5 Ways To Focus When You Have Important Sh*t To Do

One of the most difficult tasks for me to do is writing & sending out cover letters and resumes. Even after I got that ish down to a SCIENCE, it still filled me with a singular, ice-cold dread that was so deep, avoiding the task seemed like the only thing to do.

Because I’m not an independently wealthy heiress, I needed to send in resumes to get a job, so I couldn’t avoid it.

So I got really good at not avoiding it.

Now, as Master of Tricking Yourself Into Focusing™*, I pass that knowledge on to you.

An airplane crossing the sky1. Go somewhere else

Libraries are great for this, but really, anywhere that is not your house is good. You’d be surprised how much just being in your home makes it easy to waste time. Not only is everything you need right there within your reach, but it also decreases your sense of urgency, which, if you’ve ever had to do a task you hated, is sometimes all that pulls you through.

While we’re at it, when you work at home (even on personal projects), don’t work in your bedroom/bed. In fact, if you can set yourself up in a straight back chair at a table or desk, do that. Being at home sitting on couches puts your body and mind into unwindulax mode. Keeping your sitting position all business keeps you going.

An old, old typewriter2. Cut the internet cord (not literally, though)

I try not to be one of those people who’s judgey about the way people spend their time on the internet because I actually think it’s a great mental break space. In fact, I keep stuff like this bookmarked at work.

That said, the internet is a productivity serial killer. It’s so easy to get lost in a Wikipedia hole, or scroll endlessly through Facebook and Buzzfeed. Sometimes, I get stuck on sites I don’t even care about, just to avoid working.

So if you have something you NEED to get done, turn off your internet. Don’t be afraid to get serious, either; if you need to unplug the entire thing, do it.

If you need a less involved solution, try Citrus (or Facebook Nanny, if just Facebook’s your trouble). I also occasionally use an Mac app called Concentrate, which costs $30, but can do a whole bunch of things not just on the web, but on your computer, too, like restricting the apps you can open. Here are some similar apps for Windows. Oh, and here are 19 more to boost your concentration, if you really like app solutions. Applutions.

Headphones3. Get rid of ALL distractions

This one might be tough for some people, because it requires doing some things that might make you feel uncomfortable.

The best possible way to make sure you get focused and stay focused is to remove all distractions from your workspace. This means no TV, no phone, turning off all notifications (yes, I mean email), and, if possible, shutting your door or otherwise letting people know you are not available.

If turning off notifications or being away from your phone feels like too much, remember that it’s only temporary. If you need to tell you boss or your mom or your partner or whoever that you’re not checking email for the next hour, do that. As long as they know, an hour is actually a small sliver of time. They won’t even notice.

To up your distraction-free game even more, find your magic sounds. Spotify has a whole focus section, which includes white noise/nature sounds, as well as ambient & classical music. There are also apps online and for your phone. Or, if singing doesn’t distract you (I can only do music with lyrics if I’m doing “mindless” work, like credit card reconciliations), you can use or create a workday playlist.

Whichever you choose, make sure you do two things: 1., get a good pair of noise canceling headphones (these are my favs, and they’re only ~$40), and 2.,do not listen to your “focus” sounds when you are not trying to work, ie – if you listen to rainforest sounds to work, do not listen to them to go to sleep.

A cute maltese dog4. Train yourself to focus

Here’s why you shouldn’t listen to your “focus” sounds when you’re not working: if you use the certain sounds only when you work, you will train your brain to feel motivated when it hears those sounds. They don’t have to be the same exact sounds every time; for example, if you listen to classical music when you work, classical music in general will become the trigger.

I used Brian Eno’s Music for Airports when I first started training myself to focus. I have never listened to it at any other time than when I am working, and I can work for incredibly (totally healthy) long hours when I have it on.

Besides music, just having a dedicated “workspace” can get you in the focusing mood. If somewhere in your house is for work, and only for work, just being there will have the same effect as the sounds.

If you really want to get Pavlovian, try this: when you are working and focused and feeling motivated, gently pull on your ear, or some other non-harmful physical act. Do it every time you’re in the zone. Every single time. After a month or so, you should be able to do that physical action whenever you need to focus, and you should feel motivated. The real key to this one is wanting it to work; if you go into skeptical, or not into it, you’ll negate the mind-over-body stuff this needs to work.

A clock on a wall5. Just do 5 minutes

If you’re really avoiding a task, start by just doing 5 minutes. Set a timer if you need to. Most of the time, you’ll want to keep working past 5 minutes, and you won’t need to break or anything. But if 5 minutes is up, and you’re like, “I’m done”, then be done. Take a break, or switch to a different task.

Then, do it again. Keep doing it till the task is done, or until you are doing more than 5 minute intervals.

For more structured time management, there’s the Pomodoro Technique, which uses 25-minute intervals. You can also try setting up your own intervals, or you can try what I call The Genius Method.

