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Fixing Habits that Leach Productivity, Focus, & Attention

So I am writing this article more as a self reflection to see what I am doing wrong; what habits of mine are affecting my productivity, and what can I do to fix, amend, abrogate, or remove those bad habits.

Don’t listen to (dissonant) music while you study.

Although music is great for making an activity fun and to increase motivation, I found out after months of testing that music is not good for learning. Sure I can get a lot done while I am listening to music, but I can only focus on what is right in front of me while listening to music. I feel that music prevents me from being able to mentally take a step back and analyze the situation and to have an “internal discussion” about what I am learning about. Music spurs a person into action; but studying requires that you take a moment to think about what you just thought, or “digest” what you just learned.

If you listen to music while you study, you may find that you retain less of what you studied, unless you use a very active learning method. So I would recommend you to try learning the material with & without music, and take a while to observe in which context you remember more from what you studied. Note not to confuse the feeling of satisfaction from the dopamine that music hits you with vs. actually retaining what you learned. You can check how much you learned from the study session by quizzing yourself to repeat or to explain key pieces of information.

So now I study in the quite so that my thoughts aren’t dampered with music. If you work in a noisy environment, you could try using noise cancelling earphone (the ones that have rubber which fits into the ear snugly, and I find that it effectively blocks out sound) or headphones.

EDIT: After pondering on this for a while, I’ve reached an alternative conjecture. If you must listen to music while study, I recommend choosing tracts that don’t have vocals and aren’t dissonant. Dissonant music, or music that is highly unique without a rhythm is distracting and takes away from your attention. But music that is highly rhythmic can help you study, like the Trance Genre of music.

EDIT2: I’ve come to another realization. Yes, Music can be utilized for learning. But there is a condition and a con for it. First, the condition is that your brain metabolism is high- that your brain is getting enough fuel to function at a higher level. Then music can actually improve your mood for productivity.

However, you’ll notice that music becomes a distraction if your brain is in a state of low metabolism- meaning that the brain has fewer resources to work with. An example of a person in this state is if he or she is experiencing brain fog or heavy fatigue. In this state, you’ll notice that since your brain has fewer resources to work with, trying to listen to music while studying ends up becoming too much of a distraction.

Don’t drink (bad) coffee

God. I just love coffee. I really do. So it hurts me to say that you shouldn’t drink coffee while you study. Why, you may ask? That’s not because of coffee itself, per se, but because numerous other factors that are related to the coffee. Such as that coffee stresses the person out. It’s not the stimulation of caffeine that necessarily causes the undue stress upon the body, but a bad quality, staleness, bad brew and roasting methods. To make it short, good coffee makes you feel good, and bad coffee makes you feel bad by disturbing your stomach. Note that what disturbs your stomach, ie. pooping too much, will negatively affect the mind. Don’t you notice how little mental energy you have when you have diarrhea? Same thing happens to a lesser degree with coffee if it disturbs your stomach.

With this consideration, I’ve decided to adopt drinking tea which I believe is Nootropic and good for studying.

EDIT: So far, a pour over of this coffee is the best I’ve drank while studying: Kirkland Signature 100% Colombian Coffee Supremo Bean Dark Roast. I just add a cardamom pod per cup for flavor.

EDIT2: I found out a very important factor for brew coffee! Which is:

Do not agitate the coffee grounds during the brewing – Not only does highly agitating the coffee grounds while you brew the coffee make the coffee unpleasantly bitter, my stomach is extremely sensitive to coffee that is brewed with high amounts of agitation. So that caused me to feel like passing out while at the same time forcing me to rushing to the bathroom to relieve myself. The solutions is simple: use gentle brewing methods for coffee. I would either recommend a pour over that slowly drops the water very close to the coffee grounds as not to agitate them, full immersion brewing like the french press or the aeropress., or perhaps the easiest on the stomach is the cold brewing method for coffee.

