Part I: Fixing my focus problem with Deep Work
Step 1: Admitting that I have a problem
Lately I’ve been struggling to focus. It’s not just social media often; tools like Slack at work are making distraction a constant thing, interrupting almost every thought. Not only is this irritating but I know it’s reducing my efficiency and effectiveness — work that should only take an hour takes two because I’m stopping to respond to messages that don’t even require an immediate response. And the worst part of all this is that even though I sense a problem, I haven’t been able to do anything about it.
So when I came across the book Deep Work, I thought let’s give this a whirl.
I found the book so useful and actionable, that I just had to shout what I learned from the rooftops and encourage anyone I knew with a focus problem (which is literally everyone I know) to check it out. I’m taking it one step further and actually doing something about it — but I thought I’d set the scene with a high-level summary of some of the strategies I found most relevant.
Disclaimer: This doesn’t replace actually reading the book. I didn’t dive into the details and nuances of many of the strategies, nor do I cover all the strategies. My summary is to provide helpful context for the methods I’ll be experimenting with. I highly recommend actually reading the book.
First of all, what is deep work and what is shallow work?
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.
Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Sometimes shallow work makes us look busier than we actually are — Newport has a definition for this, too:
Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.
Why is this important?
The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
Decide on your Depth Philosophy
Monostatic — just completely avoid any and all shallow work
This method is likely impossible for most knowledge workers as communication (email, Slack, etc.) are required for both the job and personal obligations.
Bimodal — devote large chunks of time to deep work
This method requires being able to concentrate deep work into specific chunks of time. For example, if you could dedicate three weeks per month for “regular work” and one week for “deep work,” this would be a good strategy to adopt. However, most people cannot avoid shallow work and obligations for large chunks of time.
Rhythmic — create a regular habit of deep working
This is probably the best strategy for people with normal, 9-to-5 jobs and beginners to “deep work,” since it allows you to slowly build a habit. Adopting this strategy might look like devoting one hour each day to deep work.
Journalistic — fit in deep work, whenever you can
The term “journalistic” comes from the ability of writers to switch into “writing mode,” whenever possible. This strategy is also not ideal for beginners, as it takes time to build up the concentration and stamina required for deep work and switching into deep work mode might not happen as quickly as you’d like. However, Newport points out that you could also pre-schedule deep work sessions into your calendar and also use open blocks as they come, creating a hybrid between the rhythmic and journalistic methods.
How to get started with deep work
Build a Ritual
Part of successful integrating deep work into your schedule is creating some rules for it; the more specific the better. Define the following:
- Where and for how long you’ll conduct your deep work
- Rules for the work (internet ban, words written per hour, etc.)
- How you’ll support your work (coffee, a walk to get the mind going, good lighting, comfortable workspace, etc.)
Four Disciplines of Deep Work
- Focus on the wildly important: to just spend more time “working deeply” doesn’t quite trigger excitement or motivation to get started. Instead, picking goals that would have a tangible benefit and focusing on those will give you a reason to work deeply, energize and excite you.
- Act on the lead measures: Newport describes two types of metrics: lag measures, the thing you’re ultimately trying to improve and lead measures, indicators that you’ll be successful in moving the lag measures. For example, I want to get better at writing so a lag measure for me could be number of “likes” on articles I publish. However, this metric doesn’t help me change my day-to-day behavior and only becomes known after I have already done the work. Instead, I would focus on the lead measure of writing for 30 minutes every day. The more I practice my writing, the better it will be and I will ultimately see the impact as a result of my changed behavior.
- Keep a compelling scoreboard: keeping track of progress you’re making with deep work can motivate and prove results. Newport does something as simple as tallying hours of deep work and circling when major milestones were accomplished so he can see the impact of his deep work.
- Create a cadence of accountability: implementing a regular routine to keep track of progress on lead measures can help keep the practice going and shed light on what is working well and what needs to be adjusted.
Leave time to be lazy
Newport referenced substantial evidence that giving your mind some space and down time aids insights and recharges the energy required for deep work. More importantly, once your “deep work” energy quota for the day is filled (~4 hours for experts, as low as 1 hour for beginners), the law of diminishing returns kicks in and you’re less able to do deep work anyway.
