Focus is Trainable

Published 2 months ago • 3 min read

Hi friends,

Here's a quote from Deep Work which I'm 30% through the second reading round:

“Focus intensifies by getting used to NOT being distracted. And can improve with practice.”
- “Deep Work”, Cal Newport

An MIT recent study shows that when the brain forms memories or learns a new task, it encodes the new information by adjusting connections between neurons. They also remind of the principle of “neurons that fire together, wire together”, proposed by Donald Hebb in the 1940s. This is extremely relevant to focus in our modern era of technology, and the ever growing distractions and attention grabbing systems, designed specifically to steal our attention.

In today’s fast-paced world, maintaining focus can be a challenge. However, with the right approach, you can turn this around. This week, let’s dive into how you can train your focus and adjust your environment for better productivity in two simple steps. Here’s how:

  1. Focus is Trainable

    Think of your focus as a muscle. The more you train it, the stronger it becomes.In a way, it really is, brain connections are formed and strengthen according to repeating actions we take. If we keep checking social media, emails or slack messages, the mind is trained to think about these even when we try our hardest to focus on a task. The solution? Workout!

    If you don't rain for a marathon, you can't just force yourself into running one randomly upon deciding to do so.
    The same thing applies to trying to focus deeply on a task, when your mind isn't trained to do so.

    Start with short, dedicated periods of deep work. Aim for 25-30 minutes without any distractions. Train your mind to stay on a single task, and set up your environment so that there are 0 distractions. Gradually increase these periods. As your concentration improves, extend your deep work sessions. Take regular breaks. Use the Pomodoro Technique (25 minutes on, 5 minutes off) to prevent burnout.

    My technique
    1. I use a timer, for me this is, but it can be anything you like as long as it’s counting and not distracting. Make sure to not do anything else BUT the task. You'll get very distracted on the first few rounds, learn to fight it and force yourself back. Take the breaks, these are much needed pressure releasing much like contracting a muscle and letting it rest when visiting the gym.
    2. Advanced mode - I stream my screen and myself to Twitch, the feeling of someone watching me and my screen, even if not real, is highly effective! For extra demanding tasks with deep focus that’s my system. Combined with a Pomodoro timer, these proved to be always working for me. It doesn't have to be a hassle, fire up OBS or something else that already have your stream configured in, your video camera and even the mic and just hit "stream". Build a system around it that removes friction once, and it'll pay dividends for long!
  2. Adjusting The Environment

    Designate a specific spot for deep work. Whether it’s a particular desk, room, or even a corner, make it your ‘focus zone’. The mind can be trained for different behaviours linked to different spaces. In part, this is why it’s also recommended to not eat at your work desk, or work in the living room. The mind can also be trained to relax, release stress etc if it feels a different surrounding.

    When the physical environment is sorted, block distractions! This one is easier said than done. For a while, I’ve been using browser based blockers, which worked, until I got used to open a different browser in dead times between tasks.

So I went all in - you can reroute the machine’s /etc/hosts file to block all social media. It’s not as simple as a plugin, but it’s better than nothing. The best thing about it, is that it blocks everything. Doesn’t matter if you browser through Safari or even try to hack it with a CLI. You’re blocked.

After a while, on certain occasions I needed certain blocked addresses like Linkedin for example, so I built an open source tool to help me block and unblock.

Keep in mind, it’s very much not production-ready, but if you run the basic block and unblock features it works like magic! I find myself using it every week, it’s kept in block mode and occasionally I’d unblock myself and bring it back immediately.

There are endless features I can think of to help but this is where contributors come in!
If you’re up for it, please star, open issues or better yet, PRs :)

Have a great week, and keep focus! Omer


Every once in a while I send hand picked things I've learned. Kind of like your filter to the tech internet. No spam, I promise!


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