The Focus Course

Tips for a Focus-Friendly Environment for Big Projects

This is a guest post from Anthony Ongaro. Anthony runs a site called Break the Twitch along with a great YouTube channel. We met in Boise for the ConvertKit conference and thought it’d be fun to team up because he knows a lot about creativity and focus.

Over the last several months, I’ve been working through the biggest writing project I’ve ever tackled: writing a book. As I sit here in a coffee shop doing a final edit before it goes to the technical editor, I find myself reflecting back on how the heck I actually got here.

Although I am a writer, I hadn’t ever planned on writing an actual book. The sheer size of a Google Doc holding the entire contents of a book was terrifying, and the prospect of choosing what to work on in such a document during any particular day was even worse. (I’ve since learned that there are better tools than Google Doc for long-format writing, but I’ll leave that for another post.)

Now that I’m in the last stretch of completing the project, I’m seeing the results of certain changes I made throughout.

It all comes down to creating a focus-friendly environment. I did that in the following ways…

Avoid Daily Scope Creep

When I started out, my editor, Chantel, and I established a rough writing schedule that included writing a chapter each week, and then writing the next chapter the following week while going back and implementing edits from the week before.

Instead of just writing the next chapter, I’d get caught up in the previous chapter’s edits as I made my way down to the chapter I was supposed to be writing. After running in circles on some edits, I’d usually burn half of my focused energy before I even started writing the new stuff.

In a sense, we need to treat our own work like we might treat that of a client’s. If a client were to ask for additional work outside of the original scope that was already bid and paid, it would probably stress us out, right?

In the same way, it’s important to focus only on what we set out to do, even if it only takes less than two minutes to get something else done as well.

Each small distraction pulls us out of a potential flow and in this example, my writing output skyrocketed when I chose to completely ignore the edits in previous chapters and focus on just writing the next one. Keeping those tasks in separate silos was what helped me get it all done.

You can always come back and start editing once the writing is done if you have more energy, but only if you’ve completed the main task for the day. Don’t let the scope of what you plan on doing for the day get out of control.

As James Clear says: the only productivity tip you’ll ever need is to do the most important thing first each day. Sounds simple. No one does it.

Potential Distractions Are Still Distractions

While doing research about something I call the Twitch — unproductive, impulsive responses to discomfort — I came across a research study which suggests that even having our phone visible reduces our cognitive capacity for other tasks.

It wasn’t until I got into the final weeks of writing and editing the book that I realized just how real this phenomenon was. Even if the phone doesn’t vibrate, beep, or ring, I found myself wondering what I might have missed with the phone on silent.

If you are connected to the internet, there is always a possibility that a new email will come in and, as Shawn calls them, the “Just Checks” are a quick click away.

The biggest game changer for me in the book-writing process was removing the potential distractions (by literally turning off my wifi and deleting social media apps from my phone) so that the possibility of a notification being there was zero. My writing output doubled when I did this, along with using a Chrome browser extension called ‘BlockSite’ to block all social media between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., which are my writing hours.

Find What Works, Stick To It Until It Doesn’t

For a few weeks, I tried writing at home, with not much success. While it worked great for short-form content like blog posts, our (very adorable) dog Rocky did not approve of me staring at my laptop for five hours at a time.

Once I started getting out of the house, putting on some headphones, and sipping some fresh coffee, it got much easier for me to focus. I’m not a superstitious person, but once the flow came to me in a particular coffee shop, I kept going back, as often as possible to the same table. Hey, if it works, don’t fix it. If you’re not hitting your stride, try moving around, going to different spaces, and experiment until you find something that works.

Showing Up Matters More Than Feeling Inspired

Over the months of writing, there were only a handful of times where I felt inspired to write. Instead of relying on inspiration to come, I focused on writing at least 250 words per day, six days per week. Sometimes, I’d barely scrape by that 250 number, but other times, the inspiration would hit and I’d easily write 2,000 or more words.

These kinds of daily micro-habits are incredibly effective across the board, and I have a few notes about how to design a focus-friendly micro-habit like this that, if it’s writing you’re after, will eventually get a book written.

  • Small Enough To Avoid Resistance: You might think it more productive to target 1,000 words per day instead of 250, but I would venture to guess that you will both last longer and output more writing overall if you choose a lower number. It’s important to make the target low enough that on days when you’re simply not feeling it, you can still knock it out without too much pain or giving up all together. Just like doing push ups, if you try to do too many in a single day you’ll likely be too sore to do them again the next day. It’s the repetition that matters, thus the more attainable, the better.

  • Big Enough To Flow: While you might look at the above point and say, “Okay, I’ll target 50 words per day, then.” Well, not so fast. The daily target needs to be big enough that if the idea carries enough weight, it’ll start rolling on its own as you push it up over the hill. Your job is to push that rock to the top of the mountain every day and see if it keeps rolling down the other side. It’s that momentum which pulls you into a flow state and allows some crazy output levels to happen.

  • Build Routine, Not Goals: While having a larger goal of finishing the book on time was definitely a priority, it was actually building a routine of sitting down in a cafe for 4-5 hours every day, and creating the space to focus on the project by blocking social media and airplane mode-ing my phone. You’ll find that if you show up for the routine consistently and do the underlying tasks, the bigger goal will get done fast enough.

For more on why micro-habits are so effective, check out this video:

Most of the important work we do can’t be completed in a day, so creating a focus-friendly environment is essential to staying on task consistently and getting it done. You’ll find a ton of incredible strategies here on The Focus Course blog, but these ones are the few that made the biggest difference in my own book-writing process.

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