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Deep Work: 9 Grounding Rules to Stay Focused

Deep Work: 9 Grounding Rules to Stay Focused

“Deep work” was first coined by Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, in a 2012 blog post.[1] He went on to expand upon this idea in his 2016 bestselling book, appropriately titled Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

What exactly is “deep work”? Well, according to Newport himself:

“Deep work refers to a professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Put more simply, it’s being able to stay focused on your most important and demanding tasks. When you’re able to do this, you’ll end up working smarter, not harder every day. More importantly, you’ll have a more meaningful life.

But how can you do deep work more effectively? You can start by following these 9 rules to stay focused.

1. Understand How You Work

If you want to implement deep work into your life, you first need to choose the scheduling philosophy that fits best with the way you work and live. According to Newport, there are four scheduling philosophies:

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  • Monastic: This is where you focus almost all of your time on deep work, such as high-leverage activities. As such, you eliminate all other distractions, like social media.
  • Bimodal: Here, you divide your time between deep work and shallow work on a weekly, monthly, or annual basis. For example, you may spend an entire week only on high-leverage activities, but the following week would be devoted to tasks like checking emails or updating slide presentations.
  • Rhythmic: This is where you split your daily schedule between deep and shallow work, like doing your deep work in the morning and saving shallow work for late afternoons or evenings.
  • Journalistic: In this approach, you fit deep work in when you have availability in your schedule. One example would be when a meeting gets canceled — you could now slot that time for your deep work. Another would be to kill endless meetings, they don’t help

Experiment with each if needed. The rhythmic philosophy is probably the most realistic for the majority of workers. Unless you’re writing a book, most of us can only focus on deep work for so long or put off certain responsibilities to a later date. Also, it’s the easiest and most effective technique because you can schedule your deep work around when you’re most productive.[2]

2. Establish Deep Work Routines and Rituals

After determining how you work best, you need to realize that we all have limited willpower. That means you have to have the discipline to stay completely concentrated and focused on the task you’re currently working on.

The best way to achieve this is to mentally prepare for deep work, as well as create an environment that encourages you to remain focused. As Newport explained in his book:

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary, to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

Here are some ways to develop those routines and rituals:

  • Develop a deep work schedule and routine. In addition to your work schedule, create morning and evening routines that will set you up for success, such as reviewing your calendar in the morning and meditating at night.
  • Set rules for diving into your deep work. For example, when focused on deep work, you close your office door and turn your phone off until it’s time for a break.
  • Work in an environment that’s distraction-free and comfortable — Don’t park at a busy coffee shop with the intention of getting deep work done.
  • Determine how long you want your deep work session to be. The human brain can only focus for so long. While this varies from person to person, a survey conducted by Toggl found that most people can only focus on a task for one to two hours.[3] Start small, with 15-minute sessions, and work up to longer sessions.
  • Take note of anything that helps support deep work, such as specific refreshments, music, white noise, or tools. Make sure you have these available.

3. Prioritize Using the 4DX Framework

In Deep Work, Newport highlights the 4DX framework described in The 4 Disciplines of Execution. Although this was developed by business consultants to be used for companies, it’s also useful in helping individuals work on what matters most.

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  • Focus on the Wildly Important. This is a limited number of critical and essential goals that your Deep Work hours should be reserved for.
  • Act on the Lead Measures. Two metrics are used when measuring your success: lag and lead measures. Lag measures are your output, such as how many blog posts you wrote today. Lead measure is the time spent engaged in a state of deep work, making progress toward your most important goals.
  • Keep a Compelling Scoreboard. Have a visible tracking system, such as Seinfeld’s “Don’t break the chain” productivity secret.
  • Create a Cadence of Accountability. Hold yourself accountable by committing to daily or weekly reviews to see what you’ve accomplished. You can also use this information to plan for the following week.

