How to Achieve Deep Focus by Using the Nothing Alternative

Raymond Chandler was appalled with his lack of progress.

The famous author of The Big Sleep just spent the entire day working, yet he made no progress on his book! 

Then Chandler realized the root of his problem. He wasn't really being productive, he was just making himself feel good about procrastinating because he was filling his time with other work.

Instead of writing, he read the newspaper, read works by other authors, wrote letters, and did many other positive things. This made it feel like he was being productive, even though no actual writing was not getting done. [1

So he imposed disciplinary measures.

He forced himself to sit down and focus on his writing without getting distractedBut for some reason, this tactic didn't work either! The more he tried to focus, the more his mind wandered! 

Why couldn’t he just focus?


When you are trying to direct your mind to do something, the obvious strategy is to try really hard, or force yourself to do it.

But the mind does not respond well to this.

Think about falling asleep at night. If you try really hard to sleep, you actually end up hurting your chances! The more you try, the more the mind wanders and keeps you awake.

It is only when you let go of trying to sleep that your mind can finally drift off.

This same phenomenon takes place when you are trying to focus as well. If you try really hard to focus, you will only hurt your chances of actually focusing. This is because the mind does not like to be restricted, it likes to be free.

But how can you focus if your mind is free?

Andy Puddicombe – the founder of the Headspace meditation app – uses a great analogy to describe how you can train your mind to focus while still giving it freedom.

Training your mind to focus is like taming a wild horse.

You cannot tame a wild horse by immediately putting it into a fenced area. This will cause it to panic and try to escape. Instead, you must tame a wild horse by putting it on a long rope and letting it roam free. Then you slowly reel the rope in.

You allow the horse to feel free as you continue to gain more control over it. [2]

This same “reeling in” can be achieved with the mind. And Raymond Chandler discovered one of the best ways to do it - the "nothing alternative".


After Chandler realized that he could not force himself to focus on writing, he decided that he would allow his mind the freedom to do nothing.

He selected a period of time where he had the choice to write, or do nothing. He could get lost in thought, look out the window or stand on his head. But he could not do any other positive work.

So his mind did not feel imprisoned by having to do focused work, but it also realized that doing nothing is boring.

Part of the reason why the brain is motivated to procrastinate is because it hates being bored. But with the nothing alternative, now the boring option was to do nothing and the enjoyable option was to write. [3]

It sounds simple, but this gentle push is incredibly effective for allowing your brain to focus and tune out distractions.


Implementing the nothing alternative will not be easy – especially at first.

Although you have made the decision that you will do your focused work or nothing, it will take some time to train your mind to respect that decision. But like any practice, as long as you are consistent, it will work.

Here are some simple things that will help you implement this into your work:


First, you must be comfortable with completely immersing yourself in one task or nothing at all. Despite the fact that many people see multi-tasking as a skill, scientific evidence has proven its ineffectiveness. [4]

So determine your most important task and fully immerse yourself in it.


Next, you must turn off any notifications, alerts or distractions of any kind. These will ruin your deep focus on the task at hand and motivate your brain to procrastinate.

All you need during this period of focus are the tools necessary for work on your one task. For example, when I’m writing, my phone and Internet are both shut off because all I need is a word processor.

So turn off all distractions and become comfortable not responding to emails, phone calls, etc. during the time period that you will be working.


Clearly in this day and age it is not practical to unplug from communications forever. But you can unplug for some time. 

Research shows that the optimal time periods for productive work are between 25 and 90 minutes. There is no “best time” within this. It all depends on the project and your working style. [5]

So select a time period for focused work and set a timer.


Breaks are a necessary part of the nothing alternative. Despite your best intentions, distracting thoughts like “oh, I wanted to watch that YouTube video” will pop into your head during your period of focused work.

With breaks, your mind understands that you can watch it once your timer goes off. Now your mind can let the distracting thought go, rather than linger on it.

It also allows you to feel more comfortable cutting off communication, because you can respond during your break.

The length of your break is determined by the amount of time you are engaged in focused work. Typically it should be about a 4:1 or 5:1 ratio of work to break time (25 minutes of work = 5-minute break).

So schedule breaks between periods of focused work.


Most of the time, procrastination does not come from us being lazy. It usually comes from us working on something else that is easier or more enjoyable than what we should be doing.

A simple way to stop procrastinating and focus on your important work is by using the “nothing alternative”. Allow yourself to do the focused work you should be doing, or nothing at all.

To accomplish this, you must work on only one task, completely shut off distractions, set a timer, and take scheduled breaks. Then get ready to make incredible progress on the work that you should be doing!