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Productivity Tip: Focus time

In order to stay productive, you must accomplish tasks. Unfortunately, as communications have sped up and become omnipresent, our focus has been sliced and diced to the paper-thin setting.

How many times a day does a calendar invite, Facebook update, email or Tweet send you off your task and down a rabbit hole? Remember when your car didn't have a phone, web browser and fart app in it? In this productivity tip I argue for a cone of silence and a focus on really doing -- by focusing.

The timer

As I mentioned last week, you should set a timer for each task on your to do list. I like 20-25 minutes, but I also acknowledge that there are tasks which might take more time. Just remember that your brain does get fatigued, which is why Pomodoros are set to 25 minutes each.

The cone

Hey, see that Do Not Disturb button on your iPhone's Settings? Activate that when you are going "periscope down." I'm not a huge fan of Apple's VIP email, so I tend to not use it to alert me to new emails from certain people. I'll handle email in some posts down the road; it's a huge topic in itself.

If you're on your Mac, did you know you can quickly turn off notifications from Notification Center? If you option-click a Notification Center icon in your menu bar, it will toggle on / off those pop-ups which may distract more than help.

Oh, and if you're worried about missing an appointment, here's how to avoid that anxiety: Set your timer to end with plenty of time before your next appointment. It seems simple, but if you are carving out actual focus time, you should first look at your calendar and ensure you have plenty of time. A quick glance to remind you about that meeting at 4 PM will allow you to set your timer at 3:30 for 20 minutes, giving you plenty of time to pick up and head down to the conference room. (Like email, calendar management is something we'll handle later; it's a huge topic.)

If you've shut down your iDevices from making noise and distracting you, and you've got notifications under control on your Mac, it's time to focus.

The workspace

Without getting too far afield of TUAW's main beat, I'll just say that a clean workspace, proper lighting and a healthy body will aid your focus time immensely. But what about music? What about full-screen apps? What about a program that locks you out of social networks for a specific amount of time?

Music

I personally don't recommend music if you really need to focus. Sound, on the other hand, can help you focus. An app like Naturespace not only tunes out distractions by providing a seamless, repeating audio landscape, but can also help keep your mind and body calm by simulating the outdoors. I listen to music when checking email or doing reviews, but when I have to focus on numbers or edit words, I find a simple audioscape blends into the background, helping my focus without a melodic hook to distract me.

Full-screen apps

Full-screen apps are all the rage since Apple started featuring them in Lion, but will they help you focus? In my opinion they will, if you let them. An application running in full-screen mode will obscure that funny desktop picture, and obliterates any dock alerts or menu items. So if you find those keep nagging at your mind, use full-screen mode. Still, it's easy enough to Cmd-Tab to another app and get distracted, so I'm not convinced this alone will enhance your focus time.

Social networks

Better still, particularly if you have Facebook on speed dial, is an application which will (virtually) smack your hand when you access your social sites -- or cut off access altogether, if you're incorrigible. If you are constantly wondering what George Takei is posting, or how many likes, favorites or retweets that clever thing you posted 30 minutes ago received, you may need something to force you to ignore the big social world out there for a while.

Since I do research online, I can't fall back to the old "turn off the internet" trick. Instead, I rely on apps to help center my attention -- and working at home introduces a whole raft of distractions we'll cover another time. There's a good roundup of "focus" apps here at Mac.AppStorm, but I want to point out two that can really help: Anti-social and Houdini.

Houdini will automatically hide applications after a set amount of time, and it's free. If you combine this with an app like Backdrop, which will hide your cluttered desktop (well, mine gets bad after a day's work but yet again this is a topic for another day), you'll soon find you have drifted into a focus zone. That's because whatever you're working on is the only visible application and desktop distractions are minimized. If you routinely have more than six applications open on your Mac at a time, this can be a timesaver versus going through each one and hiding the app (Cmd-H).

My favorite app for focus, besides my timer, is Anti-Social. It costs $15, but if you find yourself instinctively reaching for Twitter or Facebook in your browser everytime a pithy phrase pops into your head, Anti-Social will force you to stay focused. The application will block the social sites you specify for a set amount of time. If you want to tweet before the time limit (which you set) expires, you'll have to reboot your Mac! Of course, you could always use your phone, but let's pretend you're putting that away during focus time.

Easy does it

To prevent procrastination and ensure you're making time to focus, schedule time on your calendar. Turn off notifications. Turn on social blockers or enable a timer and stick with it. The simpler you make your cone of silence, the more likely you are to ensconce yourself in it at least once a day.

While there are times for multi-tasking, there are many more times where it behooves you to carve out focus time and stick with it. I believe that you'll find you get more done in less time if you stick with one task at a time. As for task management, guess what? Yep, that's what we'll handle in an upcoming post.