- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

How to Stay Focused (Without Extra Caffeine)

This article was originally in my free newsletter, Learn Faster, Achieve More [1].

One of the questions I’ve been getting asked a lot about my MIT Challenge [2] is how can I stay focused during the long working hours?

Keeping up with the pace has meant working about 10-12 hours per day. But the time needs to be focused, not just long. Even being momentarily distracted can derail progress if you’re watching lectures at twice the normal rate.

In this email, I’m going to share the strategies I’m using to sustain focus. These strategies are all about tweaking your natural motivation cycles, so you don’t need to dose up on caffeine or illicit nootropics.

There are several key tactics I’ve found effective:

  1. Priming
  2. Distraction-free breaks
  3. Active work
  4. Fixed-scheduling

Priming: How to Leverage Momentum to Stay Focused

The first strategy I use I call priming, which is basically setting up your environment and work routine to make you want to get work done.

We all understand priming in its negative form. When you’re procrastinating and not following through on your work, it can be extremely hard to motivate yourself to get started. Even if the work is minimal, it can sometimes feel impossible just to start getting work done.

A major reason for this is negative priming. Once you start procrastinating, that influences your thinking patterns to make it harder to motivate yourself. Psychologists have documented the priming effect in many situations, so there’s no reason to expect it wouldn’t also apply with procrastination.

But just as negative priming can kill your momentum, positive priming can create momentum. If you plan out the associations in your environment, they can reinforce to make you more willing to work with less effort.

Here are a few of the ways I’ve been using priming to my advantage:

  1. Waking up early and starting work immediately. This isn’t to save time, it’s because waking up early, for me, is strongly associated with getting work done. When I wake up early (in contrast to my days off, when I often sleep in), I’m immediately giving myself a subconscious signal to work hard that day.
  2. Creating an action plan. Even if the work isn’t complicated, I frequently make plans since the plans themselves create a positive priming towards taking action. Of course, you can waste too much time planning, but spending ten minutes to outline what you’re going to accomplish in the next several hours can push you forward.
  3. Finishing a burst of work early. If you get work done earlier in the day, that also creates positive priming which will carry throughout the day. The days I can accomplish 2-3 hours of work in the morning are also the days it is much easier to keep working throughout the next 8 hours.

Distraction-Free Breaks: How Not to Kill Your Momentum

Needing breaks is an inevitability. And, sometimes, those breaks make sense. Taking 15 minutes away from a bug can help you think about the problem in a new way. Clearing your head can help you regain focus.

However, most people take stupid breaks. Not only in the timing of their activities, but the types of things they do on a break, all create opportunities to completely kill the momentum they established earlier.

Distraction-free breaks means taking breaks that won’t kill your momentum, so you can boost your energy back up without getting caught in a detour that will end up in procrastination.

The first rule of taking breaks is to never break with an activity that is engaging. Television, internet, video games, Facebook, phone texting, email or anything else which will occupy your mind. The reason for this is that you don’t want to replace the momentum you helped build with some other task.

Instead, I’ve found it far more effective to focus on breaks that are relaxing, but that I can easily snap out of to go back to work. Taking a short walk, drinking a glass of water or stretching are all good candidates. I’ve also found short naps helpful too, but they don’t seem to work for all people, so use with caution.

Now, this might sound like I’ve eliminated anything fun from the break. What’s the point of taking a break if you don’t really enjoy it?

But that is the point. Breaks aren’t about having fun, that’s what having real time off is for. Breaks are about strategically recouping your energy and focus to reattack the work at hand. Leave the television, games and entertainment for when you can relax guilt-free in the evenings.

Active Work: Or Why It’s So Hard to Stay Awake in Lectures

Passive tasks are much harder to focus on than active ones. For example, reading is harder to stay focused on than writing, watching lectures are harder to stay focused on than programming. Passive tasks are mostly observation, active tasks are mostly doing.

Because passive tasks make focusing difficult, and because so much of learning defaults to a passive task, many students find it incredibly difficult to stay focused for more than an hour or two at a time.

The key to change this is to either convert your passive learning tasks into active ones, or to intersperse your passive learning with active tasks to periodically increase your focus.

Here’s a few ways I’ve been using this:

  1. Making Tasks Active. For reading, this means using active reading techniques to make the reading process less passive. For watching lectures this means writing down your own insights and explanations instead of just transcribing what the lecturer is saying.
  2. Interspersing Active Tasks. Break up longer reading or listening sessions with active self-explanation tasks. This can mean doing Feynmans [3] or doing a quick self-test on the material.

Fixed-Scheduling: The Best Way to Work Hard is to Have a Life

The biggest way to cope with a large workload is to ensure yourself time off. It’s easy to burn yourself out by making the mistake of not working hard during the day and forcing yourself to keep working all night.

That’s why even when I’m feeling pressured, I always end my day at 7pm at the latest, and I always take Saturday off. Those two things are non-negotiable, and they help me keep my sanity.

Cal Newport calls this approach fixed-schedule productivity [4], and I’ve found it especially helpful when you need the flexibility to pivot and change your to-do list throughout the day, but you don’t want to risk overworking.

I use a hybrid of fixed-schedule’s firm boundaries on my workday and my own task-based time management system weekly/daily goals [5]. I prefer using just weekly/daily goals when my work can easily be divided up into tasks in advance, but I find it good to use both constraints when I might not know what work I’ll need to do (as can often be the case when I’m trying to learn a subject in just a few days).

The key, however, isn’t in which system you use, it’s that you clearly separate your work from your life. I see students falling into the trap of obsessive overwork all the time, not realizing how damaging that is to their overall productivity. Even working 65 hours per week and learning a class at 4x the pace, I make sure my evenings and Saturday are free, no exceptions.

The key to focus isn’t enormous willpower or substance abuse, it’s manipulating your own psychology and motivation circuits to get more work done. Most importantly, it’s about being strategic with your breaks and time off so you maximize your productivity instead of burning out the fuel that sustains you.

Side note: I wrote a book which combines all the tactics I use to stay productive. Normally it goes for full price, but my friends Adam and Karol have put together a huge discount which includes my book and tons of other great resources for mastering your life and business. You can check it out here [6], but the offer ends in 72 hours.