I’m like a pigeon. I am so easily distracted. If you saw how many Google chrome tabs I have open at once, you’d know what I mean.
When I was walking around in SF in Soma, I saw a sign that said:
It really stuck to me the next few weeks. What is “deep focus” anyways?
Some people call it the “zone”.
What is the “zone”? The zone is when you eliminate all distractions— and you’re fully-concentrated at the work at hand.
Let me tell you a story (this comes from “The Second Book of the Tao”) about a master woodworker named Ch’ing.
The Tao of Woodworking
The story goes that Ch’ing (master woodworker) is talking to a king, and the king says that his works are all masterpieces— and how amazed people are by its beauty and grace. The king says, “It is so beautiful, the people think that a god must have made it.”
When the king asks Ch’ing what his secret is— Ch’ing admits it is quite simple, all he has to do is “Concentrate my mind.”
How does he concentrate his mind? His plan is the following:
He goes into the woods and meditates.
- After 3 days, he eliminates all thoughts of “praise” or “blame”
- After 5 days, he eliminates all thoughts of “success” or “failure”
- After 7 days, he doesn’t identify himself with a body
At this point, he says, “All of my power is focused on my task; there are no distractions.”
Then he just walks over to the wood, and his entire body, mind, and soul becomes engrossed into the work. The wood ends up “cutting itself”— and magically the beautiful piece of art appears.
What prevents us from being in “the zone”?
You know the “zone” when you see it. You see the NBA player on the free-point line, and his entire mind is focused on hitting that one shot to win the game. You can see it when you see a guy doing parkour and about to do a backflip off a wall— all his focus is in landing that jump (and not landing on his face). You can see it when you see a writer at a cafe, plugged into his laptop, and typing furiously with the words streaming out his fingertips. You can see it in the grandma on the bus— whose entire focus is on knitting the little wool hat she is working on her for her little grandchildren.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist who discovered this mental state (or at least made it academic), and he called it “flow.” Pretty much being “in the zone” and “flow” are the same thing.
So why is it so hard to be in “the zone”? The culprit: distractions.
Distractions are human
As human beings we are wired for distractions. In-fact, if we didn’t get easily distracted, we would have died off millennia ago.
Imagine you are a hunter-gather on a plain. You walking, enjoying yourself in the sun, and then you hear a rustling from the nearby bush. Your ears perk up, your shoulders tense— “What is behind there— a friend, foe, or wild bear?”
This would keep you from dying.
Unfortunately in today’s world, distractions are all around us. Think about it— when is the last time you had a full hour to yourself, without someone calling you, texting you, IM’ing you, emailing you, someone barging into your cubicle and asking you to do something, or hearing some annoying kid shout out which ruins your focus?
Fuck distractions. The only way to conquer them is to be ruthless.
Hack away at the inessential
Bruce Lee once said that everyday we shouldn’t seek to add things; rather everyday we should be ruthless and hack away at the inessential.
For example, in martial arts, rather than knowing 1000 different moves, it is better to master 1–2 moves.
In today’s digital world— everyone is vying for your attention. Pop-up ads, Twitter streams, Snapchats, Facebook status updates, Tweets— it is all there to distract you from your life’s mission.
For me, I am still fighting an onslaught of distractions. I have the hardest time focusing, but here are some practical tips which have helped me:
1. Turn off the internet
I know this is scary, but probably it is the most effective trick. Download the “Freedom” app— and literally shut off your entire internet for an hour–3 hours at a time.
I find myself going down rabbit holes whenever I open up my web browser. Then I end up on Wikipedia. Then before you know it, I’m watching funny cat videos on YouTube and I think to myself (“How the fuck did that happen?”)
I know if you have a full-time job (especially in tech), someone expects an email response for you after 5 minutes. It sucks I know. So you can’t really control not being interrupted or distracted when at work. However, my suggestion of shutting off the internet is when you have your own free time.
So for example, when you get off work (6pm) and by the time you get home (maybe 7pm), turn on the “Freedom” app and turn off your internet until 7am the next morning. This means from 7pm-midnight (5 hours, a lot of time)— you won’t be distracted by “teh interwebz” (which is more addictive than crack cocaine, so I’ve heard).
I know a lot of people who complain not having enough energy or time to do their passion or life’s work. Honestly, I’ve been there— and that was just me making excuses for my own life. The problem was that I just had an infinite amount of distractions (social media, email, random social gatherings) which distracted me.
Even now, I woke up today at 9am (a little later than usual), but I want to keep my time until now until noon (at least) golden. So I turned on my “Freedom” app and I have my internet blocked for 3 hours. I’m (what you call) “in the zone”. Oh yeah, coffee or caffeine helps (I’m on my third single ristretto espresso— actually a lot less caffeine than normal drip-coffee; made it at home).
