Hey, Focus!

December 01, 2017

It will come to no surprise for those who know me. I have a hard time focusing for any significant period of time. Of course, this issue does not mix well with a remote, full-time job.

Thankfully I’ve created systems to mitigate my lack of attention-keeping ability. Here they are.

Have a dedicated office

My family and I are fortunate enough to have an extra room in the house that we set aside as a dedicated office space. This provides several benefits, but my favorite is they psychological separation of work/play. After 3.5 years of working from home I have trained my brain to switch into work mode when I enter the office. A door that can lock from the inside is also a great benefit on the rare occasion I have to work when my family is home.

Keep devices out of the office

While I’ve disabled all but the most useful notifications on my phone, the mere presence can lead me to pick it up. Same goes for the iPad.

Blanket rule: No devices in the office unless they’re being used for testing.

Block distracting apps with impunity

This is my coup de grâce but it took a while to catch on. Too often I would leave my email open or forget to turn on DnD in Slack. I’d see a new message came in and before I knew it I was down a rabbit hole that almost always lead to some obscure Wikipedia page, subreddit, or StackExchange community. For a while I searched for an app that would not only block distracting websites (of which there are plenty) but also applications.

Finally, I landed on Focus (aff. link). Focus fit both of my criteria. I could block all of those websites where I typically end up as well as quit any distracting applications. As soon as a focus session starts anything on the block list disappears. For me that means TweetBot, Spark (for email), and any games simply go away. All of this was good, but I needed to go further. I had to remove any chance that a moment of weakness would have me stop the focus session.

Enter Hardcore Mode

Hardcore mode does exactly what you think it does. Once a focus session has started, there’s no way to turn it off until the countdown or schedule is finished. This mode does allow for breaks but only to the limit you set below.

Screenshot of Focus settings


Speaking of schedules, I’ve found that setting a focus schedule helps me get more done in just a couple of hours than I ever had in an entire day. Combined with Hardcore Mode I have no choice but to stay focused on the task at hand every morning. In case you were wondering, I do my best to reserve afternoons for meetings, communication and other miscellaneous tasks.

Screenshot of Focus schedule settings

Tying it all together

The feature that really sold me on Focus was scripting. This would allow me to get rid of every last distraction. You can create separate scripts for when you enter and exit a focus session. Here are mine:

Focus script:

# Set Slack DnD
export PATH="$PATH:/usr/local/bin" 
/usr/local/bin/slack snooze start 180

say -v Samantha get to work

Unfocus script:

# Turn off Slack DnD
export PATH="$PATH:/usr/local/bin" 
/usr/local/bin/slack snooze end

say -v Samantha done

Using a great bash utility I’m able to set my Do-Not-Disturb status for Slack as soon as my focus session starts.

Focus also provides a URL scheme to start & stop sessions from other apps. I made use of this by creating an Alfred workflow that would begin a 5 minute countdown before starting a focus session. This allows me to finish a conversation with a coworker or write up a quick email to a partner before getting back to my focused development work.

So there you have it! This is how someone with attention issues can thrive in a remote work environment. If you have any other tips to add I’d love to hear from you on Twitter.

Profile picture

Written by Aaron Eaton