Reclaiming Focus

After 180+ days of quarantine, several weeks of wildfires on the West Coast, the occasional heat wave, constant social justice protests and riots, and a controversial presidential election on the horizon, my ability to focus on one task for any meaningful length of time has plummeted. If I’m not doomscrolling on Twitter or monitoring headlines for my latest dose of outrage, I’m concerned I’m missing something important.

Last week I decided to take some drastic steps to detox my social media and digital channels. I already use Pomodoro and bullet journaling for productivity. My new challenge is avoiding the guise of multi-tasking and social media distraction.

I’d heard about distraction-blocking tools for applications and websites. Before the challenges of the last six months, I never thought I’d need one. Personal discipline should be enough, right? Wrong. I needed help regaining my ability to focus.

Luckily, I picked up Chris Fox’s 5,000 Words Per Hour about becoming a more productive writer (I’m focusing on fiction for the first time in years). One of his pieces of advice is to use distraction-blocking software to eliminate interruptions. Or, if you’re like me, compensate for waning self-discipline.

I downloaded Freedom, a simple application that works as a VPN (virtual private network) to block distractions on macOS and iOS. (It also works on Windows, Android and Chrome, but I don’t use those platforms.) Setup is web-based for all devices and you can sync your changes between them. Each device can have its own settings and pre-defined schedule, which I’ve found valuable for establishing a routine. You can also drop into an ad hoc focus session anytime by setting the number of minutes it should last.

The app also features a locked mode, which stops you from ending a session. I haven’t needed to use that yet, but it’s there if I do. Another interesting Freedom feature is ambient noise to aid focus. The app features background noises from cafes, libraries, offices or nature. It won’t replace my Deep Focus Spotify playlist, but it’s another thoughtful feature.

I paid around $64 for a lifetime subscription, which was apparently 50% off for September.

Using Freedom

Installed the app on my iPhone and MacBook Pro and I configured my automated sessions. Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn, Instagram, news sites – every time-waster I could find went into the list. Pre-configured categories make setup simple.

One bad habit I’ve fallen into is checking my phone as soon as I wake up, keeping me in bed for another 30-45 minutes. That’s time I could spend writing. Waking up the first day with a Freedom session already running was disconcerting. Twitter didn’t load. Couldn’t fetch tweets. Same for IG. When you’re using applications on your phone, you only see that the apps can’t get data. You don’t get the type of message you see in the featured image above, which is browser-based. That part is less than ideal, but I can’t imagine how the developers could improve it.

Once I remembered the app was running, I got on with my day. Time saved: 45 minutes.

I have a scheduled gap between 8-9am, when I usually clear email and check everything else. Then the Freedom sessions run from 9am-12pm, then from 1-4pm. Who doesn’t like a little current events-induced misery over lunch?

The first day was great. I knew I couldn’t get to the distractions and plowed through work. The next two days were more challenging. I’d finish something and want to take mental break on social media but couldn’t. I was locked out. Instead, I’d read an Economist article, or something on MIT Tech Review, or I’d run through some yoga in my office. Then I’d get back to work.

It’s still early days for me and Freedom. So far, the results have been positive.

If you’re struggling with distractions and a raging doomscrolling addiction, check out Freedom for a month and see if it helps. And let me know if you’ve found other methods that help. I’m always interested in new tools and techniques.

Crafting Your Alter Ego

Everyone plays different roles in their lives. Over a day, you may play the role of a parent, coworker, public speaker or athlete. You could be playing the role of job seeker and interviewing for a new position. Each of those roles requires us to access different facets of ourselves, and other facets may interfere, impacting performance through self-doubt. In Todd Herman’s “The Alter Ego Effect,” he argues that creating a personal alter ego provides a vehicle to bring out the characteristics needed to perform at our best.

Alter egos aren’t a new concept. Beyoncé famously adopted her Sasha Fierce alter ego on stage to deliver a confident performance. Kobe Bryant transformed into Black Mamba to gain separation between the court and struggles in his personal life. Alter egos give you distance from yourself, allowing you to focus on performing without distraction.