EDIT3: I removed cardamom from the coffee because as a spice, it made my stomach more sensitive. Note that coffee gives stimulates peristalsis (muscular contractions that are responsible for our bowel movement) by coming in contact with the epithelial tissue lining the stomach and small intestines. So adding cardamom really was too much for me…

Drink Stimulating Herbal Tea

Herbal tea is awesome. But there is a key ingredient that many people would not consider at first. That is honey; which is excellent fuel for the brain & body in my experience. With this in mind, here is my recipe for making a fine stimulating herbal tea:

  1. Ginger
  2. Tulsi (teabag or loose leaf; I prefer to grow my own)
  3. Honey (I like this brand from Cosco, but I want to try this organic one)
  4. Green Tea (I use this brand: Gun Powder)

These 3 are the key ingredients for my herbal tea. This combo works just fine in my experience; but I also tend to add a small amount of green tea in accordance to my whim.

It’s all About Monitor Real Estate

Whether it be multiple monitors, or 1 huge monitor; the amount of “real estate” or area you have on a screen is extremely important. Your monitor is like your work space; it’s harder to work in a cramp work space vs. a comfortably wide and spacious work space. You need room to take in all the variables and spread your tools in an organized fashion. Similarly, the more room you have on you have on your computer display(s), the easier it is to work in general.

If you wonder whether to use 1 big monitor or multiple smaller monitors, I would recommend going with 1 huge monitor because:

  1. There won’t be any black bars & spaces in between screen displays
  2. You don’t have to turn your head to the left or right, which becomes uncomfortable for an extended period of time.
  3. You can virtually split your screen to view multiple files at once.

Otherwise, multiple smaller monitors are simply a cheaper alternative.

(I am planning to upgrade to one of these two beautiful ultra-wide monitors when my budget permits: The Dell UltraSharp or The Acer Predator)

How to Divide Up Monitor Space

Usually, I need to see many things at once. If you want to view a 2-4 windows at once, first arrange the windows you have opened into different quadrants. Then move your mouse cursor to your toolbar, where the time is. Right click and select show windows side by side or show windows stacked.

Toolbar Right CLick

You’ll get something like this:

4 windows, 2 monitors

Use the Best Gear

For our professional occupation, we tend to use the same gear all day long, for months to years at a time. Because we spend a lot of time using our gear, doesn’t it make sense to invest in high quality gear we use to make a living? That way, we can excel at those tasks and get more done in the end.

For example, a typist or transcription would perform better with a fine mechanical keyboard vs. some generic cheapo delux mechanical keyboard that is hard to use. As a blogger, I upgraded from my generic dell rubber dome keyboard to a high quality magicforce 68 key backlit keyboard that is a joy to type on.

Similarly, you should make sure that you can prepare the best work space for your self, given that we spend a large chunk of our lives “living” in there. Once important thing to keep in mind is to make sure that you eliminate those small “discomforts” and bad postures for where you work, given that things tend to add up overtime. I go over this in detail in my article here: Work Space Ergonomics.

Brain Fuel

Being able to focus on the task at hand is extremely important to being productive at your task at hand. You need to make sure that you get enough sleep, consume the proper “brain fuel” and that you make sure that you don’t get distracted while you are working.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve developed a nice tea combo that keeps me going throughout the day. But it is also important to notice the food that we consume. We are what we eat, and we run on the fuel that we give our bodies. If you give yourself “bad” fuel, you’ll quickly run out of energy and crash. If you give yourself “good” fuel, you can keep running at a rapid pace throughout the day. What can be considered as “good” fuel is food that is “balanced”; that 1/3 of the food should be carbs, 1/3 protein, and (perhaps less than) 1/3 in healthy fats like coconut oil.

Also, the amount that we eat at one sitting can greatly affect our energy levels throughout the day. For example, if you eat very small amount of food, but frequently, you should be able to stay energized throughout the day because you are only replenishing the glucose levels that has become depleted. But if you eat big meals, frequently or infrequently, your body will release a bigger amount of insulin to compensate the extra glucose that needs to be stored as fat; and you’ll become sleepy and feel brain fog.

