Creating software is like building a house of cards in your mind. You're putting all the moving pieces in the right place. Your piling up concepts and data structures and keeping it all in balance to create, manipulate and expand it in your mind. Entering this stage feels genuinely fantastic. It takes long minutes to build this up. But when you finally manage to keep it upright in your mind, you start seeing the changes. You are manipulating those concepts as if they were in your hands. At least it does for me. But like a house of cards, one gust of wind too many and it all topples over. We call the stillness "focus" (or "the zone") and the gusts of wind "distractions." This focus is to be protected at all costs.
There are many ways to protect this focus. It starts with long times of uninterrupted work, with no meetings and no tap on your shoulder to ask if you have a minute (tip: it's already too late). It continues with shutting down notifications and software that could distract you. But also add some music (listen to this DevJourney episode with Carl Franklin, the author of MusicToFlowBy) or white sound to help you focus. And I am sure there are dozens more tricks to help us. Do let me know in the comments which ones are best for you!
A few months ago, I recorded Nicolas Carlo's story for my podcast Developer's Journey. Nicolas works on an app called Centered. This is how this app came to be on my radar, but I procrastinated testing it. It's only when I realized that Cassidy Williams and Erik Rasmussen, who were also on the show, were involved that I decided to look into it seriously. When three brilliant minds like theirs agree that such a tool is a good idea, who am I to think otherwise? 😅
The idea of the app is pretty simple: let's do everything to help you stay in the zone and keep your focus. I have tried many apps like this in the past. Some sniffing what you are doing and preventing you from goinghide all your text editor optionsoptions of your text editor to help you focus on content. Some shaming you by making statistics of which windows you have in the foreground (I may or may not have written that one myself... and I will speak only in the presence of my lawyer 😇). Centered is the first one that works for me.
It works with an exciting blend:
- Music for the focus. Per default, it's an eclectic mix of feng shui-style music, which is not my thing. I prefer white noise like Coffitivity. But you can connect to a Spotify playlist and tweak it to your liking.
- A coach for the distractions. It monitors the apps you are using and gives you nudges and audio warnings when you use them.
- By default, the app helps you enter the 25 min focus / 5 min break rhythm called the "Pomodoro Technique."
- A todo-list inside the app. You add your tasks in "buckets." By default, they are 25 min long. Then for each focus session that you start, you add tasks from those buckets to your session and get going.
- A social aspect based on "groups," with leaderboards, statistics, a live aspect with camera ON if you want to, and more generally accountability (and peer pressure?)
I use an eclectic mix of apps to gather my todos: Notion, iOS Reminders, and GMail to name only a few. And it's historically been a hassle to plan what I want to do. I usually do something, and then navigate away from my work to find the next thing to do. The magic happens when the tasks are small enough (≈10 min) and when there is no back & forth outside of the app anymore. I go from one task to the next seamlessly. Centered encourages me to remain focused, thinking, "ok, just one more." And this is amazing. If you need to go to a webpage for a task, for instance, Centered will open that webpage for you the moment you complete the previous t, thus nudging you to continue flowing.
I am very impressed by this tool. I was skeptical at first because 75% of my days are filled with meetings and very social tasks. I rarely have more than 30 minutes of contiguous uninterrupted time, and I doubted it could be helpful with those short Pomodoros. But I've been agreeably impressed.
Have you tried it? How do you like it?
PS: all that I am describing here is on the free-tier