A while ago I’ve read Christopher Lemmer Webber’s post Will your tooling let me go offline and found it inspiring (a lot of his blog is inspiring for me, for that matter).
It starts with a quote from Donald Knuth:
I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.
Source: Knuth versus Email.
Christopher complains about tools having online-only documentation, which is counterproductive because going offline is the key to good focus and productivity. I like the idea of going offline for certain periods of time a lot and would like to do it at work and in my private life, but sometimes it’s hard. But how hard is it, and how much of it is just my habit of being online?
Not knowing exact answers, I’ve decided to be going offline more often. Therefore, I have:
- uninstalled Fediverse client from my phone;
- extended periods between mail-checks on my phone and at work (main account: 1 hour, less important accounts: 3 hours);
- got rid of all email notifications at work – now I only check for email when I want to (though I keep a few custom notifications based on rules so I don’t miss on things that are actually important);
- set up Nextcloud applications Notes and Bookmarks, to be able to collect notes and references to use later;
- switched from Fennec to Firefox Focus;
- started using Android’s Do Not Disturb feature when doing something I want to focus on (e.g. writing this entry).
I’ve already been using bullet journal for some time, which also helps because it’s completely analogue and offline, so I can use it without my laptop or phone. I like it a lot for several reasons, but perhaps it’s a topic for a blog post of its own.
Apart from the list above, there are other things one can do to further limit distractions:
- full-screen mode of editor, IDE or whatever one’s using (and when full-screen is misssing, at least maximize the app);
- specific distraction-limiting features of one’s tools (e.g. IntelliJ IDEA has a distraction-free mode);
- one can always reduce the amount of information on the screen by customizing one’s tools. For instance, I’ve hidden almost all toolbars in MS Word at work, so I can focus on the text I’m reading (I rarely write anything).
All this is working great, esp. when used with some discipline and planning: I’ve set up calendar blockers for periods of time I want to use for uninterrupted work. Of course I’m flexible and can shift my blockers or cancel them altogether when there’s an important meeting I need to attend. But most of the timie it gives me a chance to focus and it’s got the additional benefit of a reminder, which helped me develop a habit.
What I like about my Nextcloud setup is that it gives me all I need to do to plan things and work on them: I put events in my calendar for things I don’t want to miss on particular day, I save bookmarks for things I want to read later or buy or work on in the future (e.g. when writing a longer text about a particular topic, it’s a great way to collect materials to read in preparation) and I keep notes about all this (things to write about, things I’ve read, etc.).
That Do Not Disturb feature of Android is also very useful, esp. thanks to the ability to define how long one wants to keep distractions away.
My main conclusion is that it pays off to learn one’s tools well because they can sometimes do a lot to help us stay focused. But of course even with the best tools, environment can always make it harder and then it’s all about creative approach and the art of the possible.