How training my brain to focus helped me to build two profitable businesses

By Ali Mese

Ali Mese
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Crowds consume information. Those who decide what crowds consume create.

You might as well carry on with the bottomless finger-scrolling and continue to devour what the elite class has created for you today.

But if you ever intend to define what crowds consume, and thereby define the marketplace, you have to master the ability to stay away from the crowds and move over to the creators’ side.

That’s where the elite production happens. And it requires long, uninterrupted hours of work in intense concentration.

I wrote down the above notes in my journal in 2016. It was soon after being hugely inspired by Adam Grant’s story, which I had read in Cal Newport’s popular book, Deep Work.

2014, Adam Grant’s ability to create at an absurdly high rate for his field made him the youngest full professor at Wharton. It wasn’t only starring at one of the world’s best business schools nor the unusually high number of papers he was publishing in major journals, but also his ability to write one massive bestselling book after another.

As Cal Newport later found out, none of those achievements were random: Grant was indeed obsessed with the mechanics of producing at an elite level — a level where you produce not only quality work but also deliver it at a wildly high pace.

He saw productivity as a scientific problem to systematically solve. And one idea seemed central to his solution:

The batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.

According to Newport, those stretches enabled Grant to achieve a deep state of focus like no other — working for extended periods free from distraction with full concentration on a single task unlocked peak productivity.

Back in those days, I couldn’t even sit still on my chair for a few minutes, never mind keeping my attention long enough to get my monkey mind to focus on a single task. As I mentioned in a 2015 essay, I wasn’t doing the thing, but I did everything else in order to postpone doing the thing.

Between bottomless Instagram scrolling and trying to do at least some work here and there, I was spending my entire days staring at a screen. Yet when I got home in the evening, I felt exhausted and nervous. And guilty. Guilty of not having achieved anything.

Punishing myself with more work or promising to make a fresh start the next morning didn’t work. New beginnings weren’t any different — they required concentration, too. That’s when my brain chose to run for the next exit. Hopping on to the next stimulus it bumped into felt good. Facing the actual work meant mental effort instead.

French mathematician Blaise Pascal was right:

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

But success in most creative endeavors requires the exact opposite: to sit and think. Take the field of writing. To write is to think. To write well is to think well.

And the trouble with our monkey minds begins right there, in our inability to sit alone with our thoughts.

We can’t stay away from those who consume because we can’t tolerate boredom.

We dread the silence of our very existence so we choose aimless distraction.

In author Zat Rana’s beautiful words, the issue at the root isn’t our obsession with any particular worldly stimulation. It’s the fear of nothingness — our addiction to a state of not-being-bored:

“At its core, it’s not necessarily that we are addicted to a TV set because there is something uniquely satisfying about it, just like we are not addicted to most stimulants because the benefits outweigh the downsides.

Rather, what we are really addicted to is a state of not-being-bored. Almost anything else that controls our life in an unhealthy way finds its root in our realization that we dread the nothingness of nothing.

We can’t imagine just being rather than doing. And therefore, we look for entertainment, we seek company, and if those fail, we chase even higher highs.”

Coming to such a realization can be life-changing. For me, identifying the root of my attention problem marked one of the most crucial turning points in my journey.

If I can teach myself to choose boredom over aimless distraction, I thought to myself, I can fix my attention problem.

If I wanted to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task, I had to learn a new skill:

The ability to sit alone with my thoughts and bear the unbearable boredom it brings.

What I didn’t know, however, was how much effort it would take.

If you can change your mind, you can change your life.

On October 12th last month, I recorded one of my longest sessions in full concentration. I started working at 8:10 a.m. and finished my morning flow at 12:57 p.m.

That was 4 hours 47 minutes of effortless, uninterrupted deep work without needing to take a single break.

During this morning session, I wrote one of my most popular articles. I was also able to approve two client deliverables our editors had asked me to review.

