Obvious advice on focused work

Why bother about stevia and skimmed milk in your coffee if all your meals come from McDonald’s?

Obvious advice on focused work
Photo by Paul Skorupskas / Unsplash

This morning, I got an email from a reader who asked: “Maybe you have advice about how to focus on things and work. Especially when you are a freelance photographer.” I started writing a response, but then realized that I’m onto something here, and turned it into a post. I hope you will find it useful.

This kind of advice is difficult to give because I know nothing about your life, freelance photography, and especially about what’s preventing you from focusing on work. Still, there’s a few things that work no matter who you are and what you do. Think of them as a checklist of “the obvious stuff,” the kind doctors use before beginning surgery. They won’t help you do the surgery well, but they’ll sure as hell prevent some blunders.

The first item on the list is your interests. Are you genuinely interested in the work you’re doing? If you’re not, it will be painfully difficult to focus. You will have to force yourself. Forcing, like nitrous oxide, makes your work engines run faster for a few moments, but then quickly subsides. So if you aren’t really into it anymore (or never were), you will lose the race no matter how hard you push the NOS button, and perhaps even burn out your drive.

The second one is the sheer amount of work you’re tackling. If you work on one thing, you’re more likely to stay focused on it than if you take on ten projects at once. Ambitious people often suffer badly from this one — they keep stuffing their rucksacks until they can barely move. Don’t repeat their mistakes. Yet, taking on too many important things is far less common than being buried under tons of nonessential todos. Avoid this one as well. Simplify.

The third is your environment. Look around — is your workspace conducive to focused work? If you’re being bombarded with notifications, focusing becomes an uphill battle against your own brain. The same goes for colleagues pestering you with questions. If you want to get something done, block 2-3h every day for it, preferably in the morning, and don’t check your email and socials until you do it. Just like you wouldn’t go to McDonald’s if you wanted to eat healthily, you shouldn’t allow being pinged every minute if you want to stay focused. Minimize distractions. Use your brain well.

Few people do all three well, but many read advanced productivity books. This has always been a mystery to me: if you want to do something well, why not take care of the basics first? Why bother about stevia and skimmed milk in your coffee if all your meals come from McDonald’s? It seems that there’s some distrust in the simplicity of these things, as if their simplicity makes them less likely to work. People crave sophisticated methodologies instead; they want it SMART. Perhaps, that’s because these seemingly simple things — like eating 2-3 decent meals a day or turning off notifications — are actually very hard to do. I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that taking care of the basics pays off tenfold. Don’t screw it up.