2. Everyday uninstall one app
I am a sucker for apps; I want to find the newest more “revolutionary” or “game-changing” app which will fix all my life’s problems. Trust me; I’ve downloaded all of them, and I look at the app store everyday to find that new revolutionary app to be more “productive”, “efficient”, and “optimized”.
Once again— these are all just further distractions.
I’ve found the opposite to be more beneficial for “deep focus” — everyday hack away at the inessential by uninstalling one app.
At first, it is hard. We have some sort of fear uninstalling apps. Why? There is that whole “what if?” syndrome— we are afraid we might find ourselves in a situation when we need that app— if it is a life/death situation.
Honestly that is bullshit. We’ve existed so long without smartphones (especially email on our phone).
What I’ve personally done:
- Uninstalled all social media apps from my phone (occasionally re-install Instagram onto my phone because I’m still addicted to “likes”)
- Uninstalled email from my phone (holy shit, this is seriously the #1 best ‘hack’ for staying focused on your work and more-present— especially when having dinner with friends or close ones)
- Turned off all notifications (even text messages) so I don’t have random shit popping up in my face when I’m trying to do something else on my phone
I am not telling you to do everything I did. But experiment.
Are you the guy who is waiting for the restroom for 30 seconds, and you have to take out your smartphone and check Instagram? I’m that guy— except I will read on my Kindle app on my phone for 30 seconds. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to stand around for 30 seconds, and just do nothing.
3. Learn to say “no”
Steve Jobs said that innovation isn’t saying yes to good ideas; but to saying “no” to thousands of good ideas— and just focusing on the 1–3 good ideas, and eliminating the rest.
I’m still really bad at saying “no”— a lot of people will ask me to meet up, to have a coffee, or to “pick my brain.” I love meeting people and I love humanity and my fellow human-beings; but honestly, I need to learn how to say “no” more often.
Time is the most valuable resource we have. We’re only born with a limited amount of it (if we’re optimistic, lets say we can live 80 years in a somewhat healthy condition).
Imagine a smartphone battery: you start off the day with 100%, and by lunch-time you might already be down at 30% (why haven’t they invented a smartphone battery that can really last you all day?).
Imagine your life is the same. You are born with 100% of your battery, and everyday your charge is slowly draining from you. If you’re in your late 20’s, early–30’s, you might have a good 50 years ahead of you in terms of living.
But then again- you don’t know whether you will get into a car accident (become paralyzed), whether you will suffer a stroke and be strapped to a wheelchair, whether you will get into a motorcycle accident and lose access to your chin-down (happened to a friend of a friend), whether you will lose your mental sanity (I think my Dad lost his a few years ago), or whether you will get into a car accident and die (happens all the time).
I don’t know about you— but I often get “charge anxiety” — if I’m low on my battery on my smartphone (less than 30%), I feel extremely anxious if I don’t have my charger with me, and there isn’t a plug close-by.
Unfortunately in real life, we don’t have a charger. No matter how rich we are, no matter how much kale, quinoa, blueberries, probiotics, whatever we consume— we can never “recharge” our life— or add years to our life. Once we’ve used a day, we ain’t never getting that day back.
When you’re meeting someone, ask yourself, if this is the last day I lived— would I have ended up regretting spending this time with this person? If the answer is “no”— they are a ‘real’ friend. If the answer is “yes”— you need to be more stingy with your time.
The irony is that we are super loose with our time— we give it away like it is worth nothing (credit Seneca). Yet, we are super stingy with our money, we refuse to give it to others (when in reality, money is far less valuable than time).
Think about it also this way— if you’re tired after a long day of work, and you have some creative projects you’ve been dying to work on, yet you watch 2 hours of Netflix— what have you done? Not only have you wasted 2 hours of your life, if you think about that in terms of money (let’s say you get paid $20 an hour), that 2 hours of your life “cost” you $40 to watch that show. And if your shows really bring you that much joy and happiness to your life, go ahead by all means watch it (there are a lot of good shows out there). But if you’re an artist that feels you never have enough “free-time” to pursue your art, then honestly you need to kill your Netflix account.
4. Eliminate distractions on the web
Another tip; I think a lot of our tools online are useful (Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Google search)— yet they are all littered with advertisements trying to get your attention and trying to get you to buy shit.
Honestly, I thought I was always immune to advertising (I’m not a sucker)— but now I have so much personal information and data entrenched in Google’s cloud servers (I’ve been on Gmail, Google Calendar, used Google search since I was 16 years old)— the advertisements fucking know exactly what I’ve been wanting to buy. I always get camera advertisements, car advertisements, and iPhone 6s advertisements now.
I think the secret isn’t to renounce our digital tools— but rather know that these digital tools are like snakes with venom pouring from its fangs. But you want to make your digital tools a slave to you— rather than becoming a slave to your tools.