Over the last few years, the length of those focused stretches has been slowly going up; these days, they’re averaging around four hours.

Timing my focused sessions isn’t to show off or fool myself with a vanity metric, nor is it to adapt yet another Silicon Valley productivity trend. But it is part of a system I have learned to follow religiously since 2016.

And if you can forgive me for the use of too many self-important “I”s or “my”s in this essay, I want to share my system with you — a system that gradually took me from not being able to sit still on my chair for even 15 minutes to effortlessly working in hours-long, deeply focused stretches.

I run a storytelling studio and a publication where my work requires me to mentally process large amounts of text on a daily basis.

And the batching of work into long, uninterrupted stretches has been a gamechanger for delivering high-quality intellectual work and signing some of today’s top startups as clients in an overly crowded content industry.

A quick note before we begin

Reading this post or self-help books may feel useful. But before turning everything into inspiration porn, it’s crucial to understand why you are reading this essay in the first place.

This mini-guide is a 14-minute read. You’ve completed reading the first four minutes so far. Finishing the rest in one sitting will be effortless for some of you. But others won’t even get close to staying focused enough to continue reading for the next 10 minutes. To do that, they will need to force themselves to not open another browser tab or grab their mobile phones.

Understanding the fundamentals of uninterrupted work requires understanding that very exact effortless focus which sits on the thin line between loose focus (one that risks losing it to distractions at any second) and forced focus (one that eats up your limited mental stock).

The effortless focus is the sweet spot. It’s the ultimate mental balance we are looking to reach by mastering our minds.

And this guide proposes a pragmatic approach to achieve just that — it advocates the idea that the mind is a tool whose muscles can be trained. Drawing upon my 47 months of experience and other examples, it shares a roadmap for how to get your mind to work for you, not against you.

Please note that what works for others might not work for you, so try taking away only what applies to your case.

The rest of the post consists of two sections. While the first section below focuses on the practicalities of mind training and strengthening the attention muscles, the second part will dig into the specifics of logging long, uninterrupted sessions of focused work.

1. Taming the monkey mind

I’ve written 1,345 words up to this point. I got stuck on one of the paragraphs you just read above so I had to take a quick break to walk out on the terrace. But other than that, I’ve been in an uninterrupted flow for about 187 minutes since 7:50 a.m.

It still amazes me to see how on earth I am able to stay focused for so many hours without being bored. And every time I watch people who can’t even walk without staring at their phones, I remember my old monkey-mind days.

I owe this dramatic transition to the one and only daily mind-training practice.

Whatever controls your attention controls what you are capable of. And taming your brain puts that control back in your hands. Borrowing philosopher William James’s words, it empowers you with today’s greatest weapon: the ability to choose one thought over another.

And building an ability to choose boredom over aimless distraction begins with awareness — awareness of our inability to sit alone with our thoughts.

But awareness doesn’t last — you have to work at it. You need to train your brain, whether every day or every week, to catch yourself every time your monkey mind drifts off and becomes a slave to the aimless stimuli.

You need a consistent practice to bring your wandering mind back to the task at hand — to the boredom.

And if you stick with your practice long enough, the whole catch-and-bring-back process becomes effortless.

Before we talk about how and what tools you can use to tame your mind, let’s take a quick look at the purpose behind it all.

1.1. What is the ultimate purpose?

Terms like “mind training,” “self-reflection practice,” or “mindfulness” can easily sound philosophical or vague. And it’s important to understand that what we are talking about here isn’t a mystical activity.

What matters instead is understanding the true purpose behind it all — which is all about spending time undistracted and alone, in self-examination.

In very simple words, it’s about:

  1. setting aside some time for self-reflection on a regular basis — I recommend starting daily;
  2. during this, say, 10-minute session, observing the thoughts, emotions, sensations, or sounds in your mind, body, and surroundings;
  3. learning to let everything you observe just be — so no forcing or trying to change anything; and
  4. sticking with this practice long enough.

