Improving concentration

Knowledge work in the current day is tricky. Access to information is faster than before, and yet that information has weakened our ability to concentrate.

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. - Herbert Simon

Traditional time management software is built from familiar paper methods. These can summarize the things that you should be working on, but don't do much to help you grow your productivity or concentration skills.

Watership Planner has designed a system that paces you throughout the day for maintaining optimal levels of concentration. Like a heart rate monitor helps cardio training by removing the guesswork of how hard you should be working, Watership Planner's set of flow commands help you establish a consistent level of concentration throughout the day.

What is the focus cycle?

What you want to do is concentrate completely on a single project for a set amount of time, then just before your momentum begins to dip, you walk away completely and do something else. The metrics from these sessions is available to you so that you have a number to compete with.

How to use the focus cycle

Step 1. Select a task as your focal point. This is to anchor your attention in case you wander away from it.

Step 2. Set an alarm for amount of minutes you want to concentrate. This varies depending on what you are doing.

Step 3. Commit towards complete concentration on this focal point until the alarm goes off. If during this focus period you lose track of your attention, the system has different functions to redirect your thoughts back towards the current focal point. Those are described in the chart below.

Step 4. Once the alarm goes off, you leave a bookmark for yourself and then you take a quick break. The breaks are essential for improving concentration. The bookmark is to jump you back into the state of mind you were in when you made it. Writers use this technique to overcome writers’ block.

Step 5. Repeat, switching projects when you feel blocked.

Going deeper through lowering cognitive load

In the 1960s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi began exploring why some artists would get so lost in their work that they would forget to eat and sleep. He was interested in what people looked like when they were at their best. He spent years researching diverse professionals such artists, jazz musicians, business leaders, surgeons, computer programmers, and athletes. He found that people across diverse fields all enter a similar state when they are at their best. His research led to the influential concept of flow.

He found that the most creative and productive people had elaborate routines that they followed on their big days. It wasn't because they weren't creative, but because they were freeing up their thinking to be more creative. They would have everything planned out to run through the day on autopilot: what to eat, what to wear, when to leave the house, what to do before starting, when to start, etc.

These rituals would free their minds from decisions that would take away from their attention. "Should I have the salad or the meatloaf?" "What salad dressings do they have?" "Where is the thousand islands?" "Who is this mystery person who can't get the ranch out without making a mess?" Etc. These innocent self-dialogues take away from other dialogues you could be having. Other dialogues such as ideas for the project you are stuck on. As you make decisions on something as simple as what to eat, your mind is pulling in as much information from your memory into your stream of consciousness.

If you have experienced flow, or being in the zone, you can feel the difference that an innocent interruption makes to your flow state of mind. This is why the rituals are so powerful, they make it easier to enter and maintain a flow state.

Watership Planner brings these ideas into the realm of knowledge work by freeing you from common thought interruptions.

Ways you get deeper

1. You free up thinking about the order in which you should do things due to time constraints and priorities. Watership Planner lets you set your priorities and time constraints, from which automatic scheduling will give you an optimal order to work on things. Notifications will come up if you go off course enough to cause a conflict so that you can address it. If you get interrupted, the automatic scheduler keeps up with you.

2. You free up thinking about what task you should work on next. Thinking about the big picture of how a project all fits together, what is most important, what depends on what, is very different than keeping track of a list details that you need to complete the current task. You wouldn't want to play a game of tennis while formulating a strategy for your tennis career. You want to immerse yourself in each one separately for a period of time. It takes a little bit of warming up on each of those tasks before you are at your best.

Watership Planner lets you plan a flexible schedule for the day. Preferably before the day start, when you are relaxed and can see things most clearly from a high level. Then during the day, it is easy to tell what you should be working on, you follow the plan. By having a set plan, you can now easily compare the day's interruptions or new opportunities with what you already have planned and make a more informed decision. You can visualize what the changes would do to your schedule instantly, and how they would impact your projects. From there, the decision is more informed, as you have all the information in one place. The quality of these decisions results in the quality of the life you live.

3. You free up thinking about what you were working on. You can free up memory spent on where you are in different projects, and what still needs to be done. Quickly find the place you were last at when you need to move around a project due to unexpected work, even if you haven't touched the project in weeks. Quickly see the comments that you've made on that project, the last task that you worked on for that project, and the next action for it.

4. You free up thinking about new ideas or the things you could be doing with your projects. Since you haven’t thought them out completely yet, by quickly logging some keywords about the idea, you will instantly bring yourself back into the state you were in when you first got the idea. By making a habit of quickly logging your ideas, you can later schedule time to go through them, picking out the ones that seem most promising. You can then schedule time to explore these completely.

