Deep Work: Stopping the Distractions Killing Your Performance

Since it is the start of December we’re now down to one month left to accomplish this year’s goals and set some goals for next year…for a lot of people those goals include getting some big projects done, and one of the reasons we fail to accomplish a lot of our big projects is because we aren’t in the right state to do deep work.

Deep Work

I only came across this NPR podcast (worth the 40 minutes to listen to) from July the other day and found it very interesting, in light of the need many of us have to find ways to be more effective. I see people complaining about their procrastination problem. (And no, you probably don’t have ADHD — not even “a little bit” — but if you think you legitimately might have ADHD then find a good psychiatrist and schedule an appointment.) Our world is becoming full of distractions and that is taking away from our ability to really focus and do deep work.

I suspect what a lot of people describe as a procrastination issue is actually more of a distraction issue. If locked in a room where they could only do task A they would quickly accomplish task A and then be bored, but if locked in a room with all kinds of things to look at and explore they would go for the fun and the easy, before — if ever — getting to task A. That isn’t a procrastination problem, it’s a focus problem. Procrastinators put things off because they are anxious about starting them, distracted people put things off because they have found other things to do.

But Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, says we’re downplaying the problems created by constant interruption.
“We treat it, I think, in this more general sense of, ‘eh, I probably should be less distracted.’ But I think it’s more urgent than people realize,” he says.
By letting email and other messages guide our workday, Cal says we’re weakening our ability to do the most challenging kinds of work — what he calls “deep work.” Deep work requires sustained attention, whether the task is writing marketing copy or solving a tricky engineering problem.

If you want to accomplish stuff. I don’t mean just get your work done, I’m talking about accomplishing big things — the things that matter, the things that have impact, the things that get you new opportunities and promotions — then you have to learn how to do deep work in our age of distractions.

One of the points that Cal made in the podcast is that anyone who has to use their brain — any role that has a level of creative thinking — will be impacted by their inability to engage in deep work. He makes the point that this is no difference than a lots of hands-on work. Craftsman have long known they needed to have focus to accomplish their best work — think of wood workers, jewelers, welders, etc. They all know they need clear singular focus on their task to do their best, so as Cal points out why would we expect that it would be any different just because you are trying to figure out a financial model in Excel or build a marketing presentation in PowerPoint.

Going Cold Turkey

Two related things that I’ve found to help fight the distractions and get to deep work are Cold Turkey (getcoldturkey.com) and Cold Turkey Writer (getcoldturkey.com/writer). Cold Turkey is available for Mac, Windows, and Android while Cold Turkey Writer is available for Mac and Windows. Both applications have Free versions — fully functional — and paid versions with even more features!

The first of these blocks websites. I shutdown Outlook & Skype, silence my phone and put it in the other room, and start a two hour session of Cold Turkey — viola, there is nothing to distract me for a couple hours and even if I’m tempted to open a web browser and look at news, social media, Amazon, Gmail, etc. I’m blocked from doing so (which is a very in-your-face reminder that you are trying to cheat.) This is a great way to get into a deep work phase.

I use Cold Turkey Writer for when I need to be totally focused on getting ideas written down. I love it! Just fire it up and set a goal: time (minutes) or words typed. It blocks out your entire screen until whichever goal you selected is met. It isn’t fancy, but that is a large part of the effort. You can spend a lot of time laying out text or animating a PowerPoint — but first you need to get the ideas out of your head and that is what Cold Turkey Writer really enables.

Imagine sitting in front of a computer where the only thing you can do is write for 60 minutes each day. I’ll bet you would produce and document some amazing ideas both for things you must think about (what is going on today) and things you want to think about for the future. Give it a try for a few weeks — it saves the files to your documents folder — and then take a look to see what you have produced. My guess is you’ll be pretty impressed with yourself.


Originally published at Nicolas A. Nowinski.