Designing for Focus

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20th November 2023
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7 min read

Photo by Ola Dapo

Let me tell you a fun little story.

Very early on I had a boss who was old school. Old school to the point that when I'd have my earbuds in at work, he would ask me if I was listening to the wireless.

To be clear, he was totally fine with me listening to music, but he felt that listening to talking on the radio would distract me from what I should be focusing on. He often worried the guys in the workshop would be too busy hearing what John Laws had to say, and not focusing on the task at hand.

Questionable work culture aside, I never had the heart to tell him the earbuds were to keep the noise out, not let the music in.

Productivity isn't about getting more low-value work done. Especially in creative fields, we all want to do more high-value work, better.

In the last couple of years, having now done a lot of writing as well as design, I've had the opportunity to try a few different techniques and setups that maximise focus.

Here's a few things I've learnt.

The Productivity Culture

There are products, on top of apps, on top of systems, to help you be productive.

The high priests of productivity will tell you how to focus, how to be productive, and that their way is the best way. Pomodoro, GTD, Bullet Journal, Notion, Inbox Zero, Eat the Frog.

The reality is that rushing through your workload today, will only lead you to rushing through your workload tomorrow. Productivity is a hamster wheel, and you don't get a prize for how fast the hamster wheel spins. In fact, all you get it burnout.

To-Do List

While I might dunk of productivity, I will admit I do have a to-do list. My list is literally a list of things I need to do. I don't have a system of prioritisation. I don't have a tag or hierarchy system. I don't plan what I'm going to do that week or even that day. My list is in a simple Markdown file.

I just pick whatever task I feel like doing, and do it.

And it's not as if I don't get things done that I don't want to do. Eventually if a task gets urgent enough, then my desire to get the job done increases until it is done. The desire to get something done isn't always born of pleasure. Sometimes it's panic. And if a task doesn't ever get urgent, then it never was important and it eventually gets deleted.

Of course, you don't have to do it my way. I'm just a guy posting stuff on the Internet. You can have whatever system you like.

All That Noise

Even more so than when I started my career, our lives are bombarded with noise. Our text messages are noise. Social media is noise. There is noise on your box of Weet-Bix. The very productivity apps we use, are noise.

True deep work is directly related to focus. And focus is directly related to your environment. If you want to get meaningful work done, you have to kill the noise.

Crafting Your Digital Environment

Assuming you work at a computer, setting up your digital work space for focus probably isn't discussed enough. Perhaps because a computer is just considered a computer, and not an environment within itself. This may also be because productivity is often associated with multitasking and task switching, but if that's truly the case then you're likely doing busywork. It might be worth taking closer a look at what you're doing before how you're doing it.

Close all other apps.

Close your email. Close Slack. Close your browser. Close everything you don't need.

Don't minimise them. Close them so they have no way of interrupting you. It's really that simple.

Pick an app and stick with it.

The very software you use to get your work done can be a distraction. Especially if you're trying to learn it and navigate its functions. While for many tasks there are specific apps you must use - Solidworks, Rhino, Keyshot etc, for many others you may have a choice.

I do a lot of writing, and there are hundreds of writing apps that all do things a little differently. I could make a full time job testing writing apps. But I won't, because you should pick an app and stick with it.

Don't keep chopping and changing apps in search of the perfect experience. Find one that functions as you need, learn it, and get comfortable in it. This will help your brain settle into focus mode, and be comfortable working within the space without it demanding your attention.

Turn off wifi.

A little brute force is sometimes necessary. The value of turning off your wifi is that when you open your browser to check Facebook, you'll quickly remember you turned off wifi to prevent that very thing. Obviously you can easily turn wifi back on, but that tiny interrupt can be all that's needed to keep you on track.

Crafting Your Physical Environment

Crafting the perfect work space can be a challenge depending on the task at hand. Assuming you do a lot of desk work, and you have some control over your environment. The aim of the game is to remove distractions.

Put your phone in a different room.

Don't just put it on silent or turn it over. If it is within reach you will impulsively reach out for it when you're looking for a diversion. Place it somewhere well out of reach, and ideally out of earshot. When you remember where you left it, you won't be bothered getting up to get it.

Put on the kettle.

You'll want to get up and make tea or coffee instead of staying focused. Make it beforehand. Then you'll have no excuse to get up and make one instead of getting on with the job. A good cup of your preferred hot beverage can also serve as an excellent focus trigger.

Focus triggers.

Humans are creatures of habit.

Cultivate a routine that you perform when getting into focus mode. It will trick your brain into following through on that routine. Toss your phone. Close your apps. Make coffee. Stick your headphones on. Focus time.

Sensory deprivation.

Some like to work with headphone on, others don't. And while I don't insist that headphones are appropriate for every work environment, they are an excellent mechanism for sensory deprivation. Sure, you might be piping music directly into your ears, but with a good set of headphones you're more importantly keeping the noise out. Sometimes I put my headphones on and don't listen to anything. I put them on simply to trigger my focus.

Headphones can also be a great social signalling device to indicate you're focusing and do not wish to be interrupted. But many co-workers probably won't care anyway.

If you work in a busy environment, and obviously have the power to do so, get in early. It's much easier to block out noise if there isn't any to begin with. This can be an extremely powerful way to get things done.

Choice in music.

If you're serious about headphones, then your choice in music is critical. I almost universally (but not totally) avoid music with lyrics. You don't want to be singing along with what you're listening to, instead of crafting your perfect paragraph on music choices for focus. I have a pretty varied taste in music, but really enjoy listening to Norse/Viking music, Synthwave, or some Mick Gordon when I really want to get things done in a hurry.

Put Simply

While I've written far more on tools for focus than I originally intended, it doesn't have to be complicated. It's really a matter of identifying the behaviours that happen before you're distracted and heading them off at the pass. Set up your environment to be conducive for focus by removing potential distractions, have a focus routine, and you'll be getting things done (not GTD) in no time.


Yes, I do this every week. I write about design, medtech, and several tangential subjects such as this one. I'd love to hear your feedback, please get in touch and let me know what you think. And if you have any tips of your own. I'd also suggest subscribing to the newsletter, I post lost of interesting design-related links in there.

Tagged: design studio · focus · productivity · writing