Do you spend your day in a blur of constant disruption? Emails, Slack messages, texts, and now the addition of dogs barking, stir crazy kids, and news alerts call for your attention at increasing speed and urgency. While during normal times it may be usual to have constant interruptions, since you are likely working from home now, you need to be not just productive, but also find a way to peace and solace in your day. I suggest you look to deep work for answers. Read on to learn five ways to access your new superpower, and see how I practice deep work in my daily life.
The costs of distractions
On an average day, you probably check your phone every eight to 12 minutes. In these ever-changing times, though, you are even more distracted with news updates, emergency alerts, and much needed contact with colleagues, friends, and family. On top of external distractions, you make things worse by interrupting yourself with weather forecasts, stock market updates, and constantly checking the email inbox. While of course you don’t want to cut yourself off completely, you need to know the costs of letting yourself be constantly interrupted. Distractions are your kryptonite because:
Every time you succumb to a distraction, it takes anywhere from five to 25 minutes to get back on track with your primary task
Quick switches from one task to another produce excess stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, leaving you feeling frantic, exhausted, and disoriented, which are the last things you need right now
You feel guilty because you aren’t addressing the important things in your work and life
Your overly stimulated brain affects the quality of your sleep, and you end up in a mental fog
Your productivity and efficiency decrease, costing you about two hours in every workday
Deep work saves the day
Rather than spinning in a world of distractions, give yourself the gift of deep work. According to Cal Newport, the renowned author and computer science professor who coined the term, “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.” The benefits of deep work include:
Increased mental clarity and focus
Increased momentum, effectiveness, and productivity
A sense of peace and accomplishment
Newport declares, "Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship." Deep work is extremely gratifying and energizing. Don’t be surprised when you find yourself happier when you make deep work sessions a regular part of your life.
How to work deeply
With deep work, your brain stays in one place for 15, 30, even 90 minutes, allowing you to accomplish important work. Follow these guidelines to start your deep work sessions.
Block out time. Schedule time on your calendar to work on a cognitively demanding task. Once it’s on your calendar, treat that time like an important meeting or appointment. You might need to communicate to your boss, team, and/or family that you are unavailable during this time except for emergencies.
Determine your task. Determine what to work on during the deep work session. The point is to make progress on tasks that require concentration, so avoid “shallow” tasks like reading and responding to routine emails.
Adopt a zero-tolerance policy. During your deep work session, don’t let yourself be distracted. Even glancing briefly at emails reduces your cognitive capacity to focus. I like to set my phone and computer to “do not disturb” during deep work. You might need to shut down apps like chat, email, Teams, and Slack to avoid being tempted to follow up with “just one thing.” Many apps like Word include focus views that could be helpful. It helps me to have one browser window dedicated for deep work research, so I don’t get distracted by all those open browser tabs and end up researching a new pair of shoes during my precious deep work time.
Focus on one task at a time. Dedicate your session to one task. If you complete the task before the deep work session is over, then start the next task on your list.
Repeat. The power of deep work is revealed when it becomes a regular part of your days, weeks, and months. Give yourself the time your brain needs to get used to focusing on one thing at a time
Deep work is challenging, just like a building a new muscle. I recommend you start with small segments and gradually increase the time of your deep work blocks. You might start with a 15 session and then add ten minutes each week to build your concentration muscle. All that dedication can be tiring, so give yourself a break to move around and focus on shallow tasks when your deep work session is complete. If you want to learn more about deep work, I highly recommend Newport’s book, Deep Work, and this interview for a short overview.
My deep work practice
About a year ago, I challenged myself to work deeply after reading the book, Deep Work. I schedule time on my calendar to write most mornings. Initially, I committed to 15 minute sessions and now work deeply for about 45 minutes before I find myself wearing out. Even though it’s part of my schedule, I still feel a conflict of priorities screaming at me as I approach my deep work session. Answering all those unread emails and texts seems so much more urgent and important than sitting down to work deeply. Instead of heading the call, I step bravely into my deep work zone and begin the task at hand.
I start by setting a timer and playing specific focusing music. I include links to the tools I use in the next section. Starting this routine signals my brain that it’s time to concentrate. Even though it can feel physically and mentally painful to focus on one thing and not multitask, I usually find about ten minutes in, my brain quiets down. I find myself breathing deeply and I am energized by the task at hand. I’m in a flow state. Before I know it, my timer goes off, and I wonder where all the time went. Rather than leaping up, I often keep going for another five to 10 minutes. Other times, I hit a wall before the timer goes off. Having a timer helps me to stay focused during the handful of minutes remaining. If I’m late for my deep work session, I try to give myself even 10 to 15 minutes to focus on one task.
Tools to work deeply
I like working deeply. In fact, I crave deep work on days when my schedule is overly booked. The following tools help me focus during my deep work sessions. Learn more in my article, Just Focus: Four Tools to Get in Your Zone.
Focus@Will. Provides personalized music to increase focus, reduce distractions, and maintain productivity when working and studying.
Focusmate. Provides virtual one-to-one coworking sessions. I generally work “alone” during morning deep work sessions, but when I need some virtual company, I log into Focusmate for a 45-minute coworking session. It’s simple and powerful.
The superpower of deep work is inside you right now. You don’t need a special potion or a magic ring to access it. What you do need is a commitment to block out distraction free time most days. Newport insists that deep work is one of the most valuable skills in our economy. His research finds that when you master deep work, you will achieve extraordinary work. Rather than starting and ending your days bouncing from one seemingly urgent task to another, explore deep work. You will be happier and more productive. I challenge you to schedule a 15-minute deep work session today, tomorrow, and the next day. Your brain will thank you. Let me know how it goes.
Deep Work, by Cal Newport