FF Life: Focus

July 15, 2023: How to filter out distractions

N S Ramnath

[From Unsplash]

In the age of digital distractions, the best way to focus is to turn the clock backwards. Switch off the computer. Lock the smartphone in a locker. Shut yourself in a room with pen and paper. But even if you have to use a computer, use it without connecting it to the internet. Writer Jumpa Lahiri once said she writes on a laptop that's not connected to the internet, and that perhaps makes her writing timeless.

However, not everyone can afford that luxury. Often our job demands us to be connected.

Mystics and spiritual gurus have long advised us to be in the world, but not of the world. (Or as the Bible says, “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.” (John 17:11, 14–15.)

In a similar vein, we have to figure out a way to be in the interconnected digital world, yet off it. Here are three tools and two books that have helped me to remain focused.

iA writer 

iA Writer is a simple writing app that helps you focus on your content. It has a minimalist design stripped of unnecessary features. When you write, you can just stay focused on writing. This makes it a great tool for people who easily get distracted, like I do. iA Writer also has Markdown support. (Markdown is a lightweight markup language that’s used for formatting text in a plain text editor. It is platform independent and can be created and read on any platform or device using any text editor.) This makes it especially useful for me, because Obsidian, my default app for note taking, also uses Markdown files.


SelfControl is a free app that blocks distracting websites and emails for a set period of time. To use it, you simply download the app, add the websites you want to block to your blacklist, and set a timer. Once the timer starts,you won't be able to access those websites or emails. I find it helpful when I know I have to get something done, but don't have a deadline to make me focused.

Noise canceling headphones 

Some years ago, I gifted myself Bose QuietComfort Noise Canceling headphones mainly because I wanted to listen to high-quality music while relaxing. But, I soon found it to be a tool for focus—in an obvious way, and in a non-obvious way. The obvious way is to listen to some instrumental music while you are at work. The non-obvious way: it acts as a signal to those around you that you are busy, and are not to be disturbed.

In addition to these tools, here are two books that helped me.     

Indisractable by Nir Eyal

My most important takeaway from the book is an understanding of internal and external triggers. As Eyal explains it here:

“Internal triggers cue us from within. When we feel our belly growl, we look for a snack. When we’re cold, we find a coat to warm up. And when we’re sad, lonely, or stressed, we might call a friend or loved one for support.

External triggers, on the other hand, are cues in our environment such as the pings, dings, and rings that prompt us to check our email, answer a phone call, or open a news alert. External triggers can also take the form of other people, such as a co-worker who stops by our desk to chat. They can also be objects, like a television set whose mere presence urges us to turn it on.

Whether it’s an internal or an external trigger that prompts us, the resulting action is either aligned with our broader intention (traction), or misaligned (distraction). Traction moves us toward our goals; distraction moves us away from them.”

Also listen to Charles Assisi's conversation with Nir Eyal 

The Art of Bitfulness by Nandan Nilekani and Tanuj Bhojwani

My key takeaway from this book is to have separate environments for creation, communication and curation. It can be separate physical devices or virtual environments.

As Nandan Nilekani explained to us in a Twitter conversation, “I do this through physical devices. Create—I always do that on my laptop in the same place in my office with the right lighting. I do all my curation—reading—on my iPad. And communication I do on my phone—calls and SMSes. So I use three different devices. The context is set when I pick up that device. People like Tanuj use one device for all.”

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About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Senior Editor

Founding Fuel

NS Ramnath is a member of the founding team & Lead - Newsroom Innovation at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book, The Aadhaar Effect. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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