How you do one thing in life is how you do everything. Over time, you automatically start bringing such self-reflection into your day-to-day life. You start catching and observing yourself outside your 10-minute daily practice.

For instance, if you are distracted by a loud person in the office, you notice it, label it as “just noise” and return back to your focused work without getting caught up in it.

my case, my job often involves staring at a blank page. And staring at a blank page requires embracing the unbearable nothingness of that screen. After 41 months of daily meditation (more on that in a minute), I’m able to catch myself almost every time my monkey mind drifts off and bring it back to the boring empty screen in front of me.

What has impressed me the most with my daily practice is how, over time, it has also drastically reduced the number of times my mind drifts off.

1.2. How can I actually train my mind?

You don’t need any fancy tools to get great results. All you need is to make time regularly, whether every day or every week, undistracted and alone, in self-reflection mode.

A pen and paper will do it. Some people follow a daily journaling practice, while others prefer retreats, walks in nature or other self-reflection methods.

What worked best for me has been meditation — what I once thought was a mystical activity has changed my life forever.

Today, there are hundreds of meditation apps on the app stores. Calm and Headspace are popular. For instance, Calm’s 30-day “How to Mediate” program with Jeff Warren is impressive. I first began with the “7 Days of Calm” program and then moved on to the “21 Days of Calm” — both are great for beginners and cover all the fundamentals.

But again, Headspace and all other apps offer similar programs so I recommend trying some and seeing what works best for you.

One of the reasons those meditation apps are so powerful is because they are guided. Run by capable instructors, those 10-minute sessions make you realize things that would take you months to acknowledge in a self-taught session.

1.3. How long does it take to see any progress?

Training the attention muscles is a long game — reaching a level where you naturally catch your distractions outside your 10-minute sessions takes some time.

But to give some examples from my personal experience, I began meditating daily in July 2016. It took me around two months just to get comfortable with sitting down alone with my thoughts.

In the early days, it was shocking to see how my mind was able to wander off so often during the sessions, never mind applying it to my day-to-day life.

But as I kept taking it seriously and making time to sit down with my practice, between three to six months, I began understanding what those instructors meant — that boredom really did provide its own stimulation; that I didn’t need another stimulus and could just sit and get curious about the present moment.

These days, I don’t even need to open my meditation app as I can practice self-reflection right at my desk or during my commute to work.

I still have hectic days where my mind is completely on fire and I fail at being mindful. But the goal isn’t to get lost in the rabbit hole of personal development, nor are we trying to become productivity gurus — welcoming a hectic day without any judgment is part of the practice itself.

Indeed, over time, you understand that there is no goal at all and this is a lifelong journey to learning to focus on the only thing that matters: the present moment.

And not surprisingly, the present moment is also where you have to do the focused work — it’s where the blank page stands in front of you.

2. Tracking and improving your ability to focus for longer sessions

While the mind-taming practice does its magic in the background, you can start tracking your progress from day one.

This tracking involves writing down each uninterrupted session you are able to work in full concentration.

Mark down when you start, and when you finish. The goal is to gradually improve your ability to record longer, deeper sessions.

Here’s what my daily tracking looks like:

Every time I need to take a quick break or feel my concentration is getting loose, I close the session and write down the final minute where my session ends.

I recommend not setting ambitious goals at the beginning — in the early weeks, my sessions used to average around only 20–30 minutes.

The routine of logging my sessions helps me to track the progress of what I love to call a “myelin-building exercise.” When the journalist Daniel Coyle surveyed a group of neuroscientists for his book The Talent Code, he had little idea what he was about to uncover.

These scientists argued that people’s performance at hard tasks improved as they developed more myelin (a layer of fatty tissue) around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively.

As Cal Newport also reflected on Coyle’s findings, to be great at intense concentration was to be well myelinated:

“By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits.

