My 6 concentration hacks

Your office is ready! The Starbucks manager at Casablanca’s train station turned over to me with a large smile. The couple that had been sitting at my usual table near the power outlet had just left, and the manager had spotted me. I cracked a joke on Starbucks indeed being my office, moved over and plugged in my battery-deficient laptop. Rule number one for getting work done that requires concentration: move out of the office! A large part of my work is as a freelance project manager, and my customer on this job doesn’t mind where I work from as long as I get things done. I get things done using a few personal hacks that I’ll be sharing in this post.

One type of work that I often have to do is “creative project management”, as I call it, as opposed to transactional project management, the part involving emails and short tasks, and as opposed to meetings and to people management. Creative PM involves vision, out-of-the-boxing and solution finding. For example, I might have to come up with a new plan for deploying the software on time despite all the hickups going on. My approach is not to bring everyone together in a room with a paperboard and get them brainstorming. I’m not a big believer in brainstorming, and I found some backing to my doubts in the great book Quiet (quite appropriate for the subject, I guess). My approach is to use a few personal tricks, starting with going to a place where no one will come over to talk to me. That’s the local rather quiet Starbucks.

oldshipIn addition to being addicted to Starbucks’ expresso, I’m also addicted to Old Ship. I did my best creative project management with Old Ship. I mean, really, Old Ship is the thing. Oh, you haven’t met Old Ship yet? Old Ship is one of my favorite sounds from the app White Noise Pro 2.0. These Korean guys have done a great job putting together a huge list of white noise sounds, from rain to birds to Old Ship, and visually the app is pretty good too. I repeatedly find that with one of these repetitive soothing sounds in my ears, I forget about the world around me and become much sharper for several hours in a row. Thank you, creators of Old Ship.

I wrote before about how important it is to minimize notifications (here in English and here in French). I get religious about this when I plan on working concentrated. In particular, I do not receive the bottom right Outlook notification every other minute for each new incoming mail, as in my view this is really the number one productivity killer. Emails neatly pile up in my inbox and I’ll get to them once I’m done with my focused task, probably 4 to 5 hours later. That’s fine, even in the reactivity-loving culture I work in. The people I work with know that they won’t get an immediate response from me if they send me an email. I never get any Facebook or Twitter notifications, rather choosing to go batch the social media thing a few times a week. I do get SMS, Whatsapp and phone calls, although I’ll probably not answer. SMS is my emergency channel. Bottom line, for working focused, reduce interactions to an acceptable minimum.

newnoteSometimes, in the middle of what I’m doing, an idea pops up. Something totally unrelated like What if I replaced my slow hard drive with an SSD drive? One approach is to immediately act upon it, googling the how-to question, which I definitely avoid so not to lose my focus. Another approch is to try to keep it in mind: SSD, SSD, SSD, SDD… or to suppose we’ll remember it later. This background job keeps the mind cluttered for nothing. Instead, I use the GTD Inbox concept, GTD being the pretty well known Getting Things Done technique for productivity. I write down Replace HD with SSD and leave it there for later. Out of my working memory and into my (slow) hard drive. I’ll later batch my way through my inbox, spending 10 seconds to a few minutes on each note, deciding what to do for each one (order from China, just like the replacement battery, and wait). I use Evernote for all of this, with my default notebook adequately called Inbox.

heartrateI wrote here about how I use heart rate variability (HRV) for assessing my morning overall state. I use this simple and reliable marker to decide whether I’ll be working in creative mode or in transactional mode. Waking up with an HRV of 75 or above (in my case!) definitely points to creative or focused work if my schedule allows it. Waking up at 65 or below points to work requiring less brain-power. So yes, the whole idea is to consistently wake up in one’s high range, except for the days after a great French-wine-driking-evening, on which HRV panic is accepted and transactional work is definitely the best choice. For the other times, how do I maximize HRV and overall kick-assing? Through trial and error, I’ve figured out what correlates to 75: 11PM bedtime instead of 12AM, 7 to 8 hours of sleep, no alcohol, dinner before 9PM… Yes, I know, it’s a bit like HRV has been coerced by your mother.

coffeeAll right, up at 75 and what next? Breakfast. Or just, fast. I achieve better focus when the only thing I have for breakfast is a double expresso, with no calories inside or beside. I’ve gotten to really appreciate the power of intermittent fasting (known in health lingo as IF), which I religiously do once a week on Monday or Thursday (I recently learned that Islam, the religion of the country I live in, recommends Ramadan-style fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, what a coincidence!). I eat on Sunday evening and then on Monday evening. After 5 years of paleo and of hardly ever eating sugar, bread and pasta, the no-calorie 24 hours are easy and make for a ogre-grade Monday dinner (I say to eat like an ogre instead of like a horse, although no children are eat). On the other working days, it’s my version of bulletproof coffee: freshly grinded double expresso plus ghee (clarified butter) plus coconut oil (instead of MTC oil, as I tend to stick to traditional foods), all of it Nutribullet blended for 10 seconds. With this minimalist breakfast, or with no breakfast at all, concentration in my case is definitely better than it was before.

Last but not least, focus mornings look like this in my calendar (Lundi being Monday, in French). TDF is a personal acronym that I use to block chunks of time in my schedule. This simple trick has helped me carve out time for creative and focused work: on TDF mornings, I don’t start with small tasks, I choose one from my to-do list that’s going to take me at least two hours, and I start with that. When I’m setting up a meeting, I avoid as much as possible the TDF spaces, consciously and unconsciously, as there’s already a big green box that takes up all the space. I try to keep 3 such half-days per week, ideally in the mornings.

So that’s it. For creative and focused work, even in a management job:

  1. Don’t work at the office.
  2. Try a white noise app such as White Noise Pro 2.0.
  3. Minimize notifications.
  4. Use HRV to decide if it’s the right day and optimize HRV so that it’s generally the right day.
  5. No breakfast or light breakfast.
  6. Block chunks of time on your calendar.

What are your hacks? Leave me a comment!


One comment on “My 6 concentration hacks
  1. Shane says:

    This is a nice article. I appreciate your ideas and I am sure more people out there enjoyed this too.

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