Graham's Guide To Doing Things
A collection of tips I use to focus on my most important tasks.
Published: November 6, 2022
Reading Time: 10 minutes
Graham’s Guide To Doing Things
After having a conversation with some coworkers recently, I’ve realized that I subconsciously do a lot to maximize my efficiency when trying to focus on a task. I decided to take inventory of all the strategies that have stuck with me over the years in an effort to distill them down into a few simple tips that I (and hopefully you) can remember for the next time you need to focus on something.
Think of these tips as tools in your toolkit, not a single tool that should be applied to everything. I encourage you to pick and choose which tools work for you and your situation. I think it is important to make this distinction because I do not want to give the impression that all of these tips can or should be applied to every situation. They are, instead, simply ideas I’ve found useful for problems I’ve encountered. Additionally, please use them responsibly as it is all too easy to burn out. Focusing intensely on something can, and I would argue should be fun, however, it is very easy to get caught up in the cycle of trying to achieve maximum efficiency.
The tips and strategies I have laid out in this post are not meant to be employed for 40 hours a week. If I’m employing them correctly, there is no way I would be able to use these tips for every task I need to focus on, but that is kind of the point. I don’t want to focus that intensely for 40 hours a week. I want to focus intensely for a few hours a week so my work doesn’t take me the whole 40 hours.
Often times I know I should sit down and simply focus on a single task, so why is this so difficult to achieve in practice? Enter: The whirlwind. The whirlwind, which I learned about by reading The 4 Disciplines of Execution, is the idea that a describes the “massive amount of energy that’s necessary just to keep your operation going on a day-to-day basis”. For the purposes of focus, I think of the whirlwind as “The massive amount of energy that’s necessary just to be focus on a single task”. The whirlwind is not just digital noise such as notifications, it is also the physical distractions that come from your surroundings, and mental noise that manifests itself as an urge to check twitter, discord, or work on some other less boring project. Here are some tips for managing to get focused work done in spite of the whirlwind.
Managing Digital Noise
- Decrease the size of your digital buffer, don’t have anything open that is not needed.
- Turn off all notifications and close everything that can pop up and distract you.
- Block distractions. I do this by blocking things at a DNS level using PiHole. Sure, it’s simple to undo but it creates friction.
Managing Physical Noise
- Noise canceling headphones are amazing. I use These Bose Headphones. A luxury for sure, but one worth investing in.
- Remove anything that can ding, beep, buzz, or sneeze. Phones, cats, siblings, roommates, etc. Put them or yourself in another room.
- I find that when I’m watching lectures or videos I like to do something with my hands. Flipping a pen/coin helps.
Managing Mental Noise
- This is hard and I’m not good at it.
- Keep a piece of scratch paper next to you. When you notice your brain wandering into “Oh I should do XYZ”, write it down and focus back on what you’re focusing on. You can come back to it later if it’s actually important
- Keep it limited. I bought a Cube Timer and try to only focus for 30 minutes at a time then take a short break. If I’m in a good Flow State I will keep working until I’m out of that flow state then take a longer break.
- I find having something interesting to drink helps me focus. Coffee (even when it’s decaf), Fresca, or flavored water are my go-tos.
- Make sure real life thing are in order. You’re not going to be able to focus if you’re stressed about something going on in the real world.
Refocusing When You Slip Up
It’s important to realize that all of this work to minimize the whirlwind is probably all in vain because the whirlwind always wins. There will always be times where you slip up and find yourself checking your email or twitter. To combat this, you need a plan for handling refocusing before you find yourself needing it. If all else fails for me and I am still finding myself distracted, I have a few ways to try and refocus.
- If I don’t need internet for the work I’m currently doing, I will physically unplug my Ethernet cord.
- If I find myself getting distracted too much, I will ask myself “Have I done enough today?”. If yes, I stop trying to focus for the day. Often times I don’t realize I’ve been focused for 4-5 hours. I’ve found that my upper limit is around 4 hours of focused work on a perfect day. That doesn’t mean you cant do other work, it just can’t be work that ignores the whirlwind.
- Is there something more important I need to be working on? Am I getting distracted because I have more pressing issues I need to focus on? If so, knock out those tasks and then try and refocus.
