Some backstory, and a shameful confession
For the first couple years of high school I was one of those jerks who made only the minimal required effort in school. Strangely enough, how badly I behaved in a class was always in direct proportion to how skilled I was in the subject matter. In the subjects where I was confident that I could pass without trying too hard, I would give myself added freedom to goof off in class.
Because I was a closeted lit-nerd, I was most skilled in English class. I’d devour and annotate required reading over the weekend, I knew my biblical and mythological allusions up and down, and I could give you a postmodern interpretation of a text like nobody’s business. But in class, I’d sit in the back and gossip with my friends, nap, or scribble patterns in the margins of my textbooks. I was nonchalant during discussion, I pretended not to listen during lectures. I secretly knew my stuff, so I did well enough on tests, quizzes, and essays. But I acted like an ass, and wasn’t getting the most I could out of my education.
The day of humiliation, but also epiphany
One day in Ms. Kaney’s AP English Lit class, I was sitting in the back doodling. An earbud was dangling under my sweater hood, attached to the CD player (remember those?) sitting in my desk. Because of this auditory distraction, the first time Ms. Kaney called my name, I barely noticed. I definitely heard her the second time, when she didn’t call my name so much as roar it. I can still remember her five feet frame stomping across the room and grabbing an empty desk. It screamed across the worn tile as she slammed it next to hers. She said, “This is where you sit now.” My face gets hot just thinking about it.
I gathered my things, including the CD player (which was now impossible to conceal), and made my way up to the newly appointed Seat of Shame. There I sat, with my back to the class, eye-to-eye with Ms. Kaney. From my new vantage point I couldn’t see my friends, or the clock, or the window. All I saw were Ms. Kaney’s eyes, peering at me over her reading glasses while I worked. In addition to this punishment, I was told that from now on, not only would I participate in class discussions, but I would serve detention with her once a week until an undetermined point in the future.
During these detentions, Ms. Kaney would give me new books to read, outside the curriculum, and added on to my normal homework. They ranged from classics to modern novels, and she read over my notes on each book. We’d discuss them at length after class, and I grew to value not only our private discussions, but the ones in class as well. After a few weeks, there wasn’t even a question of this being punishment. It was heaven, and I was more productive than ever.
To the point
Please excuse this sentimental story. It’s not just about honoring a teacher who cared enough to change my life, it’s really about sharing a lesson. The most valuable education Ms. Kaney gave me had nothing to do with literature. She taught me that I (and perhaps other people who share my special brand of crazy) need to be put in a corner to flourish. When we have physical and mental constraints applied, we accomplish our best work.
For those of you still reading, now seems like a good time to insert a pre-emptive word of mediation. Many of you, maybe all of you, are self-disciplined enough that you don’t require the rigorous restrictions I use to maximize productivity. Also, I know many people who operate best in a stimulating and open environment. I would advise everyone to seek and execute techniques that work best for them. But, for those of you who share my inclination towards daydreams and digressions, perhaps you’ll find something useful in the advice to follow.
In which I pretend to be Special Agent Olivia Dunham
Now that I’m an adult, and no longer have Ms. Kaney to reign me in, I have to find ways to put myself in the corner. By rejecting distraction and shaping an environment designed for intense focus, I’m able to achieve improved productivity.
Lately I’ve been obsessed with the TV show Fringe, a sci-fi series about an FBI agent and her team of genius scientists who save the world (no, YOU’RE a nerd). There’s a scene in the show where the primary character has to delve into her subconscious to do extraordinary things, and she accomplishes this by immersing herself in a sensory deprivation tank. The premise is this: when enclosed in a space devoid of sound, smell, or light, she will enter a new plane of consciousness wherein she can tap into new levels of perception.
This might sound a little nuts, but to me this premise has some real-world application. When I am isolated from distraction, and limited to only the task at hand, I’m able to be productive on a whole new level. Since I can’t actually work in an airtight iron enclosure devoid of input, I find practical ways to create an interruption-free environment.
Since I work from home, many of my methods for coping with distractions wouldn’t be necessary for my office-bound counterpart. However for some of you 9-to-5-ers, the principles will still apply.
Consider your visual input
First, I have to limit my scope to the world I can (and need to) affect. In the largest sense, this means closing my curtains to the chaotic scene of traffic, birds, the post office, a convenience store, and generally lovely weather that waits outside my window. When the curtains are drawn and I’m no longer surrounded by this view, my sphere is reduced to my desk, my TV, and my cat. Sometimes this step alone is enough to allow me to focus.
