Drew BarontiniProduct Director at Differential

Staying Focused


March 12, 2020

Reading Time

3 min.

Glowing screens beckon for attention, chat applications bounce with new messages, notifications effortlessly slide onto the screen, and the endless list of to-dos continue to pile up. The only way to perform deep, quality work is through focus. And in order to stay focused, we need more than turning on "Do Not Disturb".

Focus is about attention and energy. In order to stay focused, we need to give adequate attention with the appropriate energy level.

But how?

  1. Batch tasks.
  2. Create review routines.
  3. "Time Block" in your calendar.
  4. Create a focus routine.
  5. Practice, practice, practice.

1. Batch tasks

"Batching" is a concept for completing similar tasks together. For example, if you were to batch household tasks, you might do the following together:

  • Do the dishes.
  • Start the laundry.
  • Take the trash out.

Batching allows you to group your tasks, which makes it easier for the following steps.

2. Create review routines

I have three review routines I run each day:

  1. Morning Review — The first checklist I go through each morning when beginning work.
  2. Afternoon Review — The checklist I go through after my second focus block of work.
  3. Evening Review — The checklist I go through before shutting down for the day.

These review routines allow me to batch specific tasks into prescheduled times throughout the day. They are each a 30-minute calendar event. Since they are during the work day, I have these in my work calendar, which means they show me as "Busy" during these times, which I am.

Morning Review

There are four parts to my Morning Review:

  1. Reset — Clear out my email, notifications (Basecamp, GitHub, Slack), and all of the links I've collected in my "Links" database in Notion from the night before.
  2. Reflect — Review my notes, thoughts, ideas, wins, and write my daily journal entry.
  3. Review — Go through my tasks in Basecamp and GitHub, review my calendar, weekly objectives, current projects, and the tasks for the week.
  4. Respond — Go through any additional routines on this day (beginning of the month, end of the month, blog routines, etc.), follow-ups for emails that are in a "Follow Up" label in Gmail, prep for any meetings, and write my "Day Plan" (what I'm focused on for the day).

This review is the longest and most important of the review routines.

Afternoon Review

There are two parts to my Afternoon Review:

  1. Reset — Same steps as the Morning Review.
  2. Review — Same steps as the Morning Review.

Evening Review

The Evening Review is the same as the Afternoon Review. This one is important because the objective is to leave a clean slate at the end of the day so I can go enjoy time with my family.

3. "Time Block" in your calendar

"Time Blocking" is a technique for carving out time to do your best work, all while keeping yourself accountable and on task. From "Time Blocking"

"Time Blocking" — in conjunction with batching tasks in review routines — allows you to both plan your time and defer your attention. You are planning your time by assigning a type of work to a specific time in your day. And you are deferring your attention by having scheduled time to review and catch up on what you've missed during your focused time.

Plan your time, defer your attention.

Planning your time and deferring your attention prepares you for deep, focused work, which brings us to the next step, creating a focus routine.

4. Create a focus routine

A "focus routine" is a set of steps you can follow any time you need to stay focused. This is entirely dependent on how you work best, but I can speak to my routine as an example.

When I have a "focus block" (at least one hour, at most two hours), I know I need to run my focus routine in order to get into the right headspace. And these "focus blocks" are based on my "ideal day" (I talk about this in "Time Blocking"), which means the review routines are conveniently situated around these "focus blocks" to maximize my energy and attention, the two critical components to staying focused.

Here's my focus routine:

  • I put my standing desk in the standing position.
  • I make sure I have plenty of water.
  • I turn on "Do Not Disturb" (on all devices).
  • I quit any applications that are not related to the work I'm about to do.
  • I put on headphones.
  • I fire up music to match my mood or the work I'm doing (coding, designing, writing, etc.).
  • I turn on the noise-cancellation in my headphones.
  • I get to work.

5. Practice, practice, practice

Even if you do everything exactly right, notifications and distractions will inevitably slip in during your focus time. They come in the form of external and internal distractions.

External distractions include people coming up to your desk (if you're in an office), people walking by outside (if you work from home), etc.

Internal distractions include remembering something you were supposed to do, thinking about something you saw on Twitter, the urge to check your email, etc.

Meditation is a great way to improve your ability to focus. I highly recommend implementing a daily ten-minute meditation routine, which you can do within any of your review blocks.

Distractions are impossible to avoid, but you can take steps to mitigate and control their negative effects. Group similar tasks by "batching", create review routines, block out time in your calendar, build a focus routine, and continue to practice and fine-tune these methods to stay focused.