- Finally, if you must bring your work back into focus. Take a longer break. Go for a walk. Stand up. Change locations. Remind yourself why you’re focusing on this in the first place
It’s a Marathon Not a Sprint
Personally I find it very hard to not sprint towards finish lines. When I want to focus on something that has a finish line such as passing a certification exam, it takes everything I have in me to not spend every waking second trying to sprint to that finish line. This has bitten me more times than I care to admit. What inevitability ends up happening is I try sprinting to the finish and end up burnt out and in need of more time to recover than I would have needed if I just jogged to the finish line at a moderate pace. To combat this I have a few strategies I like to employ.
How To Not Burn Out Before You Reach The Finish Line
- Do your research. Have others done what you’re trying to do? Read posts about it, talk to people about it, learn about the common pitfalls.
- Set a finish line. Define some stopping point. This can be taking an exam, publishing a blog post, or simply setting an amount of time you will focus on something.
- Break down every type of task. Focusing on passing an exam may consist of 1. Reading the Textbooks 2. Watching related videos 3. Taking practice exams 4. Taking the exam
- Break down each task into manageable sections. Read Chapter 1 of book, watch lecture 1, take 1st practice exam, etc
- Schedule these small tasks. I like Gantt Charts but a normal calendar works too.
- Stick to your schedule as best as you can. It’s ok to not hit every goal every day. If you feel like it, you can do the next day’s task if you find you have extra free time.
Multithreading Your Schedule
I tend be in the midst of doing many things at once. One of the best ways I’ve learned to manage this is to multithread my schedule. This essentially means I try to batch different activities together in my day. This is fairly simple so I wont spent too much time on it, but I would like to give a quick example.
If the material I need to focus on is deeply technical, I try find that switching to something that is not technical at all much easier than switching from one technical task to another. This seems fairly intuitive, but there are lots of people who recommend the exact opposite by a task management strategy called batching where you batch all your similar work together. This may be theoretically more efficient (if you’re a robot), but for us mere mortals, it’s a sure way to lead to massive burnout and poor performance.
As a practical example, I did this while studying for the GSTRT (non technical) and GYPC (technical). There is no way I could focus on the technical content from the GPYC for 8 hours a day, but by doing some technical and some non-technical, I was about to stay focused for a longer period of time. I have no evidence to back this up, but anecdotally, I’ve found that switching to focusing on non-technical material lets your brain have a little big of a break while still absorbing new material.
Go Straight To The Source
Finally, one of the best things I have realized over the past few years is that you can learn a lot quicker if you go straight to the source of material. Reading something bland such as the RFC for the QUIC protocol is NOT fun but you will likely learn a lot more a lot quicker if you take a few hours to sit down and work through that material. The same is true with books or other textbook-like material. It is certainly not the most fun way to learn but personally I would rather focus on a book for 1 hour than focus on a video for 5 hours on someone explaining the same material.
I also found this applicable to many classes (college or otherwise) I have taken over the years. I could spend hours going to lectures and reviewing my lecture notes, or, I could simply read the book the class was based off of to get a more distilled lesson on whatever the subject may be.
Bonus: Ping Pong
I bring this up as a bonus point because it is a strategy that I never intentionally set out to do. I only notice I do it after I finish something that requires a lot of focus that I don’t necessarily want to be working on. Let me explain it with an example:
When I was in college I was really bad about writing papers. I would usually wait until the last day to start on a 5 page paper. After a while I noticed I would procrastinate on the important task by doing other things I should be doing when I don’t have a 5 page paper due the next day. Instead of writing my paper, I would tidy up my apartment, study for another class, or make pasta from scratch. Anything to not work on the most important thing I should be working on.
What I’ve noticed is that I could leverage this to get things done. If you need to focus on doing your taxes, any other no-so-appealing items on your to-do list seem much easier to do than they otherwise would. You can leverage this by working on the important task, then bouncing over to the unimportant things that would typically be mundane, but since you’re supposed to be working on something else, they seem much easier to get done. Again, I’m not sure how this works or how to employ it effectively, it is just something I notice I tend to do without even thinking about it.
As I touched on at the beginning of this post, not everything needs to be hyper efficient. In fact, trying to MinMax everything is another rabbit hole I’ve fallen into many times. You probably don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to do EVERYTHING in your life. You only have so much focus, don’t waste it on things that don’t matter, if you do, you won’t have the energy to focus on the things that do. I hope you can take something away from this. I certainly wish I knew some of these tips earlier in my career.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management For Mortals
The 4 Disciplines Of Execution
How to Burn Out In Infosec (and what you can do next)
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