But, my visual input can be whittled down further still. For example, the desk where I usually keep my laptop is littered with twelve owl figurines, a globe, four books, a three-pound weight, and various nerdy paraphernalia (hard drives, Wacom tablets, unnecessary bluetooth accessories, and so on). It’s not so much a desk as a dumping ground for wacky flea market finds and impulse technology buys. Therefore, in addition to this Official Desk, I have an adult version of Ms. Kaney’s Seat of Shame. It’s a rusty old student’s desk I picked up at the Salvation Army, almost an exact replica of the model Ms. Kaney dragged across the classroom all those years ago. This tiny reproduction Seat of Shame is literally in a corner, where my only view is a blank wall. When I truly need to focus, this is where I take refuge, with only a notebook and a pencil (and occasionally an iPad).
Find out what works for your ears
Even from my limited sample size of two people, I know there are lots of different ways to cope with auditory distraction. I prefer silence when focused on independent work, and usually employ some form of a white noise generator. I’ve yet to opt for the fancy ‘real’ white noise machines; instead, I use a desktop fan or our allergy filter machine. This is usually sufficient to block out the sounds of the dishwasher and the cat, which allows me to think only about the task of hand.
My boyfriend, the other half of my extensive survey, swears by another method. He calls it The Wall of Sound, and it’s basically an intense blast of raucous music streamed directly into his head. The outcome of his technique is really the same as mine; he’s blocking out unexpected auditory input. If you can handle the grating sounds of noisy music while working, I suggest you give The Wall of Sound a try.
Don’t count the minutes
When I sat in the original Seat of Shame in lit class, I could no longer see the big classroom clock slowly ticking away the seconds until lunch. Without the marker of time, the class period often flew by. The same is true now when I work; the less aware of time I am, the less it feels like time is passing too quickly or slowly, and the more I can focus on the task (not how long it takes).
Nowadays, to assist in my effort to forget the passing of time, I sometimes put a sticky note over the clock on my monitor. If I’m writing, I’ll use an app like WriteRoom, which blocks out everything but a simple text editor.
There are situations when it’s not advisable to completely lose track of time. If I’m working on a project with an hourly rate and a tight scope, or if I need to be on time to a meeting or call, I don’t want to lose myself in the expanse of the day. In these cases, I’ll set an alarm that lets me know it’s time to reign myself back in (or on some days, take a shower).
Put yourself in a mental corner, too
When Ms. Kaney took action and forced me to step up my game, she had the insight to not just change things physically, but to challenge me mentally as well. She assigned me reading material outside the normal coursework, then upped the pressure by requiring detailed reports of the material. While this additional stress was sometimes uncomfortable, it pushed me to work harder than I would have had there been less of a demand. Just as there can be freedom in the limitations of a distraction-free environment, I’d argue there is liberty in added mental constraints as well.
Deadlines as a constraint
Much has been written about the role of deadlines in the creative process, and they seem to serve different functions in different cases. I find that deadlines usually act as an important constraint and, without them, it would be nearly impossible for me to ever consider a project finished. There are usually limitless ways to improve upon the work I do and, if there’s no imperative for me to be done at a certain point, I will revise ad infinitum. (Hence, the personal site redesign that will never end – Coming Soon, Forever!). But if I have a clear deadline in mind, there’s a point when the obsessive tweaking has to stop. I reach a stage where I have to gather up the nerve to launch the thing.
Putting the pro in procrastination
Sometimes I’ve found that my tendency to procrastinate can help my productivity. (Ducks, as half the internet throws things at her.) I understand the reasons why procrastination can be harmful, and why it’s usually a good idea to work diligently and evenly towards a goal. I try to divide my projects up in a practical way, and sometimes I even pull it off. But for those tasks where you work aimlessly and no focus comes, or you find that every other to-do item is more appealing, sometimes you’re forced to bring it together at the last moment. And sometimes, this environment of stress is a formula for magic. Often when I’m down to the wire and have no choice but to produce, my mind shifts towards a new level of clarity. There’s no time to endlessly browse for inspiration, or experiment with convoluted solutions that lead nowhere.
Obviously a life lived perpetually on the edge of a deadline would be a rather stressful one, so it’s not a state of being I’d advocate for everyone, all the time. But every now and then, the work done when I’m down to the wire is my best.
Keep one toe outside your comfort zone
When I’m choosing new projects to take on, I often seek out work that involves an element of challenge. Whether it’s a design problem that will require some creative thinking, or a coding project that lends itself to using new technology like HTML5, I find a manageable level of difficulty to be an added bonus. The tension that comes from learning a new skill or rethinking an old standby is a useful constraint, as it keeps the work interesting, and ensures that I continue learning.
There you have it
Well, I think I’ve spilled most of my crazy secrets for forcing my easily distracted brain to focus. As with everything we web workers do, there are an infinite number of ways to encourage productivity. I hope you’ve found a few of these to be helpful, and please share your personal techniques in the comments. Have a happy and productive new year!