Back in the ’90s, my mentor Mark Ford had a theory…

He said you should rise early in the morning and do your most important work in the peaceful few hours before everyone else gets up… before the phone calls, emails and interruptions from colleagues.

Do it every morning, he said, and you’ll achieve your goals much faster than you could imagine.

Write a novel or a screenplay.

Map out a business idea.

Read a book that could change your way of thinking.

Create a powerful sales promotion for a product.

This idea seems really quaint now.

You could even say it’s dead.

Deader than a dodo, or Han Solo, or Brangelina’s marriage.

To illustrate, here’s what happened to me this morning when I arose early to work.

There were already five alerts on my iPhone before I’d even slid my legs from out of the bed.

A couple of Twitter notifications, a Facebook message, a “favourite” on my Flickr and a text message or two.

As for my emails… inboxes pay no heed to the clock… they’d already piled up overnight on my phone, ready for viewing.

Once I’d messed around with those, I snuck to my desk in the living room with a cup of coffee… trying to ignore the cats… and thought “to hell with my phone!”

So I switched it off.

But now the computer was on and there was a whole new bunch of distractions.

I was trying to write the message you are reading (or skimming through) now, but notifications kept pinging up – a calendar reminder, an email arriving, my Spotify opening up automatically and suggesting a playlist based on my previous listening…

I would have turned the Internet off, but I needed it to access articles I’d saved on my Evernote.

And of course, on Evernote were loads of OTHER stored bits of information I’d been meaning to look at.

Distractions, distractions!

Then when I clicked on the articles to read them, there were hyperlinks to other articles that I couldn’t help but follow…

…and suggested articles on the right-hand side…

…until suddenly I was way past doing any writing…

…I was grazing information, leaping from site to site, and trying to stay focused.

At one point I had about five screens active, a YouTube video playing, some audio ad that had been activated but I couldn’t locate, and a pop-up telling me to subscribe to an e-alert – which I WAS tempted by because it looked genuinely useful.

The noise!

The sheer bloody racket!

And it was only 7:30am!

The idea of being in an office with the odd phone call, an email inbox you could CHOOSE to visit, and the occasional colleague asking me to check a headline seemed positively blissful, like being in an ancient library.

Fact is, there’s now no escape from distractions in a mobile 24/7 world… especially if you run a business.

Even the act of reading something online means you’re confronted with tempting hyperlinks and suggestions for further reading, video demos and other pleas to share the content on social media.

Then you end up getting into conversations on Twitter or greedily checking in to see how many Facebook “likes” you’ve got.

But look –  this is not a cry for help.

I admit I’m a very easily distracted person.

I have a butterfly mind.

The Internet is like a beautiful, engrossing nightmare from which my patient wife and business partner is CONSTANTLY trying to prod me awake, so I can get things done to make our business grow.

However, at the end of this email I’ll give you a tool I use to help myself stay focused and achieve my goals. (Sort of, most of the time!)

This is really about your distracted customers

The point I’m trying to make is more about the people who come to your website, follow you on social media or subscribe to your emails.

You must understand what these people are REALLY like…

They are mutating NEO-humans with completely different brains to the brains that used to be in customers’ heads ten or twenty years ago.

The brains of regular Internet users are changing.

They are being remapped and re-tuned in an online world where there is so much information to handle, so many distractions, so much noise… and we must deal with multiple messages and different forms of media… all at the same time.

There’s a brilliant book by Nicholas Carr called The Shallows which explains this phenomenon.

He points out the way you and I were brought up to handle information is around 500 years old, since the printing press.

And even the technology of the printing press itself was a revolution in our brain wiring.

You see, after the collapse of Roman Empire, the written word began to spread and replace the oral (spoken) tradition.

As more people read, scribes began to use formats of word order, grammar and spacing to get the information across quicker.

This developed a major change in the way the brain processed information.

It took concentration, an ability to become absorbed into the words on a page, and an ability to lock out distractions.

When the Gutenberg press came along, all manner of new printed books and texts appeared – including journalism, salacious material, propaganda and quack theories.

Reading spread like wildfire across all classes and nations, until the Spanish dramatist Lope De Vega complained in 1612:

‘So many books – so much confusion
All around us an ocean of print
And most of it covered in froth’

Seem familiar?

Because this is pretty much how critics are complaining about the glut of blogs, reviews, social media updates, rants and opinions you get on the Internet today.

Except that this printed word version of froth meant MORE people started getting into the linear reading habit.

So over the last five centuries our brains have become wired to comprehend long pieces of text.

We learned to find space, peace and quiet to become absorbed enough to do this.

It became essential to the reading process.

It means you and I are of the generations that could feasibly use the EARLY TO RISE technique and make it work.

Not anymore.

Since the Internet revolution, the way we approach and process information has changed.

We are assailed by multiple distractions – on our phones, tablets and computer screens.

Even within an article, video or audio file you’ll be linked to other related articles, videos and audio files.

And each one is shareable on social media.

The very act of clicking on an article can take you into wormhole across many platforms, formats, themes and points of view.

To handle this, we have developed new skills in shallow reading.

These days, people rarely sit and read all your content online – they skim, they select, they take the bits they need.

Or as Carr puts it:

“We are hunter gatherers in the data forest.”

On the downside, the constant interruptions of new emails, new alerts, and new notifications weaken our concentration and make us anxious, like me at 6:30am this morning.

So sure, there’s a lot to complain and worry about.

But you’re reading this email because you want to be better informed about what really works online. In which case, you must set aside your fears and opinions.

This is the world you are living in.

This is the world in which you must somehow attract attention of strangers, bring them to your website and convince them to PAY ATTENTION – subscribe, follow, comment, enquire and order.

This is the ultimate goal of your business and your greatest challenge.

It means you have to embrace the chaos and find ways to channel it!

In my next message I’m going to list some of the ways you can tune into the new version of human brain and make your online content work with it, not against it.

And if you’ve read all the way down from the top of this email, then may I congratulate you on being one of the old guard!

Oh, I forgot. I was going to tell you my trick for staying focused. It’s called The Pomodoro Technique, based on those little tomato timers people use when they’re cooking.

The idea is that you set a task…

  • Set a timer (a Pomodoro timer, egg timer or one of those lemon ones) to ring like crazy in 25 minutes.
  • Switch off all distractions possible. If you can’t turn off the Internet because you need it that’s find because…
  • When a distraction pops into your head, acknowledge it, write it down, but then get back to the task.
  • When the timer rings, put a mark down and take a 5-minute break.
  • Now set the timer again. Do the same until you have four marks and then take a long break. In that time you can go to those distractions you were tempted by earlier.
  • You can now start the process again…