No work after work — institute a “shutdown” time and ritual. The Zeigarnik effect shows that incomplete tasks domination our attention unless we create a plan for how those incomplete tasks will be completed.
At the end of each day, complete a quick check-in. This can consist of whatever is relevant to you and your job and helps you feel like incomplete tasks are “taken care” of. (Not finished but at least thought of and planned for). Newport recommends sticking with it for at least a couple weeks in order for your brain to start trusting that this ritual works.
“Trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had instead respected a shutdown.”
Schedule for success
Schedule every minute of your day
Have you ever said that you’ll check Facebook “real quick,” only to realize 20 minutes have passed and you’re down some rabbit hole of articles? If not, you probably don’t need to keep reading. Everyone else, please continue :)
The point of this method is not to have a rigid, inflexible day but rather have more control and say over how you spend your time.
Newport recommends writing out on paper in 30-minute blocks, what you’ll do throughout the day. If something throws off your schedule, simply re-write the rest of the day accordingly, making adjustments as needed. Otherwise, when your day gets thrown off, it’s easy to just ignore the schedule for the rest of the day and tackle things as they arise but that can throw your day off track even more and lead to more distraction spirals.
Take breaks from focus, not from distraction.
If you’re addicted to distraction (i.e. checking your phone while waiting in line for five minutes), your brain can’t shake this habit immediately even if it wants to. Rather than spending your day going from distraction to distraction, schedule time to be distracted and time to be focused and then stick to it, no matter what. If you’ve scheduled a 30-minute focus block, do not allow yourself to be distracted. If for some reason you need to use your phone sooner, don’t just use it right then. Re-schedule the next “distraction block” for a few minutes later and wait until then to use your phone. This exercise helps train your mind to be focused by separating the desire to go online from the reward of actually doing it.
“Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”
The book goes into several helpful strategies and insights into these methods — must read if you’re serious about giving this a shot!
Other strategies to improve your ability to do deep work
(I won’t be actively trying any of these in my first attempt).
When you’re doing something that occupies you physically but not mentally, (showering, walking the dog, running, etc.), use that time to think about a single, well-defined, professional problem. For example, if you’re working on writing a talk, you could think about the structure, content and flow of the talk. The two most important things with this method is having a single problem and that it’s well-defined. This will result in the most productive thinking. If you find yourself distracted with other thoughts, just bring your attention back to your predefined topic.
Quit Social Media
Or at least apply the 80 / 20 rule — which tools and platforms actually help you progress towards your main personal and professional goals? Newport goes into many examples and covers a strategy to first determine what your main goals are and then decide the things that help you best get there.
Put Thought into Leisure Time
Rather than spending time on whatever app / TV show / YouTube video catches your attention in the moment after work and losing anywhere from 10 minutes to the rest of your evening, put thought into your leisure time. By actively choosing what fun thing you’ll do, whether it’s reading a fun book, spending time with a friend or even choosing a specific movie to watch, you’ll feel more relaxed and content with the time you just spent.
If you give yourself 8 hours to complete a task, you’ll take 8 hours. If you give yourself 4 hours, you’ll likely take 4 hours (within reason this rule applies). Newport suggests “squeezing the fat” from your time — do more focused work in less time by being more efficient. Sign me up!
Be Better at Email
Newport goes into a bunch of strategies about email including:
- Being harder to reach
- Putting more work into emails to reduce the amount of emails
- Not actually responding to every email (and how to make that okay)
I don’t struggle with being overwhelmed with email so this was not super useful for me, however, if you find that email takes up more than 30 minutes of your day, read this chapter.
This summary doesn’t fully cover the value that can be derived from this book. I hope I’ve enticed you enough to read the book and consider adopting some of these strategies yourself! I’m excited to experiment with these strategies over the next month and see what sticks.
To read more about how I adopt some of these strategies and the results, please follow me below! A post about my experiment plan will be up on January 31st.
P.S. I am in no way getting paid to promote this book or these practices.