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There are a couple of scenes in The Social Network (the movie about Facebook’s creation) where someone describes one of the movie characters as being “wired in.” The character is shown typing code, headphones on, a bottle of highly-caffeinated soda nearby, and totally oblivious to the rest of the world. The character is laser-focused, completely engaged with his work. He’s “wired in.”
I love being wired in. It’s when I do my best work. My version only occasionally involves typing code, and rarely includes soda. But when I manage to get wired in, my work is more efficient, my efforts are more effective, my writing comes through more freely, and I just simply get more done. The trick is figuring out how to get wired in.
If you wait for it to “just happen,” it probably won’t.
We’ve all had times when we’ve sort of spontaneously gotten “in the zone” and been really focused and efficient. But we’ve all had more times when we’ve spontaneously frittered away our time on social media or websurfing or being “busy” but not being effective. If we want to be consistently effective with our time and energy, we can’t leave it up to chance. We have to design a way to guide ourselves to that wired in state. The specific details of how you do that will differ from person to person, but here’s the basic framework for how to get wired in, get focused, and get your work done.
1. Proactively eliminate potential interruptions.
Before I get wired in, I make sure my dogs’ water bowls are filled and that they’ve been outside recently, so that they’re not likely to interrupt me while I’m working. I also check in with myself: am I hungry? (If so, grab a snack.) Am I chilly? (If so, throw on a hoodie.) Do I have anything else pressing on my mind? (If so, jot down those forget-me-nots in my notebook to deal with later.) By taking care of the “usual suspects” of interruptions ahead of time, I make it easier for myself to succeed in getting wired in.
2. Establish a pattern that tells your brain it’s time to focus.
Our brains like patterns. The first few times we make a concerted effort to wire in and focus, our brains might resist, especially if we’ve established a pattern of getting distracted whenever we sit down to work. But you can re-write your patterns. When it’s time to get wired in, I make myself a cup of hot tea, I light a Wood Wick candle (which makes a crackling sound like a real fire), and I light a stick of incense. There’s nothing magic about those three actions, but because I do them each time I sit down to focus, my brain knows the pattern. Now as soon as I start making that cup of tea, my brain starts getting into “focus mode.” It knows what’s coming. It knows the pattern. Those three actions set the stage for getting wired in.
3. Know what it is you’re going to do.
Do not sit down to focus, and then look at your to-do list and decide what to tackle. Adding decision-making to the process makes it harder to get wired in, because you’ll wind up with an inner dialogue: “I could do Task A, which would be quick… but I should do Task B because that’s really stressing me out and I’d like to just be done with it… although Task C could probably get done pretty easily and then I could Task B next… but maybe I should just do Task A and then Task C and leave the stressful Task B for later…” And by the time you settle on what you’re doing, you’ve used up a chunk of your wired-in time. So make the decision before you sit down to get wired in. Brainstorm your to-do list, then review it and pick out between 1 and 3 things you want to focus on. Then when you sit down to get wired in, there is no inner dialogue about the tasks–there’s just a clear direction for your attention.
4. Wire out.
In order to get wired in to our work, we have to wire out of email and social media. If you can go offline to do your work, that’s a great option. But if you’re like me and need to be online to do your work, you have to find a workaround. My workaround is an app called Concentrate. Concentrate lets you set up a series of actions your computer performs on command to help you focus and eliminate distractions. I have Concentrate block several websites (including Gmail, Twitter and Facebook), open the Freckle timer (my time-tracking software), and launch iTunes. You can also have it open specific websites, open documents, play sounds, speak messages to you, and more. I love it, and you can download it and use it for 60 hours for free, if you want to give it a whirl.
5. Choose the right background noise.
Some of us work best when there’s total silence. If that’s you, do your best to create that. Turn off the television or leave the room where others are watching it, close your office door, use earplugs, or use noise-canceling headphones with low “white noise” playing to help block ambient sounds. I work best with certain kinds of music playing. I created a playlist in iTunes called “Focus,” and I put all of my concentration-supporting music in that playlist. (For me it’s an eclectic blend of classical, jazz, trip-hop, new age, nature sounds, Indian club tunes & electronica/trance.) When I’m ready to get wired in, I turn on my Focus music. (I also like the sound of that Wood Wick candle I mentioned–that plus the Focus music is the perfect background.)
6. Build in breaks.
Once you’re wired in, it’s tempting to just push yourself to keep working until you’re totally spent. But if you do that, you’re likely to feel burned out, and you won’t be able to consistently get wired in–you’ll be sporadic, rather than making it a daily practice. We don’t want that. So make sure you build in breaks for yourself. (Plus, it’s not healthy to sit still for hours on end–your body needs to move around and stretch a bit, and your eyes need to look at something other than a notebook or computer screen!) You can use a timer on your computer, watch or cell phone to mark the time. If you use Concentrate (or a similar app) you can set it to notify you after a certain amount of time. Or you can use your background noise: I set up a Smart Playlist in iTunes that randomly selects 55 minutes of music from my Focus playlist. I start playing the music when I start working, and I know when the music stops, it’s time for a stretch break.
7. Do not kick your own butt when you can’t get wired in.
You know how when you have insomnia, the worst thing you can do is lay there in bed thinking, “I should be sleeping right now. I’m going to be exhausted tomorrow if I don’t go to sleep. Why can’t I sleep? I should be asleep! SLEEP, dammit, sleep!” Similarly, the worst thing you can do when you can’t get wired in is berate yourself about it. Despite what corporate schedules would have us believe, we are not always “on” day after day, week after week. Some days we’re scattered and unfocused, and no amount of hot tea and good playlists will change that.
Kicking your own butt every time you try to get wired in and don’t quite get there, will result in your brain associating sitting down to focus with kicking your own butt. Unsurprisingly, this will probably lead to you resisting sitting down and focusing. So don’t go down that path. You will have days when you can’t get wired in. That’s okay. Use those days to do tasks that don’t require laser focus and lots of brain juice. Or use those days to run errands and tidy the house. Or use those days to play hooky and read a fun book or watch Glee episodes on your DVR. And then get wired in again tomorrow, refreshed and reset.