I’ve also read that caffeine greatly increases our ability to uptake and metabolize glucose; preventing excess glucose from the food that we eat from becoming fat and therefore minimizing the insulin response that makes us fall asleep. So a that’s just another reason why caffeine is so commonly consumed to increase the amount of “energy” we have to get things done.

Eliminate All Distraction

One important thing you can do is eliminate the distractions that impede your workflow. It is important to eliminate distractions because when we start working, we develop a type of “inertia” for what we are doing. But with every break in our concentration causes us to loose that inertia; and it takes time to build that workflow inertia back up, because many tasks require keeping a lot of information in the form of short-term memory that is “lost” when we get distracted. (Another reason why music can impede your workflow; your paying attention to how good the music sounds, not what you are doing right now).

So that means you have to:

  • Find work space where others don’t come and disturb you, that is free from distracting sounds (or you can get noise cancelling ear gear; like the ones I’ve linked above).
  • Temporarily turn off or block all notification services, whether it be on your smart phone, computer, or other electronic devices
  • Work in a place that is free from temptations.  ie. working in the kitchen may tempt you to snack all the time, or in the bedroom may tempt you to take a rest & fall asleep, or near your entertainment center will tempt you to take a break and have some “fun”. That’s why I don’t have video games installed on the PC that I use for working.
  • Write down what distracts you from your work. Usually while I am working on something, I can get sidetracked if I remember something else that I need to do. Instead of diverting from what I am currently working on, I write down that thought on a notepad or any random piece of paper that I have at hand in order to return to that thought later.

Another thing you can consider is making your learning experience as immersive as possible. For example, video gamer can keep playing continuously for hours at a time with an extreme level of concentration. That’s because playing video games is a “immersive” experience.

But to make studying immersive, you have to look at what takes you away from what you are learning, or what keeps you from learning easily or comfortably. My personal example is that I used to use an old prescription eye wear for my myopic vision. But what I didn’t realize is that straining to see what was shown on the monitor, even a little, detracted from my learning experienced. So for me, a better prescription eye wear helped make my learning experience more “immersive”.

Our Productivity is Dependent on the Time of Day

I should I have realized this sooner, but the time of day in which we work has a major impact on our productivity. I am sure you’ll notice that at different times of day, we have different amounts of energy. For me, I find that I have a ton of energy that keeps falling until noon, and I get a small pick-up when I should be in bed at night. You’ll notice a lot of people decide to sleep paste the optimal bedtime because of this “second wind”.

So plan your actions according to what happens at different times throughout the day. For example, when I am at my bottom low during the noon, I try to get in a moderate amount of exercise to get me back up to speed for the rest of the day.

I also found that stimulants taken during the wrong time have the opposite effect. For example, if I drink coffee first thing in the morning, then I end up crashing or feeling low on energy in just a few hours. Even if I drink more caffeine when that happens, at that point I already feel exhausted. I would say that caffeinated beverages, especially coffee seems to force the energy out of me; such that not much more can be pressed out when taking the caffeine for the 2nd or 3rd time.

So what is the optimal time to take a caffeinated beverage? When you reach your bottom for the day. That means noon for me. You shouldn’t have to drink coffee in the morning; a healthy or balanced person’s body normally should have plenty of energy after rest.


The Revisionist

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2 thoughts to “Fixing Habits that Leach Productivity, Focus, & Attention”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I found that eliminating distraction is very important for me. One other thing that I like to do when I need to think through a problem is to take a long hike in the forest or muntains (some natural setting). This lets me enter a more diffuse mode of thinking.

    One recommendation that might be useful is the Coursera class Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects which is taught by Barbara Oakley (an engineer) and Terry Sejnowski (neuroscientist). You have already figured out a lot of their ideas but that course may help you find a few new tips.

    1. That’s really good advice, actually. Taking time to relax allows the thoughts to flow naturally in my experience. Do you have any specific links from the Coursera classes that you recommend?


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