Research of highly accomplished, focused people has shown that they all pretty much do the same thing: over the course of a day, the work no more than 4 1/2 hours, split up into three 90 minute intervals, with breaks in between, including a 20-30 minute afternoon nap. I’ve found that 90 minute intervals really are the best chunk of work time, even if you do different tasks within those 90 minutes (so, maybe, just tackling your to do list for that time).

Oh, one last thing: don’t use your time between intervals to check all your “distractions”, like your phone or email. At most, use the break to check your messages, but don’t respond. That way, you can assuage your fears without getting off track.


Do you have a favorite way to get & stay focused? Share it with me!

* – not really ™. Back up ?

How To Adult Starter Kit, Item #2: Eat Well

I was hoping to post this much sooner, but got caught up in all our collective bs around food. How do you tell people to eat without invoking any of the other sh*t?

Then I read this article.

Well, ok, at first, I just read the headline, “Breakfast Is Not The Most Important Meal Of The Day”. That was enough to make me angry, because my whole thesis is that it is. So I skipped actually reading the article.

This morning, I realized “not important” doesn’t really negate my argument, and I decided to read the whole article.

I was somehow, after years of studying and criticizing our culture’s baggage around food and body size, SURPRISED that the only thing the article focused on was whether or not people lost or gained weight based on their breakfast habits.

It had nothing to do with, say, concentration or focus, motivation, or- of course- actually being healthy. And I could not find a link to any of the studies mentioned (in fact, it’s an article about an article about 2 studies, and the lack of links in both is suspicious), but my guess is the actual science either only focused on weight, or did not actually prove breakfast isn’t important.

So with renewed vigor, I present to you, the (maybe?) long-awaited follow-up to 2014’s “How To Adult Starter Kit, Item #1”….

How To Adult Starter Kit, Item #2: Eat Well

Before we start, what I mean by “eating well” is feeding yourself regularly in order to keep you, your brain, & your body operating at top capacity so you can get sh*t done, and get rid of the crushing, stressful weight of your neverending to do list.

What I don’t mean is:

  • dieting
  • not eating certain types of food
  • portion-control
  • eating organic/vegan/etc.
  • losing weight
  • gaining weight
  • any of the other bs baggage that we put on food and eating

(though I totally recognize all that stuff may come into play as people think about this, because our culture is messed up enough to tie basic physical necessities with self-worth, all while millions of Americans do not have regular access to food)

I am assuming you know that you’ll die if you don’t eat. But you won’t die like Vizzini in The Princess Bride, totally lucid and normal, doing what you always do, and then just falling over out of nowhere. It’s a painful process in which your body shuts down your organs and slows your metabolism to preserve your brain, heart, and lungs.

And it starts roughly 6 hours after you last ate.

At ~6 hours without food, your body will not have enough of what it needs to keep your brain functioning in tip-top shape, and it’ll start in on your fatty acids, while rerouting resources from the rest of your body. This means that your brain might get enough of what it needs to keep going, but definitely not enough to work properly, AND the rest of your body will feel like sh*t because it’s being denied resources.

So what?, I can hear you say through your computer screens, I don’t wait 6 hours to eat… lunch is only 3-4 hours away from breakfast!

Except that if you sleep for at least 6 hours (and you don’t sleepeat like Liz Lemon), you wake up already in that state.

In simplest terms, if your car runs out of gas, you don’t keep trying to drive it. In fact, most of the time, you don’t let it get to empty.

In this analogy, your body is the car, and food is the gas (heh heh). Food is fuel, and you can’t run without it.

THAT is why eating breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It’s the first big meal you’ve had in awhile, and you need it to get you going. Your brain is not operating at capacity until you get SOMETHING in your body for it to pull glucose from. An orange, a muffin, even a cup of coffee. You need to get something into that stomach of yours before you ask your brain to start focusing and calculating.

Now, I said you just need to eat something, whatever it is. If that’s the only compromise we can strike here because you are anti-breakfast, fine. Skip to the end, and sign up for my newsletter. In reality, you do yourself more favors by eating well at breakfast.

Your brain needs a lot of glucose to do its thing, and giving it a little at a time may mean a boost for however long it lasts, but you will do yourself a serious solid if you eat enough food to keep your brain going for awhile.

For example, a muffin and a cup of coffee may get you into the office and at your desk, but what happens when your brain runs out of energy-giving resources a few minutes after you sit down? Your mind starts to wander, and you get sidetracked from a task, or you start futzing around on the internet, and then all of a sudden it’s 11 AM, and your day is off. AND you’re hungry again.

If you give yourself the appropriate amount of food as soon as you wake up, and then follow that with the right amount of lunch & dinner, and snacks between meal times, you’ll be like a well-oiled machine, kicking ass & taking names.

Czech Honey Cake

What’s the right amount of food? Just like everything else, it’s different for everyone, and you might need to do a bit of legwork to find out what works for you.

