
2. Remove Distraction Triggers (or Increase Barriers)
As I explain in detail in this article, every object in your environment primes a specific goal or behavior within you. Each object triggers you to think or act in certain ways. Smelling cookies can trigger food cravings. Hearing kids screaming can trigger anger or compassion. Seeing a Facebook icon can trigger the urge to check social media.
When designing your environment, remove any objects that could trigger distraction within you. If you can’t remove them, at least increase the barriers to giving in to the distraction – e.g., put the phone in airplane mode and move it to another room.
Here are some specific ways to do that:
- Block distracting websites and apps (I recommend using FindFocus or Cold Turkey)
- Delete distracting apps on your smartphone
- Delete games on your devices
- Hide the remote control for the TV or close the doors of the television cabinet (if you have one). Or move the TV somewhere you don’t see it all the time.
- Better yet, get rid of your television completely
- Install a timer that automatically turns off Wi-Fi at specific periods of the day (or at night)
- Get rid of the bookmarks bar in your browser
- Install an extension that displays a blank page instead of thumbnails when you open a new tab (I use Empty New Tab Page in Chrome)
- Delete all or most quick launch icons from your taskbar (right-click them and “unpin from taskbar”)
- Move all or most quick launch icons on your desktop to one folder (I called mine creatively “DESKTOP”)
- Turn off your phone and put it in another room
3) Manage Your Senses
Some people do their best work in coffee shops. Others get overstimulated by the sounds, sights, and smells and can hardly focus at all.
Figure out what sense stimulations work best for you and double down on those. If you get distracted by noise, wear noise-canceling headphones. If you do your best work while listening to heavy metal, go for it. Think about your five senses – sound, touch, sight, smell, taste – and eliminate what distracts you.
4) Train Other People
Colleagues, family members, friends, or neighbors can be interrupters. The best way to “stop” them is to “train” them. Set some ground rules and communicate them. Tell them you have a deep focus block between 8 am and 10 am during which you prefer as little communication as possible.
Or wear a “Do Not Disturb” sign. You can literally make a sign and wear it around your neck like a necklace. Or hang up a sign on your office door. Or use the next tip.
5) Wear Headphones
Wearing headphones is like wearing a “Do Not Disturb” sign. It communicates, “Hey, I’m busy right now. I’m focused. Please come back later.”
6) Use a Collection Bucket
Let’s say you’re working intensely on an important project when all of a sudden, you have a great business idea or remember that you should call a friend or send an email. Rather than switch task and do that thing immediately, put it in your collection bucket and come back to it later.
I use the Notes app on my phone, good ole’ pen and paper, and a special word document as my collection buckets.
7) Use a Read-It-Later App
Let’s say you stumble across an article that sounds interesting and that you really want to read. What should you do? Well, you shouldn’t read it right on the spot because that would mean you’re switching tasks from whatever you’re doing right now. Instead, what you do is you click a button in your browser, which automatically saves your article to all of your devices so you can read it later. You can use apps like Pocket or Instapaper for this purpose.
8) Silence Your Phone (Or Better Yet, Put it Away!)
I’ve written about the detrimental effects of the mere presence (!) of smartphones in detail in a previous article. In that article, I made the recommendation to “use your phone as little as possible.” Why? “Because the less you use your phone, the less your social interactions will be negatively impacted, the less hunching and thus priming yourself into powerlessness you’ll do, the less your cognitive performance will be impaired, and the less anxious you’ll be.”
“In addition, you’ll also do less media multitasking, and you’ll spend less time on email, social media, and News websites, less time consuming video content, and less time playing addictive games, such as Candy Crush or Clash of Clans. And, of course, the less you use your phone, the more time you’ll have for stuff that really makes you happy, healthy, and more productive.”
If you want to be less distracted, put your phone on airplane mode or turn it off completely. Also, put it as far away from yourself as possible. Drawers are your friends.
9) Disable Notifications
I’ve written extensively about disabling notifications before (here and here), so I’ll keep this short. You do not need to get notified about the latest Kardashian scandal, Donald Trump’s latest tweet, or Sports results you don’t really care about. And you certainly don’t need to get notified every time you get an email or a new like or share.
Your best bet in regaining your time and focus is to go into your device’s settings and disable all notifications, except missed phone calls and new text messages. Also, only use vibration or sound when necessary.
10) Batch Email, Social Media, and Message Checking
If focus is your goal, don’t check email, social media, or text messages all day long. Instead, use batching (explained in this article). This means you check your email inbox only twice a day, at pre-determined times. Or you check social media only during work breaks. Or text messages only once every hour.
11) Re-Start With Timers and Implementation Intentions
Even if you follow all the tips in this article, you’ll still end up wasting time on social media, in your email client, on YouTube, or with your other favorite distraction. So what should you do after you’ve given in to a distraction and don’t feel like getting back to doing something smarter?
One trick is to set a timer and combine it with an implementation intention. Here’s what that looks like:
- After watching two more YouTube videos, I get back to working on my Master thesis.
- After five more minutes on Instagram, I start replying to emails.
This makes sure you get back on track sooner rather than later. It eliminates the “just one more minute” excuse that can end up costing you hours if you’re not careful.
P.S. Master Your Time Article Series
This is the third article in a mini series on mastering your time. We tackle three common issues people have with their time management. Each issue is tackled in a separate article.
- Wasting too much time - 13 Time-Saving Tips to Free Up Two Hours Every Day
- Saying yes to too many requests - How to Protect Your Schedule: Say “NO” With Strength Instead of Guilt
- Getting distracted too easily - Steve Jobs‘ Focus Routine and 11 More Tips to Eliminate Distractions and Find Your Flow