Many creative people log their ideas so that they can quickly clear their minds and return their attention to what they were currently working on. If they didn’t log their ideas, they would be consumed by continuous thoughts about them. Instead, they are consciously choosing where they want their attention, where they want their unconscious thoughts to focus on. By staying focused on the same thing, you will naturally have more connections in that area. This is the difference between a dog and a lion. A dog is easily distracted, and will chase after whatever you throw or whatever noise it hears. A lion is intensely focused on a single gazelle among a sea of many, and keeps all of its attention on it until it has it.

5. You frees up thinking about when you should take a break or switch projects. These thoughts are especially dangerous because:

1. They knock you out of flow.
2. Unlike new ideas or even general day dreaming, they don’t contribute to you solving problems.
3. They limit your capacity to focus

Consistent Progress

Most opportunities in life are presented as projects that aren't urgent. We may spend time thinking about these opportunities, but usually without a system we are too used to our current schedule to be able to work on them. Instead we wait for the right timing.

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey explains that it is tempting to focus on problems, but that effective people aren't problem-oriented, they are opportunity-oriented.

By focusing on making a little bit of progress consistently, you can keep your projects healthy. Helping them grow, step by step. Consistent progress builds habits. Most people can focus on a single subject for about 30 minutes. 30 minutes a day is more than enough to keep your body in great shape. 30 minutes a day is enough to learn a new language. If you read 25 pages in 30 minutes each day, that is 9,125 pages over the course of a year.

Making it easy for you to pick up where you left off

According to a study by Gloria Mark, Ph. D, that involved closely observing office workers in high-tech firms for over 1,000 hours, workers spend an average of 11 minutes working on a project before they were interrupted. It then took them an average of 25 minutes to get back to their original task. It would take them a while to remember what they were working on. They would also end up getting distracted while trying to remember what they were working on.

You know how sometimes you will walk into a room and forget why you went in there? You scan the room, trying to find something that will jolt your memory. Sometimes this works, sometimes you get distracted with something else, and sometimes you forget altogether and leave only to remember later. Neuroscientists call this state of mind "default mode network." We usually refer to it as day dreaming or mind wandering. This state will prevent you from entering flow.

When we return from an interruption, or from a break, or from working on another project, we are very susceptible to entering “default mode network.” You have forgotten what next to do and so your mind begins searching. In this state, your unconscious could potentially find anything it recognizes as important. The first thing that comes that seems important enough will propel you further down that train of thought.

An easy way of preventing this from happening when you get interrupted is by leaving a reminder of what you were working on before you leave the room. For example leaving someone's business card on your keyboard could be a reminder to call them. You would come in, your mind spinning from the wreckage of the interruption. Usually here, your mind would unconsciously wander, maybe caught up clicking around the internet without really being aware of it. But instead you'd see the business card and instantly connect it with what were you going to do. "Oh yeah, I need to give this guy a call." It seems subtle, but this short circuits many bad habits we are trying to avoid.

Watership Planner keeps your place, not just in the current day, but within your project. With a single hot key, you bring up the Action Menu that has a history timeline of the current project you are working on. The last tasks you worked on, the next action in the project, and the next couple of actions after that. Anytime you wander and forget where you are, just bring up the action menu.

You can even add comments or reminders using the Action Menu without switching out of the current program you are in. All done using the keyboard.

Unconsciously effective

Much of being effective is collecting many different small good habits, until there is so much momentum that you unconsciously find yourself doing everything well. You can't even explain how you do it anymore. There are many things that can do wrong with a tennis swing, but every pro starts somewhere. Through training, they make many tiny corrections until it becomes more of a game of strategy. It is no longer about being able to make the ball go where you want it to, but about where best to make it go.

Imagine that one of your co-workers has a fascination with how others park their cars at work. She is kind of weird, she has charts and everything. Whenever you see her in the hallway, she will enthusiastically come up to you with a list of comments on your parking. "Great spot today, B-121, right by the elevator, margins with a 2 inch tolerance, a soft kiss of 5 micro newtons against front curb. Haven't you noticed how the clearance of your front bumper gives a 1:1 ratio between the ground and the curb, and the curb and your bumper?" These kinds of comments go on for weeks, you think nothing of it.

Then one morning, you realize that you notice something new about a parking space, something that you've never thought about before. Something that your co-worker would describe using her terminology. Terminology that you now can’t help but understand. "Hey, I know what she is talking about, that's a k-prized separator line alright."

Then another morning, there is construction on your road, and it is moving really slow. And the first thought in your mind isn't "I'm going to be late." No, now your first thought is "I'm not getting a B level space today."

You can't directly control what thoughts will appear in your mind. If I tell you not to think of an elephant, how well were you at preventing that thought from happening? The unconscious mind naturally makes connections, in this case "elephant" and "think." It then presents your conscious mind with thoughts based on these.