Research has shown the self-distancing provided by an alter ego can also improve executive function in children as young as five, indicating the benefits aren’t only for adults dealing with imposter syndrome or similar difficulties.

Creating an Alter Ego

Think about the type of persona you want to cultivate and the qualities you embody when you’re at your best and craft an alter ego around that. Give that person a name. If you’re looking for inspiration, you can pull from athletes or performers that embody the traits you’re looking to represent, fictional characters or even animals that have the strengths you want to display.

Triggering Your Alter Ego

“Putting on” your alter ego should involve some type of ceremony, ideally personal to you. It might be a pre-game warmup routine, a predefined rehearsal before getting on stage, or even as mundane as putting on your alter ego’s favorite pair of shoes. Being consistent with the ritual channels the qualities inherent in your alter ego.

Have you cultivated an alter ego to improve your performance or outlook? Or just to achieve some self-distancing? Let me know in the comments.

Resources

Using Your Presentations to Build a Content Library

I happened across a tweet from Brianne Kimmel today where she offered a practical, if unpopular, view:

She is 100% correct. If all you’re doing is speaking at one or two conferences with that deck you worked your tail off to produce on time, you should have used that time for something more substantial.

The key is leverage.

You can take that one presentation and turn it into at least three 1000-word blog posts. You can create a webinar – perhaps even training material you can sell. Or a planning toolkit or reference architecture. Get invited onto a podcast and talk about what you talked about.

There is no reason you can’t dine out for a year on the content you create from one presentation. When I make a deck, it is usually the result of 2-3 published documents. I later use the deck to create a toolkit of board-ready slides and multiple webinars throughout the course of the year. Sometimes I’ll reuse that deck in subsequent years with minor, sometimes major, changes. And everything else I created based off of that deck gets updated too.

Brianne’s advice is spot-on: focus on compounding activities. Your conference presentations can be a great beginning – or result – of those efforts. The key is leverage.

An Unconventional Strategy for Career Reinvention

The beginning of the year often has people thinking about not just changing jobs, but making a more radical change to a new career. The challenge is how to successfully make that change. Jump too quickly or to the wrong thing and you may be unsatisfied. Or the number of choices or fear of change may keep you locked into your unsatisfying career. What’s needed is an intermediate step – kind of Minimum Viable Career Reinvention – to test the waters in a new professional domain.

This is what Herminia Ibarra offers in her excellent book, ‘Working Identity.

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United Polaris Leads Business Class Service in… Pillows?

American Airlines is my preferred US-based airline, especially for Asia-Pacific and Oceania travel. I’m fortunate that my day job as an analyst pays for business-class travel for flights over 8 hours. But one area that American’s business-class service lags, and this is going to sound petty, is amenities. Namely, the pillows are useless. The stuffing is so loose that your head sinks through the pillow and into the seat/bed.

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How to Structure Your Task List

I saw a few tweets this week about how people use task lists and I thought I’d share my method. Over the last nine years or so, I’ve finally refined how I structure my daily task list. When I was a software engineering manager, I developed what I later discoved was simplified bullet journaling. This method also works with the Pomodoro Technique, which is working on a task for 25 minutes, then taking 5 minutes off.

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Hi-Tech Sleep with the Bose Sleepbuds

The Bose Sleepbuds had an interesting development cycle. Instead of creating something entirely in-house, Bose turned to crowdfunding to figure out the interest level of a high-tech audio sleep aid. The experiment was a success and the product quickly sold out on Indiegogo. I recently received a pair as a gift and, after using them for a few nights, have some initial impressions.

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Resolving the Presenter’s Paradox

Deciding what information to include in a presentation is a challenge everyone faces. From the presenter’s perspective, every fact that supports the presentation objective has some value. These might be case studies, data points, primary research, or other elements that drive the point home. Some facts, like primary research studies, might have a high impact while others, like anecdotes and informal stories, have less impact.

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