I actually experimented with a variety of foods before I found what I needed: PROTEIN. I ate sausage and eggs every single morning for a few years, until I switched from freelancing to in-house work, and no longer had a kitchen & open schedule at my disposal. At that time, I tried a bunch of different yogurts, until I found a really great greek yogurt that is pretty much like breakfast pudding (and is nice to m tummy).

I started experimenting with breakfast & the amount/type of food I ate not because I was having trouble concentrating (I was, but I didn’t know it at the time). I started tracking all kind of things about my life- sleep, food, social activity, etc.- because I wanted to see if anything triggered my mental health issues.

I am not in any way, shape, or form a doctor or therapist of any kind, so this is not medical or psychiatric advice. Also, again, everything is different for everyone, so what works for me may not work for you.

What I discovered by tracking a variety of data was that, when I did not eat enough food throughout the day, I was more likely to first, become anxious (an almost immediate response), and second, become depressed (a response drawn out over a few days).

Before I knew there was a connection between my anxiety and my eating habits, I assumed that was just who I was all the time. I would just become anxious with or without an obvious trigger, and I would just have to wait it out.

Now, I had a possible solution to both keeping the anxiety at bay, and dealing with it when it came.

On the depression, it was less clear how things flowed together in such a perfect storm because, as many of you may know, depression is sometimes the cause, sometimes the effect. The anxiety might keep me from doing any work, and then the depression would set in because I didn’t get anything done. Or the lack of enough food would make my body not strong enough to keep myself together, and depression would just leak into me like poison.

Obviously, learning to eat well did not “cure” me. I still get anxious, and while I’ve been on an even keel for the last few years, depression is still something I deal with, even just in little ways. For me- again, this is just my deal, and others are most likely different- it’s easier. It’s easier to avoid or work through these things when my body has everything it needs. It’s easier to get sh*t done in my life that previously were supertriggers, like paying bills or cleaning the house.

Again, whether or not this will work for you, I don’t know, but if you find yourself struggling to concentrate, feeling tired or sluggish, or just not being as productive as you like, try eating 3 full meals a day, with some room for snacking for at least a month, and see how you feel. I recommend eating breakfast before 8 AM (or as soon as you get up, if you don’t 9-5), and other meals/snacks as soon as you feel hungry. Don’t try and make food a reward, don’t put it off until you do x,y,z thing. As with all items in this starter kit, routine is really important, so train your body to expect food at certain times by giving it food when it asks for it.


Lastly, let me say, without trying to make this a political thing, you should eat whatever you want. When I was a kid, my mom fed me only the healthiest, leanest stuff, totally homemade macrobotic whatever. I started to eat stick of butter- I would just go to the freezer and suck on them like a popsicle- and she asked my pediatrician how to make me stop. My pediatrician asked what she was feeding me, and then told her that I was doing it because I was not getting enough cholesterol. She upped my cholesterol, and I stopped eating butter.

Since then, she made sure to teach me that my body would tell me what it needed. To this day, I follow that, and I go for what I crave, and also try to make sure I balance my food out, including with sugars (dessert is awesommmeeee). AS ALWAYS, everyone is different, and, technically, I’ve been trained to do this since childhood, but…. be kind to yourself and your body. Don’t deny yourself food that you’re craving because it’s “bad”, because you could be denying your body nutrients it needs.


At this point, I hope that the pictures have made you hungry, and you go from here to somewhere to eat preferably cake, but I guess fried chicken would be ok, too.

Next Up in the Starter Kit: Get A Routine


Eureka Moments Never Happen

Today, someone asked me about ‘eureka moments’. Like the moment when Mrs. Fields realized she could sell her cookies and make bank, or the moment Steve Jobs decided computers were his destiny.

The thing is… those moments never happen. Those are definitely movie-ready moments, things we create to encapsulate a story. But they aren’t real life.

In real life, people find things they like to do, and they do them, and then the find ways to monetize them. Even people like Tim Ferriss do it; he may prefer to travel the world studying MMA, but he was starting companies with products that reflected his real life, like study aids and weight-building pills.

If you’re waiting for your brain to back up your ideas with some movie-magic-moment confirmation, you will probably wait forever. Your brain is hard-wired to not take risks, and also, it doesn’t know squat, so how could it know whether your idea is good or not?

How to tell if your idea is good or not is to do it. You don’t even have to go whole hog. Just start small. Want to blog? Blog. Blog, and connect with other bloggers you like.

Want to make and sell jewelry? Just do that. You can sell on Etsy, you can sell in a local craft fair, you can just sell to your friends.

Want to go back to school for something? Just take one class, or go to some networking events. Or, if you’re not trying to be a doctor or something, just start doing it, and see if you like it.

And, yes, some of your ideas are not going to work out. That’s just real life. And that’s ok. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure, or a terrible person, or that none of your ideas are good ever. You are not your ideas. You are your actions, so act awesome after you fail, and you’ll be awesome.