The reason, therefore, why it’s important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this is the only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination.”

By contrast, if you work in a state of loose concentration (e.g., you have another tab open), you fire too many circuits simultaneously and as a result fail at isolating the neurons you actually want to strengthen.

Whether the myelin science has any actual merit to it, it’s still impressive to see how the mind adapts and gets better at logging longer sessions over time.

And after two years of tracking my sessions, I’ve found that faster progress depends heavily on two things: 1) protecting your time, and 2) decluttering your system.

Let’s finish this guide by taking a quick look at both:

2.1. Protecting your time: enter “untouchable hours”

With over $87 billion to his name, there is one thing Warren Buffett can’t purchase: time.

“I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can’t buy time,” shares the 88-year-old billionaire in a 2017 conversation with Bill Gates.

Time is really the most precious thing there is. Yet we split it up and give it away like there’s an endless supply.

Probably the most impactful thing I’ve done that has improved my ability to log deeper sessions was to introduce untouchable hours to my work system.

These are the hours where I protect my most precious asset; the hours where even the closest people in my life have a hard time reaching me. It’s when even my phone can’t get past the door of the room I’m working in — the rest of the world can wait.

“Focus isn’t a willpower effort one does in the midst of distractions; it’s the act of removing distractions and effortlessly doing what’s left.” — Luca Dellanna

As the name suggests, these are your untouchable hours. You need to guard them. Hoard them. Protect them. And don’t let any potential distraction touch them.

To find your untouchable hours, find your prime time

Whether you’re a morning person or a night owl, everyone has different peak hours.

I highly recommend finding your internal prime time, which is the time of day, according to your body clock, when you are most alert and productive.

My prime time is from 7 a.m. to around 12:30 p.m. I figured out that my energy drops significantly in the second part of the day so I get my deep work done before lunchtime. And I handle all the other teamwork, operational or admin stuff in the afternoons.

You don’t always have the luxury to choose, though. Some people have day jobs and their untouchable hours for their side projects happen in the early morning before everyone else wakes up. Others have kids and can lock down untouchable time for themselves only after the little ones go to bed.

2.2. Decluttering your system

“A busy calendar and a busy mind will destroy your ability to create anything great. You should be too busy to do coffee while keeping an uncluttered calendar.”

Setting aside untouchable hours doesn’t mean you should flood the rest of your day with things to do.

To log longer, deeper sessions, you’ll also need to use your energy wisely outside your untouchable hours. You’ll need a calm mind and a calendar that’s as empty as possible.

When the host Charlie Rose asks Bill Gates what he has learned from Warren Buffett, Gates points to Buffett’s almost entirely empty calendar. “There’s nothing on it,” he says.

And reflecting on how Buffett taught him to declutter his agenda, he adds: “You know, I had every minute packed and I thought that was the only way you could do things.”

One of the things I’ve learned on this front is that the best way to get things done is to have fewer things to do. And having fewer things to do has a lot to do with your ability to say NO.

Taking time away from a busy to-do list gives you all the time and energy to sit and think.

Final words: It’s time we learn to sit alone with our thoughts

You might as well carry on with the bottomless finger-scrolling and continue to consume what the elite class has created for you today. Or you might choose to stay away from the crowds and move over to the creators’ side.

Observing the elite class’s obsession with producing at an elite level is a wake-up call for all of us to finally get serious about learning to sit alone with our thoughts.

Whatever controls our attention controls what we are capable of. And taking that control back in our hands begins by training our brains to embrace the boredom that comes with hours-long work in full concentration.

Choosing boredom over aimless stimuli is choosing the silence of our very existence. After all, we learn from the silences, not from what makes the most noise on the surface.

Once we cross that initial barrier, we realize boredom really does provide its own stimuli. We begin getting curious about the present moment.

And not surprisingly, the present is also where we have to do the focused work — it’s where the blank page stands in front of us.

Welcome to the creators’ club.