Focus playbook

Since 2018, I've ran a number of experiments wearing quantified-self devices and consistently taking daily self-assessments to optimize my life. This is my playbook for focus.

David Head
Sponsored by
No items found.

Show Notes

Since 2018, I've run a number of experiments wearing quantified-self devices — from simple sleep trackers to more advanced things like continuous glucose monitors. Then I’d combine those with daily self-assessments to determine what was improving my life the most — things like focus, productivity, energy, and mood.

The following is my playbook for focus. For the purpose of this article, I’m deliberately covering more natural methods of focus versus nootropics, since there are already a ton of resources about those online.

Maximizing mental clarity, awareness, discipline

Minimize brain fog by cutting highly inflammatory foods

Every food you eat causes some degree of inflammation. The sensitivities are also dynamic, meaning they change over time, and they’re unique for each person. The more inflammation caused, the more brain fog and sleepiness.

To figure out which foods cause the most inflammation you, the best test is the Mediator Release Food Sensitivity Test (MRT).

Food Sensitivity Program MRT+LEAP — Eat Practical

For me, I ended up coming up as highly sensitive to wheat and black pepper. This was shocking since I ate wheat during nearly every meal for my whole life. So I must have been in a constant state of inflammation. Surprisingly when I cut wheat and black pepper, I noticed an immediate increase in mental clarity and awareness and a decrease in sleepiness after eating. I also noticed my stomach naturally became trimmer from presumably less bloating. Not bad 💪

To get one of these you need a prescription from a nutritionist, and then you need to get four big vials of blood drawn. This is very different from EverlyWell where its only a few drops. EverlyWell uses a different technology called IGG which is far less accurate. So given the magnitude of impact of eliminating the ultra-sensitive foods, it’s worth the few hundred dollars extra to get better data and do the MRT.

Maximize energy and focus after eating with a low glycemic diet

I’ve anecdotally noticed a direct correlation between my blood sugar level and level of focus, meaning when I eat sugary foods or high-carb meals, it’s harder to focus for the next ~3 hours afterwards.

Levels Health review: optimize your fitness with a $400 glucose tracker -  The Verge

How did I always know what my blood sugar was? I wore a Freestyle Libre continuous glucose monitor paired with the Levels app for 8 months during 2020 and 2021 and watched my blood glucose levels move as I’d eat different meals, eat foods in different orders, perform different workout routines, and even as I slept.

One of the key ways this immediately changed my behavior is that now my breakfast on weekdays consists almost entirely of fat and protein. This means a combination of eggs and a little bit of cheese, avocados, smoked salmon, and bacon. I’ve never gotten tired afterwards from eating this and I notice little-if-any effect on focus. On the other hand, if I follow the classic 50’s American diet of a bowl of high-carb cereal and milk, I’ll have an energy crash.

Another way my behavior’s switched is that I’ll back-load carbs in my meals and eat the fats and proteins first.

Keep constant focus and energy for hours by fasting

Fasting is a simple way to have consistent blood sugar. That said, I’ve noticed that the longer I fast, the slower I have to introduce food afterwards. I have to start with a small meal — ideally something small (maybe 300-400 calories) that’s low GI (predominantly protein/fat). If I eat a high-carb 1000+ calorie feast afterwards it’s almost certain I’ll have to take a nap.

If I fast, it’s either going to be skipping breakfast and/or lunch. So my first or second meal will start at 3-5pm, and I’ll condense most of my caloric intake to between then and 8-9pm.

There’s also a psychological trick I’ll employ here where as I get hungrier, I’ll notice my focus will get much sharper. So I’ll tell myself “you’ll get food after you finish this”. I think there’s something primal going on here where 100,000 years when we were hunter gatherers, you actually had to focus to get your next meal. Maybe you had to kill the wooly mammoth. Now when our body tells us it’s hungry, it’s unlikely we’ll die before making it to the fridge. So we may as well re-direct the energy into cranking out more work.

That all said, I notice if I eat too much when I do finally have a meal that I’ll crash much more aggressively. Strangely, this doesn’t appear to come from a blood sugar crash either since the energy crash comes before blood sugar has even risen post-meal. I’m still not sure what this is, but the takeaway is to eat slower once you’re finally eating.

Maximizing energy and alertness

Get a natural nootropic with 20 minutes of morning exercise

Just 20 minutes of moderate aerobic activity is enough to stimulate a natural nootropic called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (or BDNF). It basically just makes your whole brain work better. The beauty is how easy it is to get gains here.

In my early 20s, I used to try to be elite with my morning exercise. I’d wake up at 5am to hit the weights at the YMCA. I’d do sets of power cleans, bench press, and squats, slam a 1000 calorie Mass XXX weight gainer shake, have a massive breakfast, then fight myself from passing out for the next hour. That all’s too much energy expenditure. Now I save that sort of workout for the night and start the day simple.

My morning routine now is just doing a 20 minute morning Peloton class. Sometimes I’ll read while I do it too. I recommend Alex Toussaint and the rap playlists 😎.