So in our parking lot scenario, your co-worker has influenced your thoughts. Without being able to prevent it, you now unconsciously begin parking to maximize the metrics that you've been thinking of. After all, you have been exposed to them so consistently that the unconscious has interpreted them as being important. The less you consciously think about it, the more you will naturally move to park in ways that will maximize those metrics.

By using the focus cycle, you are constantly bringing back into awareness what is really important to you.

You will find that you automatically think of new ways to maximize the metrics that you have created, without thinking about it. Just by measuring and reviewing, you are driving this information deeper and deeper. It is like studying for the same test, every day. You get to the point where you don't even need to think through the questions, your mind can't help but jump straight to the answers. So instead, you begin focusing on new depths, not just getting 100%, but doing it in under 20 minutes. Then in under 19 minutes.

Richard Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, described a similar method he used for solving problems. He would keep 12 or so of his favorite unsolved problems constantly present in his mind. They remain there in an unsolved dormant state, but he would continuously remind himself of them and think about them so that they wouldn’t fade away. Then whenever he heard about something related to his problems, he would try the information or associations out with his problems. Then every once in a while there would be a connection, things would click, and he would solve his problem.

Experience more Aha! moments

Psychologists have discovered that innovators all have the same pattern for reaching breakthroughs in their projects. First they work very hard to explore a subject, learning as much as they can about it. Then with this information, they clarify and crystalize the problem they are trying to solve. Then they then walk away from the problem. The breakthrough then usually comes when the unconscious is able to find the right connections between the information.

1. Explore the information
2. State the problem
3. Do something else
4. Eureka

Some people like to be "idle" for the eureka moment, however it isn't necessary. Simply switching to another project that is different enough will work. After all, for some, being "idle" involves playing an intense sport, studying a foreign language, or cooking. And yet for someone else these projects or hobbies would be stressful.

A single idea can change your life, change the lives of others. But you have to consistently work within that space to be able to recognize it.

When I feel difficulty coming on, I switch to another book I'm writing. When I get back to the problem, my unconscious has solved it. - Isaac Asimov, author of over 500 science fiction books and winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards.

Increased will power that doesn't break apart the next day

Most knowledge workers have artificial limits on their productivity. It is hard for them to push against them if they don’t have metrics to compare against. To them it feels like they are getting a bunch accomplished. Peter Drucker talks about how one of the first things an executive should do is to track their time. The reason is that we are very bad judges of time. Things that are fun and easy breeze by and things that are difficult seem like they take much more time than they really do. Once you begin tracking your time, you have a basic metric of where you time goes.

Most of us imagine athletes as having high levels of will power. They work hard, but they also work smart. They have methods for doing things that is setting themselves up for success. And yet we approach knowledge work in ways that an athlete would never make any progress with. Knowledge work has more variables than training and yet we use less of their advantages.

Most people get into work and begin letting unimportant interruptions dictate their work. When they have free periods they confront work based on their feelings. They let external deadlines guide them by creating increasing pressure on them. This works, but you need a manager guiding you, and you are losing out on the long term opportunities that are rarely urgent.

A swimmer would never train themselves by getting into the pool and then swimming until they no longer felt like it. The mind is too crafty. If your unwritten rule is to get out once you've had enough, your mind will repeatedly pound you with thoughts pertaining to your rule. Basically what you have asked your mind is: If there is a reason why I should stop swimming, let me know. You will probably swim with thoughts such as: "You are slowing down, have you had enough yet? Was that a leg cramp? Maybe you should get out so that you don’t make it worse. Aren’t you tired?"

Your body only has to answer "yes" once before you find yourself out of the pool. Using this strategy you quickly find that your unconscious, which loves patterns and routines, will always get tired at the same place. People train so that they overcome these plateaus.

So instead of focusing on the internal state, they focus on external metrics. Most people, in shape or out of shape, can swim 1 mile without stopping with proper training of 3 sessions weekly for 6 weeks. Each session has little tasks such as "Swim 2 laps, then rest for 8 breathes, then do another 2 laps." These gradually increase in intensity week by week. Now your mind is focused on following the structure.

The training gradually expands your limits to meet the new demands.

Time management can be approached the same way. Start with a routine, focus on following it through, and get the results. Then next week, push up the durations of your sessions to be a little longer.

Once you have stamina for working a full day without being distracted, increase the intensity by focusing on the metrics that you designed in the areas important to you. You can view your metrics any time with a single hot key. By concentrating on the work you turn off the internal dialogue and enter flow.

If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. - Bruce Lee

This is the program designed for the unique demands knowledge workers face when doing creative work

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