Deep Work: How To Kill Distractions And Boost Productivity
It's 10:34 a.m. on a Thursday morning while I'm writing this. Headphones on. Spotify activated. Weird 'Focus Mode' playlist playing. Notifications are turned off for both laptop and phone. I'm in the zone, so to speak.
You just got a sneak peak into my so-called "deep work" sessions.
I picked up this new routine (which I'll share in more detail below) a while ago after reading Cal Newport's bestselling book 'Deep Work'. It was on my to-read list for a long time. A few months ago, I finally got to it.
And I loved it.
Well, to be honest, I loved the book's central message—I didn't like the fact that the author needed 304 pages to explain it. As with many self-help books, the text on the book's back cover said it (nearly) all in just a few sentences:
"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. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive twenty-first-century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there's a better way."
Newport makes a distinction between deep work ("Professional activity 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.") and shallow work ("Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate").
To clarify with a few examples:
- Deep work: programming, writing, studying, researching, analyzing data, developing strategy, etc.
- Shallow work: email, chat, (nearly all) meetings, etc.
In today's distracted world, there's a huge lack of focused time for deep work activities. As we wrote earlier:
"Gloria Mark, professor at the University of California, studies digital distraction. She reports that when people get distracted, it can take 23 minutes to get back to the original task. This wouldn’t be too bad if we were distracted once or twice a day. But that’s not the case. Several studies found office workers get distracted every three minutes!"
My main takeaways from the book are as follows: Start by splitting up deep work and shallow work; you can't properly do it simultaneously. Kill distractions, especially when you do your more important focused work. Allow for important breaks. Plan your other tasks around your deep work.
A new routine
We've got quite a few things going on at Corporate Rebels. We're growing the Corporate Rebels Academy, giving presentations and workshops for our clients, launching a radically new type of private equity startup, running a foundation, researching pioneering organizations, and writing blog posts and books.
Focusing on improving my deep work quality and quantity has allowed me to be much more productive than before. Mainly because of the wide variety of activities, it is vital to me to craft out time for work that requires clear focus and concentration.
Here's how I currently go about it:
- I've turned off all notifications on my phone (except calls). At first, I was a bit hesitant to turn off WhatsApp notifications too, but it has been great. I reply when it suits me, not when my phone wants me to.
- Most of my workdays start with a focused deep work session. These sessions are dedicated to activities such as writing, researching, preparing talks, etc. Afternoons are for calls, meetings, email, and other less focus-requiring activities.
- Mostly, I plan these from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., since I can focus much better in the mornings. I block my calendar, so the rest of the team knows not to plan anything else.
- During deep work, I enable 'focus mode' on my phone and laptop. This disables call notifications too.
- I put on my headphones, so others know not to disturb me. Plus, I play some lovely focus music.
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Writing and researching aren't activities that you can do without clear focus—or at least, I can't. These simple changes have made a big difference for me.
Now that I've had a few months of experimenting with it, I strongly recommend you to find your own deep work routine. Give it a try and see for yourself.
Go deep or go home.