For years I’ve been beating myself up for not getting enough done throughout my day. I would work, work, work and then get home, and feel exhausted but at the same time unaccomplished. So I would eat a quick dinner with my family, bath my daughter and put her to bed, give the wife a kiss and head upstairs to my home office to try and salvage an already faltering day. This had gone on for the last 6 or so years, and it was eating away at my soul.
I’m going to explain a new practice that I’ve started exercising religiously and has dramatically changed my life. It has allowed me to accomplish more than I ever have before, even to the point of my wife asking me to see a doctor because she’s never seen me so relaxed and able to spend so much time with her and our daughter. It might sound crazy but, I’ve stopped working outside of regular business hours and still have accomplished more than ever before. To explain why this has worked so well, I need to provide a little bit of context.
Deep Work vs. Shallow Work
The first thing you need to know is that there are two distinct types of work, deep work, and shallow work. Deep work is the kind of task that requires you to be extremely focused, with zero interruptions and is cognitively intensive. So imagine having to write a synopsis or novel, or even learn to speak a new language (such as for software development). Shallow work, on the other hand, consists of non-cognitively intensive, routine requirements you would do throughout your day, such as writing emails or making phone calls. These are normally repetitive functions that provide little-to-no real value. Left-unmanaged, shallow-work can consume your entire work-day, which is precisely what I realized was my problem and the primary reason that I felt so exhausted and unaccomplished at the end of each day.
Deep Work is Not Infinite
For years I thought that as long as I had the time, I could learn whatever I wanted. But what I didn’t realize is that this type of intensive thought is finite and not unlimited. Consider your brain a muscle, which needs to rest after being overworked and fatigued. The same applies to your mind after a long day of work. I’m sure you’ve probably felt like you’re hitting a wall come 3 or 4 pm and is right about that time you head to the coffee machine.
Distractions Kill Deep Work
The other thing you have to make sure of is that you take your deep work time very seriously because the biggest killer of productivity are distractions. These come in many forms such as dings, swooshes, red circles with numbers in them, your phone, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn! You get the point. The only way this approach will work is if you can force yourself to limit distractions to zero until you hit a break or are done with your deep work time. I turn off notifications on my computer, on my phone, everything, while I’m in deep work mode. It’s so easy to derail any task by just checking on whatever jumped up from the bottom of the screen. Before you know it, 30 minutes of your day has come and gone, and you’re no further than you were before.
So, now that you have the foundation let’s get to how I’ve personally applied it.
Step #1: Start-of-day Routine
Get into a daily routine of doing something in the morning that will allow you to focus throughout the rest of your day, such as working out, meditation, yoga, a bike ride. Any of these will help to start your day with a clear head.
Step #2: Plan Your Day
Plan out your entire day, and do your best to stick to it. Also, you’ll want to do this at the end of the previous day, every day, since schedules frequently change throughout the week. Trying to plan out the entire week will result in a lot of scratching things out. Naturally, things will come up, but I’ve made sure that my team is aware not to schedule day-of meetings unless it’s an emergency AND to make sure if they do schedule a meeting, that it’s right before/after an already scheduled one versus breaking up my day in the middle for convenience. That’s my deep work time, don’t mess with it!
Also, I highly recommend using a pen and paper to plan out your day. Doing so helps avoid distractions because this can, of course, be handled using any calendar app, but I’ve found that writing it down and keeping it off of my computer or phone has been pretty key to my success. Just buy a college-ruled composition notebook (typically 50 cents or so at any office supply store), draw a line down the middle of the page, use the left-half of the page for your schedule, and the right-half of the page for your action items like communications, todos, issues that may come up and goals or notes for the day. For your schedule, draw in any already scheduled meetings for the following day. I color in each meeting block’s corner so it’s easily distinguished.
Here’s an example page:
Step #3: Include Long Stretches
Next, draw out the blocks you have for you deep work time. Make sure when planning your day to give yourself as many long stretches of time that are uninterrupted without distraction by turning everything OFF or on “do not disturb” mode. If you’re answering emails or browsing the web, that’s shallow work and you want to limit that as much as possible and make sure to plan it for the very beginning or end of your day. Keep in mind that it takes a little ramp-up time to get into deep work mode so a 30 min or even 60 min block of time between meetings or lunch may not make sense to set aside for deep work. This step notably will be the hardest but will be well worth it in the end. I would expect a couple of weeks to get used to following through with your day plan and make sure you avoid distractions. Again, this will not work if you can’t avoid distractions.
Step #4: Learn Something New
Spend those long stretches of time learning something new. If you’re not learning, you’re dying, in my opinion, so spend these hours doing cognitively intensive work. This will accomplish a few things:
- Allow you to get your work done faster
- Help you feel more accomplished at the end of each day
- Build up that ‘muscle’ to allow for more and more deep work hours over time
I’ve even gone to the extent of tracking how many deep work hours I’ve logged in a given month by printing out each month for the entire year, taping it to my wall and marking down how many hours I was able to hit, which kind of gamify’s it for me. I’ve found myself trying to beat my own high-score every month.
Step #5: End-of-day Ritual
Create an “end of day” ritual and make sure you do it every single day when you’re done working. This may seem a bit silly but it really acts as a mechanism for your brain to not think about work anymore. My End-of-day routine consists of:
- Plan out my next day (in my notebook)
- Answer any remaining emails/calls
- Take note of any new todos or carry over incomplete ones
- Tally the number of deep work hours I was able to log
- Shut down any apps on my computer and log off
- Stop thinking about work…period.
Rinse and repeat.
Note: A lot of what I’ve laid out in this article was my own interpretation of how to apply the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. This was my way of addressing each of those considerations above, but you can take this and tweak anyway so that it works best for you, so think of it as more of a guideline, not a rulebook. Everyone handles things differently so as long as you practice at it, and consider the difference between deep and shallow work, it will help you feel more productive and accomplished.