Analog and Digital Tools for Effective Single-Tasking
Working with complex ideas requires deep, focused attention. There are several inputs competing for our attention at any given moment. We may routinely receive text messages from friends, notifications from social media, and emails from work colleagues, all while we aim to make progress on individual projects. We can’t attend to every source at once. In fact, our attention is quite limited, and attempts to multitask are often linked with poor performance. That is, none of the tasks are performed as well as they could be. So how do we focus our attention and improve our work? How do we select what enters our attentional “bottleneck” (simplified depiction below)? Managing time is arguably the most important factor for managing attention. I have been able to minimize the constancy of daily distractions and think more clearly using a set of analog and digital time management tools. These tools have helped me to find focus as a graduate student, academic researcher, and writer.
Analog Time Management Tools
A Simple Timer to Restrict Your Focus
“Stay focused and maintain a single attentional set through to completion of a job. Organizing our mental resources efficiently means providing slots in our schedules where we can maintain an attentional set for an extended period. This allows us to get more done and finish up with more energy.” – Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind
Since we can only meaningfully focus on one thing at a time, we can manage our time and attention by setting time constraints for individual activities. For example, two hours of the day may be spent on reading new literature and research, while another two hours may be dedicated to drafting grant proposals. These two tasks — reading and writing — can be time blocked in a daily plan (see Cal Newport’s time blocking method here). We can ensure that we adhere to a two-hour window for both tasks using simple countdown timers. For example, I often block off writing periods during my day and measure my writing time using the Time Timer (see image below). My Time Timer is one of my favorite devices because it helps me to visually “see” time as it passes. In other words, the visual timer makes the passage of time more concrete and keeps me focused on working towards a single, specific goal, instead of allowing myself to get distracted by things that are not planned for the present time block. During the time period that I set on my Time Timer, which could be anywhere from 10-60 minutes, I avoid other potential tasks or notifications. The goal is to remain focused on the single, predefined task while not allowing my attention to be distracted with other, unplanned things.
Having this time-based system also helps with knowing when a break might be necessary, as the Time Timer alerts at the end of the time period in four short, tolerable beeps. For those who find taking breaks difficult, these timers can artificially create the conditions to take a break. When the timer goes off, I typically commit to taking at least a 5-10 minute off period (similar to a Pomodoro, on-off, work style).
Although my Time Timer is my favorite machine to help me stick with time blocks and regular breaks, a basic kitchen timer would work just as well. The important aspect of the timer is that it can be set for a specific amount of time to facilitate a focused work session within that time period.
Digital Time Management Tools
Similarly, timers on mobile devices and associated apps allow for time blocking and Pomodoro (i.e., off-on work) sessions. A few of my favorite digital time blocking tools are: Flow, Focus, and Forest. Each of these apps encourages users to work on a specific task for a set time period. Some of them even punish users for leaving the app during a work session. For example, the Forest app involves growing digital trees and creating a visual representation of the focus sessions that were completed (see example below). If any session is abandoned and the user decides to open a different app before the planned amount of time passes, the tree dies. Forest, Flow, and Focus each provide stats for time spent on particular tasks and can thus encourage users to maintain their attentional focus on a given task.
Although digital time management tools have their perks, analog versions (Time Timer, kitchen timer) are less likely to draw their users into a hole of distractions. For example, any device with an internet connection may lead people into “Infinity Pools”, which are essentially endless streams of content, as described by Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky in Make Time. Examples of Infinity Pools are YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and even Medium. There is no definitive end to any of these platforms, and thus, one could spend an excessive amount of time continuously consuming content. We’ve all found ourselves spend hours scrolling on our phones on some site (guilty Redditor here!). Similar to finding ourselves lost in Infinity Pools, notifications can also drastically shift our attentional focus. Notifications tend to be automated on mobile devices and have the ability to steal attentional focus from the initial task, making it difficult to pick up from the previous stopping point. Thus, while breaks are necessary during long work sessions, digital plundering could complicate the break-to-work transition. If possible, I recommend using analog time management tools instead of digital ones, as they are much less likely to disturb workflows.
A Word About Time Anxiety
Time blocking and timers can sometimes induce time anxiety. The idea of putting a time limit on a task can add some degree of pressure to complete the task within those time constraints. However, completion need not always be the goal. Sometimes setting a work period for single-tasking is enough. In others words, the time goal may be as simple as “spend two hours writing up a rough draft” or “read new research for two hours.” The fail state, in this case, involves not working for enough time instead of not completing any specific task. This goal restructuring is the primary method that’s helped me to reduce time anxiety. An additional strategy is to avoid looking at the countdown timer during work sessions and only wait for the buzzer sound. The subconscious awareness that the timer is moving is often enough to incite a healthy amount of urgency, but not full blown time anxiety. An interesting method is to avoid timers with prominent numerical representations. Visual timers, including the Time Timer, are good examples. Although the Time Timer has numbers to indicate minutes, there is no second-by-second countdown that can sometimes be distracting. If you decide to forego the analog method, there are several digital tools that can display a visual representation of time, including Focus, Tomato Timer, and Emphasis.
How We Spend Our Time Is a Clear Indication of What’s Important to Us
“If you reduce a few distractions, increase your physical and mental energy just a bit, and focus your attention on one bright spot, a blah day can become extraordinary. It doesn’t require an empty calendar—just sixty to ninety minutes of attention on something special. The goal is to make time for what matters, find more balance, and enjoy today a little more.” – Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky, Make Time
There are so many things that we could be doing at any given moment. Every time that we choose to work on one thing, we are deciding that that particular task is the most important thing to us at that moment. We are saying no to every other thing that we could be doing to focus on a single task and to do it well. Scheduling time and committing to planned time blocks can help us give our full attention to a single, predefined task. As we strive through a world that is full of as many meaningless distractions as profitable opportunities, I hope that we can continuously improve our time management and thereby our attentional focus.
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