Heads down

Heads down work focus, by Justin Jackson

I’m always interviewing creative people; I like learning from folks who make cool stuff.

Over the years, I’ve built a pretty good network. When I ask someone if they can jump on a call, they almost always say yes.

But one time, Derek Sivers turned me down.

Here’s the email he sent me:

I’d love to do an interview! But could we wait just a few months?

I’m deep in the middle of my programming. Very head-down. Not much to say. I’d be a pretty bad interview right now.

But if you don’t mind waiting a few months, I’ll be more head-up with a lot of new stuff to talk about.

Is that OK? Ask me again after July or so?

Derek Sivers is one of the most generous people I’ve met: the kind of guy that will write a two-page response to a question I’ve asked him. But he also understands that a focused mind produces great work.

Here’s what I learned about focus

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this characteristic isn’t unique to Derek.

Almost all of the successful people I know create space for focused, uninterrupted, “heads down” time.

The problem, for most of us, is we’re always “heads up”. We’re scanning Twitter, answering emails, saying “yes” to new requests, going to meetings, reading the news, jumping on a new side-project, opening new tabs, and getting distracted by pop-up notifications.

In his 2012 SuperConf talkChris Nagele, the founder of Wildbit, explains how he produces high-quality work:

Building an amazing product is about being focused. Avoid multi-tasking. Sweat every single detail. Make sure it’s perfect.

Despite what some people tell you, you do have to work hard. It doesn’t mean you have to work 15 hour days. It does mean that when you do sit down to work, you need to put your head down and work. Get the fuck off of Twitter! If you’re getting distracted every 5 minutes, you won’t get any work done.

How to go heads down and do good work

To do this well, you have to prioritize and focus on one thing at a time. What’s the most important item you need to get done? Do that, and don’t get distracted by anything else.

  1. Start heads up. Figure out your priorities: what do you need to achieve? What’s your timeline? If you’re on a team, do this together.
  2. Find a place where you can work free of distractions.
  3. Dedicate your most productive time of day to working quietly, in solitude (ie. early mornings)
  4. Turn off notifications, close that email window, TweetDeck, and chat. Block tempting websites.
  5. Heads down. Commit to working distraction free. Focus on your goal. Start working!
  6. Finish what you’re doing. I’ve found that 10% and 90% done (respectively) are the hardest hurdles to overcome. Get over those humps, and keep going.

You can’t stay in heads-down mode forever; you’ll eventually find your rhythm: i.e., focused creative time in the morning, less creative tasks in the afternoons.

If we want to achieve the success of great creators we need to emulate their habits. Let’s practice being heads down.

You have to tune everything out, and just work. And you have to do that every single day. – Chris Nagele

I hope this is helpful for you!
Justin Jackson
@mijustin

Sketch by Karl Alfrink

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Published on June 6, 2013