Finding your ‘zone’ and staying there: rituals for sustained concentration
This weekend I supported a talented group of PhD students to reach and exceed their writing goals at the University of Bristol’s first Thesis Boot Camp. I created Thesis Boot Camp back in 2012 as a supercharged space for thesis writing, and soon after roped in my friends Dr Katherine Firth and Dr Liam Connell to further develop the concept.
Since, all three of us have continued to refine and enhance our writing events and advice, and Katherine recently began showcasing her updates in a series of Second Edition blog posts in which she revisits and augments some of her tips, tricks and methods. As I facilitated the Bristol Thesis Boot Camp, I started thinking about the way my own approach to ‘getting writing done’ has evolved over the past five years.
“Knowledge workers—writers and researchers prominent among them—must engage in periods of sustained concentration to succeed in their highly competitive industries.”
I’m a firm believer in continuous improvement, so when I recently shifted from university institute manager and part-time consultant to full-time freelance, it was a great opportunity for a productivity health check. I started with a re-read of Cal Newport’s 2016 book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Whether you agree with his ‘rules’ or not, Newport’s main message is powerful: knowledge workers—writers and researchers prominent among them—must engage in periods of sustained concentration to succeed in their highly competitive industries. In other words, they must spend significant amounts of time in a state of complete focus. Call it ‘flow’. Call it ‘getting in the zone’. Whatever you call it, you’ve got to go there. And you’ve got to be able to stay there long enough to make meaningful progress.
So how do you find your ‘zone’—that magical place of intense concentration where you unpick knotty problems; make breakthroughs; and produce, edit and polish significant amounts of written work? And how do you return there, again and again, without it being a battle or a roll of the dice?
Many of the anecdotes Newport shares could be read as rituals—performative sequences that signal to your body and mind that it’s time for some serious work. I used rituals while balancing full time work and writing up my PhD. I recommend them to RHD students who have attended a Thesis Boot Camp and want to later recreate the focus they experienced there. And now, a month into my new freelance routine, my ‘get in the zone’ ritual is working better than ever before—I can dive into deep work within a matter of minutes, and stay there for my daily target period.
What does my ritual involve? Other than commencing with a cup of something caffeinated, there’s three elements: eliminating temptation, blocking out distraction and pacing myself.
Once you’ve sat down to work (winning the battle of getting your bum in that chair is a topic for another post or three), the last thing you want is to fritter away your precious time. But when work gets difficult, when your attention wanders, there are so many temptations your inner procrastination monster will dangle in front of you. What’s worse, those temptations are only a mouse click away.
During my PhD, I used SelfControl, one of several free apps that help you avoid distracting websites. I set it up so that when I habitually tab-surfed to Twitter or a news site, my university’s home page would appear in its place, reminding me of the task at hand.
These days, I’ve switched to Freedom. For me, it’s more holistic. I can add multiple devices (no point in blocking something from your computer if you’re just going to pick up your phone and endlessly scroll). Freedom also lets me set up regularly occurring sessions during which custom-selected sets of apps or websites are made unavailable. This means I don’t have to use up any motivational energy on finding the discipline to switch it on. In addition to avoiding temptation while I’m in the concentration zone, it’s also helped me cultivate an internet-free-evenings habit. The benefit? When it’s next time to work, I return fully refreshed, making it much easier to get back in the zone.
Block Out Distraction
For lots of people, music is integral to the act of writing. I’m no different, though I can only listen to instrumental tracks—there’s no room for someone else’s words when I’m trying to compose my own. Back when I was in the write-up phase of my PhD, I created a playlist that was specifically for thesis writing. Hitting ‘play’ on the first track became one of the rituals at the start of any writing session. By the time I had finished my thesis, those first strains of the Elizabeth movie soundtrack induced an almost Pavlovian response. Wherever I was—café, home, library, office—my ears heard triumphant strings and my brain kicked into thesis gear. If you’ve never done it, I recommend giving it a try. Just be aware—it’s entirely possible you’ll be sick of whatever you choose by the end of your draft, so don’t ruin one of your Top 5 albums of all time, eh?
After recent experiments to increase my concentration levels, I’ve opted for a change of tune (oh yeah, I went there). For me, silence is too conspicuous, and yet I hadn’t found a background noise track that worked. Almost by accident I discovered Noisli, a website that streams free ambient noise. But it’s not just a single-flavour background track. There are 16 channels to choose from. Thunder. Leaves in the wind. A babbling brook. What’s more, you can create (and share!) your own custom mixes and save them, ready for next session. I’ve made several nature-based channels for different tasks—Stormy Admin; Focus Forest; Ideas by Campfire Light—now I can get that Pavlovian ‘in the zone’ response with the added benefit of being able to swiftly switch gears!
While Noisli has a handy-dandy timer of its own, as a long-time practitioner of the Pomodoro Technique, I like a few more bells and whistles to structure my concentration sessions. I’m also keen on not having to look at my phone for a timer (as I did with Pomodoro apps of days past). Of all the free Pomodoro timer apps I’ve tried over the years, Tomighty is now my stalwart favourite. It sits unobtrusively in my taskbar. For those who like to track achievements, it records how many sprints you complete each session (positive feedback—yay!).
Importantly for me, there are customisation options—you can change the number of minutes for work sessions and for breaks. Why I like this is that I’m no longer wedded to the strict 25-minute Pomodoro. It still works fine for some tasks, or when I’m tired, but for other activities (editing in particular), I like hour-long sessions of sustained focus. This is something I’ve worked up to over time. Metaphorically speaking, my ‘concentration muscles’ are stronger than they used to be, and so an hour suits me better than 25 minutes—with 5-minute breaks for grabbing tea in between.
In the zone
And that’s my ritual: when I sit at my desk, Freedom emancipates me of digital temptation, Noisli blocks out the world and gives my brain an audible concentration signal, and Tomighty helps me pace out structured work sessions…
Bam—I’m in the zone, and my brain knows to stay there.
While these tools are great places to start if you’re new to the idea of rituals, what works best for you will be as individual as you are. And, just as your overall priorities in work and life change over time, so can the effectiveness of particular rituals. Sometimes our route to optimum concentration can go stale.
So, even if you’ve already found something that works, I highly recommend putting a reminder in your calendar to review your rituals (say, every three months), or to reconsider them when you embark upon a new major project. Think of it as a productivity health check, or giving your concentration-scape a seasonal spruce up—so that you can continue to quickly and regularly find your zone, and stay there.