Peloton’s nice because if you do have the urge to compete for the top ranks on the charts, you’re only doing it for 20 minutes and won’t tire yourself out too much. If you want to take it easy and do a lower impact ride, you’re still hitting the level to get BDNF gains.

Beat the snooze button with phone across room + immediate water after waking

Some mornings I’ll wake up naturally before the alarm. Some mornings I’m more inclined to hit the snooze button. The combo for me waking up without snooze and getting moving the quickest is:

  1. Having my phone across the room so I’m forced to get out of bed and stand up to turn off the alarm.
  2. Have a bedside water to immediately drink after I turn off the alarm.

Optimize circadian rhythm by waking at the same time with natural light

Having bright morning light at the windows helps lock in your circadian rhythm shift. Now my body naturally wakes up a few minutes before my 7am alarm clock. There’s a ton of research that the body thrives on routine and that having a circadian rhythm that’s out of wack causes all sorts of issues. So this is sort of basic but worth mentioning.

This became far easier to do when I moved into an apartment with a ton of sunlight. If you’re in a darker room or have blackout blinds this will become tougher. I recommend working to move into a room with a ton of light.

Minimizing mental noise

Make your phone less addicting by turning it on greyscale mode

Greyscale turns the colors off and makes your phone more boring. Since social media is often one of the addictive distractions, using greyscale to make photos less visually appealing and notification icons look like everything else makes them less effective. Same thing with all of the icons on your home screen. Your croc-brain is now kept at bay.

Think about this — Facebook pays millions of dollars to designers and doctorate researchers each year to optimize the designs and colors to get you addicted. On some level, it’s impossible to not be affected unless you also intervene at the UI level. Fortunately you can do that with greyscale.

To shift to greyscale on an Apple device:

I also set my phone so that three clicks on the power button will shift it between greyscale and color. So then when I’m working I can do greyscale, and when I’m done, I can go back to color.

Control impulsive social media checking with Freedom app

I’ll notice during the day that sometimes I may be slightly bored and find myself reflexively opening up Twitter. I may read one harmless tweet, and that turns into 10. Then I lose 5 minutes and am out of flow.

Freedom solves this. It’s an internet proxy where you can basically content block yourself like a child. Your wiser adult brain can control your future child brain for a pre-determined amount of time.

I have two blockers set to go off during the week: one for distracting websites between 7am to 5pm. Then I have another for all human contact from between 7am to 9am. Technically if I have to I can open up the panel and whitelist a site if I need to, but just that extra level of added UX friction is usually enough to stop 90% of the distractions.

If you wanted to be even more militant about yourself not being able to turn it off, there’s a setting that makes it near impossible to get around Freedom until the timer is up.

Reset from overwhelm with meditation

Meditation is probably the most underrated productivity hack, because it feels unproductive. I mean, you’re literally doing nothing.

That said, it’s the most powerful tool I’ve found for handling the most overwhelming periods of the day. At periods where my daily task list feels the most difficult to manage, something like 50% of them feel important because of social pressure, but could really be done later, 25% of them could probably be ignored and will get resolved on their own, then the other 25% are the really important things to laser in on. After the mediation, it’s easy to be productive with that last 25%.

Even when I consciously know the 25% is what’s important to focus on, the meditation helps the rest of my mind relax about the rest of the chaos to the degree where I can focus on it.

So my 15 minutes spent cooling down meditating actually ended up saving me hours in productivity.

Hack getting in a flow state by working late night

Sometimes my workload is feels unmanageable and I have an important deadline. This is when I’ll dip into a more unsustainable tactic, which is working extremely late. I’ve found it’s easiest to get in a flow state then. This is probably simply because most of the rest of the world is asleep. So it’s hard to be distracted even if you want to.

So I’ll get started around 10-11pm and work until 2-3am. Then the flow state here anecdotally feels like 2-5x productivity. Unless I consistently do this every night though, I’ll pay for it the next day as I’m feeling more fatigued. It gets me slightly off rhythm.

Keeping notifications at bay and the phone away

The antithesis of flow state for me is my phone, and specifically the notifications. Just seeing my notifications on my home screen in the morning triggers all sorts of mental noise:

“I wonder what they texted me?”

“What happened on Instagram?”

“Is the Slack message urgent?”

The reality is that all of that can wait two or three hours so I can crank out deep work, and if I put it on your work calendar that I won’t be responding during that time, then others can plan to sync and schedule with me later.

One useful setting is the Focus setting for iPhone. This is a way so during the work day you can set anything non-work related to not notify you. You can also setup a special setting so if you want to do deep work routinely in the mornings, you can even have work notifications also silenced.

How to use iPhone Focus mode in iOS 15 - 9to5Mac


So that’s my whole natural playbook. Everyone’s different, so some of this may not work as well for you. It’s probably worth experimenting with though. I’m always curious how tactics work for other people, so if you experiment with any of these, or have any questions would love to hear how it goes for you. DMs on Twitter are a great place to reach me.

Best of luck focusing now!