Some practical tips: install “Facebook news feed eradicator” on Google Chrome (so you can still message friends and treat Facebook like a digital Rolodex, but not get distracted by the news feed). I accidentally opened Facebook on Safari the other day, saw all these updates from my friends, and immediately I felt jealous, envious, and kind of depressed (their lives seemed much more interesting than mine).
Another tip; if you haven’t already (shame on you), install “Adblock Plus” (or any other advertisement-blocking plugin). They are generally available on Chrome, Safari, Firefox and everything else.
Oh yeah, and if you use a smartphone, you can install Firefox and install Adblock on your browser. If you have an iPhone, download the new Firefox “Focus” plugin (or the “Purify” app in the App store), that blocks advertisements from Safari. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a solution for Google chrome Mobile (yet).
Also install “Ghostery” — a free app that blocks tracking on your browser (also speeds up load times on websites). Don’t let these mofos spy on your browsing history.
And if you’re like me and have absolutely no self-control install the “StayFocusd” Chrome plugin, and block all distracting websites. Some websites blocked for me:
- Wikipedia (yeah I know it is useful but can be another distraction)
- Ford (so I don’t lust after the new Mustang 5.0 GT)
- Mazda (been loving that new Miata)
This has been one of the best ways to regain my mental sanity and focus.
5. Never do more than one thing at a time
This is advice I really need to work hard on— I always try to multi-task. I’ll cook breakfast and read on my phone, I’ll read while drinking my coffee, I’ll drop a deuce and read on my phone, I’ll eat breakfast and check my email, I’ll have a conversation with Cindy while glancing at my phone, I’ll walk to the bus stop and listen to music, I’ll workout and listen to music, I’ll take photos and listen to music— I have a hard time just doing one thing at a time.
Roman philosopher Publilius Syrus once said:
To do two things at once is to do nothing at all.
Another quote from him:
If you try to catch two birds you will catch neither.
A lot of Zen buddhists say that happiness, focus, and minimalism is about just doing one thing at a time. Honestly I have a hard time following that piece of advice, so the opposite is easier to apply:
Don’t do more than 1 thing at a time.
So when I’m out shooting, I turn off my phone, and turn off my music. I just walk, focus — and suddenly my eyes become a lot sharper, more receptive, and more creative.
When I’m writing (like I am now) I used to listen to music. But most song lyrics are distractions. And then when I’m listening to a song that I’ve heard a million times and I’m sick of I’ll want to go “next” (which is another distraction which gets me out of the flow).
When I’m eating, I really try not to check my phone or read or do anything else at the same time. I’ve noticed now when I eat— I just try to eat (nothing else); and for the first time in my life, I can actually taste my food.
And sorry to ruin your appetite (or if this is “TMI”); I try not to read my phone or a book when in the bathroom. Result? Better bowel movements (haha once again sorry for the TMI— “too much information”).
Focus on the essential
Eliminate the unnecessary. Focus on whats essential.
Find your “deep focus” by not getting distracted (rather than forcing yourself to “focus”).
If you have no distractions or superfluous baggage in your life— focusing and being “in the zone” is easy.
Find your “zone.” Be fully-present and fully-aware in everything you do.
Next time you go to dinner with your loved one or friends, shut off your phone (completely) and be 100% engaged in your conversation with them.
The next time you take your kid to the park, don’t check Instagram while your kid is playing. Be fully-present with them.
When you’re eating your lunch— please don’t eat at your desk and please don’t answer emails.
When you’re out shooting, don’t listen to music or check Instagram. Focus on your shooting.
None of this is advice I am telling you to do because I’m somehow “better than you” or “enlightened.” I’m honestly in the same boat, trying to be more present in my life.
It is hard, but let us eliminate this bullshit “multi-tasking” western mindset from our minds. Fuck optimization, efficiency, and “productivity” — live a life true to yourself, live in the moment, and know that happiness is in this present moment— right now, with you reading this, drinking your coffee, or whether that moment holding the hand of a loved one, sharing a nice warm laugh.
Wed, 10:24am, Dec 9, 2015— at my home in Berkeley.
“Henri” leather strap
So Cindy just announced the “Henri” strap (available as a neck strap and wrist strap)— she has put so much energy and attention to it, designing it with me, talking with our friend who actually hand-crafts the straps in Saigon, and it is kind of cute to see her checking the Amazon seller account every 5 minutes to see if we sold another strap.
