One thing at a time, deep focus, creativity

Dawid Naude
Dawid’s Blog


It’s advice we all know, doing things one at a time is the path to focus, mindfulness, productivity, creativity and fulfilment. It also completely absolves anxiety in those moments, there is no room to be anxious when you’re wholly occupied by one thing.

There is no such thing as multitasking, all you are doing is working on things one at a time, but in tiny increments, and doing a terrible job of it. It’s also where shallow work thrives. That horrible universe where we find ourselves in between responding to emails, messages, feeling super busy but never really having much to show for it other than being accessible, often having to catch up after hours at the cost of time doing rich activities like playing a boardgame with your family or reading a great book.

The most deceptive, cunning and evil trait of shallow work is that it tricks us into feeling like we’re doing valuable work through the immediate dopamine reward we get when we send an email or reply to a ping. We feel like we’ve accomplished something, but we haven’t.

The research on this is conclusive, there isn’t a way to do good work in a distracted way. You’re far better focusing on one thing at a time, blocking all notifications, distractions, and focusing deeply for a period. This period may only be 10 minutes, even 5 minutes, but the key is that you pick a time and sink in deeply.

You’ll need to engineer this to your unique environment. You won’t be able to never be accessible, to only ever focus on deep work.

The initial cost

An observation I’ve had about focus, including whilst writing this article, is that there’s an establishment cost. The first few minutes of sinking into focus is tough, you’ll feel urges to check email, teams/slack, the news, your phone. It’ll take some time to sink into a state where thoughts and output is flowing and meshing into a logical structure. I’m trying a new method of using the stopwatch on my wristwatch to signal that I’m now going into focus mode. For obvious and less obvious reasons I don’t use the stopwatch function on my phone. I don’t want to have to wake it to see how long I’ve gone, and I don’t want any reason to touch my phone, I may never get back to my task if I do.

When the stopwatch is running, it’s one window open, one task, one character at a time. I’m only allowed to do anything else once I deliberately stop the stopwatch.

As I mentioned, the first few minutes are tough, so give yourself permission to do a terrible job at the beginning. Make the object of your first few minutes to simply get moving, if you overthink at the start you’ll be inclined to distraction, which is really just swapping something hard with something easy at the first point of discomfort. Once things start flowing, even if it’s garbage, you’ll notice the quality comes and it gets easier. Consider it like a warm-up. It’s also the reason why authors separate creation from editing, they are two separate states, if you focus on quality and output at the same time, you might not get either.

Be deliberate with your environment

There are deliberate actions you’ll need to take to limit distractions depending on your work environment. Personally I use Outlook Desktop instead of Outlook Web because of the ‘work offline’ feature. It allows my calendar to alert me when my next meeting is, so I don’t have to wonder or check if it’s starting soon, also if I’m doing a task that might need me to access emails I’m able to do that without a flood of new emails coming in and distracting me. I have all my phone notifications disabled, and teams/slack closed. Many organisations like mine now use Microsoft Teams not only for collaboration but for file management, because of this I make sure I’m able to access Teams files through a browser by bookmarking the sharepoint link. If I open up Teams to access a file, there will be 10 chats wanting my focus, I won’t get back to my task today, if ever.

A super-power to create unique work only you’re capable to

Deep focus is certainly a super power, because so few do it. Worst case, you get through your work faster, it’s a higher quality, and you get to spend more time with your family. Yes there may be some people that you didn’t get back to today, who sent you a message and you didn’t respond, but you’ll have some output to show for it and feel like you accomplished something. Your job isn’t to be ultra-responsive.

The best case is that you’ve tapped into something that nobody else could ever accomplish, combining your experience, your nature, your unique insights and started translating it to something tangible and bringing it into the world, something that nobody else could ever do like you do. It’s a new idea, a visualisation, some wonderful code, a new way to manage your team. These things certainly won’t happen whilst frantically responding to emails, messages, phone pings and social media all day. It’s now been roughly 26 minutes since I started this post, although admittedly there have been at least 5 minutes of distractions as I’ve had my son next to me who is learning how to do minecraft coding, certainly something worth getting interrupted for.