I've been reading Cal Newport's Deep Work, where he posits that to do our best work we require prolonged sessions of intense focus, what he refers to as deep work. In order to achieve this intense focus we need to isolate ourselves from any distractions that might steal our attention.

My line of work, data analysis and research, requires this kind of intense focus that Newport discusses. So I decided to look at my environment at work and try to get rid of distractions or manage them as best I can.

There are many areas of my work space that I would deem sub-optimal for performing deep work. Many of them I can do little about; others, nothing at all.

I share a small office with 5-8 other people. I'm an arms-length away from my colleagues which means they can easily get my attention. Luckily, everybody tends to leave eachother alone and if you have headphones on that's a clear sign you're in focus-mode.

The biggest area for improvement is a common source of distraction, my phone. I've been experimenting with the best settings to minimize distractions during work hours, while remaining open to conversations with my friends and family when I'm away from the office.

Initially I thought about implementing a two-mode solution. One set of settings for work hours blocking all but the most essential notifications/sounds; and another for after work that re-enabled most sounds. Unfortunately, on iOS there is no easy way to toggle sounds on some apps but not others. Each app needs to be switched individually, which is not practical for every day use.

Do Not Disturb (DND) is a great feature, but all applications are treated equally. There is no distinction between an important OmniFocus/Calendar reminder and a non-urgent iMessage or DM on Tweetbot. It's an all or nothing proposition.

A customizable partial DND mode would be useful. You would get vibrates and alarms from some applications but not others.

The other problem is that calls coming from WhatsApp and Line are muted. As I live in a different country from anybody who would call me [1], people prefer to use these free services instead of paying for a call. It's an unfortunate, though understandable, technical limitation.

The solution is suboptimal, I will have to make it clear to people that if I need to be reached they should call me through Facetime or phone call. However, at that point im having to ask people to change how the act for my convenience because of a technical limitation. It feels a little wrong.

I could just use Airplane Mode to shut off all communications, leaving notifications from OmniFocus and the calendar still enabled. But I'm not comfortable with the possibility of missing an emergency call from my family or my partners for the sake of improving my focus at work.

If you're looking for a solution, sorry to disappoint but I've not come up with anything wholly satisfactory. If you have any ideas please feel free to share them in the comments below or on twitter.

Actually, the last option is to set my phone on fire and go on a mediation retreat in Nepal. That sounds tempting. They have phone lines in buddhist convents for emergencies, right?

So how do you handle phone notifications/vibrates and distractions during focus sessions? Have you got a cool phone setup to share? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

Have a nice day. Until next time.

-- Jay Blanco

  • [1]: What a sad realization to have in the middle of an article about notifications.