If you get neck-burns from the stock strap you have on your camera right now, I’d say invest in one of these “Henri” straps. I know I know, I tell you not to fall into “GAS” and to buy shit you don’t need. So please please please— if you don’t need another strap in your life (if you already have a Luigi strap, an Artisan-and-artist strap, a Gordy strap, whatever)— don’t buy it. Only buy it if you want a strap that is more minimalist, will make your neck less ‘chafey’, or if you just are a sucker for leather and “artisanal” goods and want a strap that will wear with you over a long period of time (the Japanese call this “wabi-sabi” — kind of how a brass Leica will age and show beautiful golden ‘patina’ over time).
Unfortunately we have it all fulfilled by Amazon at the moment, which means that they don’t ship internationally (yet).
We’re actually talking to our friend right now to get a new batch of straps. This batch we will start shipping internationally (probably won’t be available for another few months however).
So if you want a strap (and have an Amazon prime account like we do)— order one for yourself, or a friend, loved one— might make a nice Christmas present.
And no— the strap will not make you a better photographer. But it will make you look more cool, and also hopefully will encourage you to bring your camera with you everywhere you go.
The strap is currently available for a limited time on Amazon:
Okay so I’m pretty pumped for 2016 workshops. Like I mention— I’m trying to travel a lot less, so I’m limiting myself to 1–2 workshops a month, mostly local.
If you’re in the states, don’t miss out— these are the last workshops I’m doing in America before I leave to Vietnam this summer.
And if you want to travel to Asia and do a workshop somewhere fun and exotic, join me there as well:
- Jan 9-10: SF / Composition Street Photography Workshop – Open!
- Feb 5-12: Dubai / Gulf Photo Plus 2016
- March 19-20: NYC / Composition Street Photography Workshop – Open!
- March 26-27: NYC / “Conquer Your Fears in Street Photography” Workshop – Open!
- April 16-17: SF / “Conquer Your Fears in Street Photography” Workshop – Open!
- April 23-24: SF / Advanced Street Photography Workshop
- October 1-2: Melbourne / “Conquer Your Fears in Street Photography” Workshop – Open!
- October 8-9: Sydney / “Conquer Your Fears in Street Photography” Workshop – Open!
- November 5-6: Singapore / “Conquer Your Fears in Street Photography” Workshop – Open!
- November 12-13: Tokyo / Advanced Street Photography Workshop
- November 19-20: Kyoto / Composition Street Photography Workshop – Open!
Okay books books books— some books I’ve re-read:
- “Steve Jobs” (the fat-ass biography by Walter Isaacson, I bought it 5 years ago, and probably re-read it 4 times. If you want inspiration for innovation, pick it up. And if you buy the hardcover, know that while you will get compliments at the local cafe, it is a pain in the ass to carry— but honestly, worth it)
- “Letters From a Stoic” (some of my friends know that I’ve changed my middle-name to “Seneca”— my favorite philosopher. I want to be like him— rich and powerful, yet live an austere and ascetic life— and use my money to help others. But seriously, practical philosophy without bullshit, I love it.)
- “Tao Te Ching” (Stephen Mitchell edition is the one I recommend. Learning to be more “Zen” or “Taoist” in letting things “go with the flow” and not stressing about life too much. I need to read this to balance out all the Stoic philosophy, it makes me feel more relaxed).
- “The Second Book of the Tao” (a follow-up book, and includes some great stories and parables to eliminate distractions, and live a life true to yourself and happy. Highly recommended, just finished it this morning on my Kindle paper white).
- “The Cynic Philosophers from Diogenes to Julian” (funny enough— probably the book I’ve re-read the most after “Letters From a Stoic” — the philosophy Cynicism is a bit strange— it is like being a homeless dog. But there is something beautiful about their praise of a simple, humble, ascetic lifestyle which appeals to me. I want to live a simple life— just drink black coffee, eat eggs (sometimes bacon), do pushups and chin-ups for exercise, wear black shirts, black pants and black shoes, use one camera and one lens (Ricoh GR II), and have a few close friends that I can share my entire heart and soul with. I want to also learn that I can get by with very little).
Holy crap, I fucking love IA Writer (one of the few pieces of software I have actually purchased).
It is a minimalist typing app, that I’ve used more or less exclusively for the last 3 years. I’ve used it on my iPad, and on my laptop.
I always write in full-screen mode in the “focus” mode— so you’re only focused on writing, and there are no other distractions.
I’ve tried all the other writing apps, and this one is the best (at least for me).
So if you’re a writer who has a hard time focusing and just getting things down onto “paper” — try out this app.
Here are some new Lightroom film simulation presets to download:
Oh yeah, and if you haven’t downloaded my “82 Lessons From the Masters of Street Photography” e-book; here are direct download links:
I think that’s it for now— I’m going to try to teach myself Adobe In-design (to work on some new PDF e-books and stuff). In the meanwhile, live everyday as if it were your last, eliminate distractions, shoot, have fun, enjoy your coffee, your loved ones— you never know how long it will last.