4. Embrace Boredom, and Take Breaks

This may sound counterproductive, especially in such a fast-paced world, but it’s perfectly fine to get bored. In fact, Newport says that:

“To succeed with deep work, you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.”

For example, if you were waiting in a food truck line, don’t have your phone glued to your face. Instead, accept the boredom and use this unproductive time to do some deep thinking. This is a type of meditation that asks you to focus your attention on a single problem. The trick is learning to return your attention to a specific problem when your mind starts to wander.

Additionally, you should schedule breaks throughout the day for distractions like social media or chatty co-workers. These breaks help your brain rest and recharge for your next deep work session. This way, you’re not fighting against them — you’re simply scheduling them at certain times so they don’t interrupt your focus.

5. Purge Shallow Work from Your Life

According to Newport:

“Shallow work is 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.”

In other words, this is busy work.

You don’t want to spend too much time on these tasks. For example, instead of spending a bulk of your day with administrative tasks and scattered meetings, block out specific times for these activities, like having all of your meetings on Tuesdays and only checking your inbox three times a day. Better yet, if you have the resources, delegate or outsource your shallow work.

6. Go off the Grid

You don’t have to go to the extreme and literally disconnect from the outside world. After all, you may still need to be somewhat active on social media for your business. But the idea here is to unplug during deep work hours, so you can remain 100% focused.

The easiest way to do this would be to turn off your phone. If that’s not something you’re comfortable with, put it on airplane mode or do-not-disturb mode. You could also turn off notifications for email or social media or log out of them completely. I’ve found a lot of success by removing social media apps from my phone.

7. Get on the Same Page with Others

Perhaps the most disruptive force distracting you is other people. They’re not doing this to be malicious; they just don’t know that an innocent knock on your door can break your concentration.

Let your co-workers know when you don’t want to be disturbed by closing your door and placing a “Do Not Disturb” sign on it. I share my calendar with my employees so they know when I’m available and when I’ve blocked out time for deep work.

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I also do this at home. My family knows not to contact me at the office until it’s time for my breaks, unless it’s an emergency. At home, if I need to do a little work, they also know not to interrupt me in my home office unless I’ve signaled I’m available.

8. Stop When It’s Time to Stop

It’s a guilty pleasure, but I enjoy the movie “Kingpin.” In one scene, Woody Harrelson is helping to build a barn, and the lunch bell rings. He stops immediately and goes running to get his grub. Needless to say, the others can’t hold up the barn, and it collapses.

But it does illustrate a good point: When the lunch bell rings, it’s time to stop working. This is important for deep work because it can motivate us to stay focused. If you only have an hour to complete a task, you don’t have time for anything else. More importantly, deep work is only effective when you set parameters, like starting and ending points.

Consider setting an alarm, even if it’s just an old-school timer that gives you a five-minute warning. This enables you to wrap things up and not go over that allotted chunk of time.

9. Know the Outcome

Let’s say you have plans to go to a concert after work with some friends. Knowing this, you might have packed a more casual outfit and made plans to meet your friends at a restaurant near the venue. Depending on how late you’ll be out, you might plan on going into work a little later tomorrow. Even if you had a couple of hiccups along the way, like getting stuck in traffic, you know the outcome of the night: You’re going to see an awesome show with friends.

The same mentality is true with deep work. When the brain knows the outcome of what you’re trying to achieve, it will remain focused on that activity until it’s completed to your satisfaction. The idea behind deep work is straightforward: Be more intentional with your time by focusing on the things that push you closer to achieving your goals. It encourages you to be more protective of your time, even if that means quitting social media and saying “no” to requests.

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Bottom Line

If you continue to practice and adjust these rules so they work for you, deep work can help you work smarter and become more fulfilled. Staying focused is hard in a world of distractions, but it most certainly pays off.

More About Staying Focused

Featured photo credit: Ben White via unsplash.com

Reference

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John Hall

John Hall is the co-founder and president of Calendar, a leading scheduling and productivity app that will change how we manage and invest our time.

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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