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Last Updated on April 14, 2020

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

More by this author

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 August 6, 2020

Why Working 9 to 5 Is Outdated

Why Working 9 to 5 Is Outdated

Bristol is the most congested city in England. Whenever I have to work at the office, I ride there, like most of us do. Furthermore, I always make sure to go at off hours; otherwise, the roads are jam-packed with cars, buses, bikes, even pedestrians. Why is that? Because everyone is working a traditional 9 to 5 work day.

Where did the “9 to 5” Come From?

It all started back in 1946. The United States government implemented the 40 hour work week for all federal employees, and all companies adopted the practice afterwards. That’s 67 years with the same schedule. Let’s think about all the things that have changed in the 67 years:

  • We went to the moon, and astronauts now live in space on the ISS.

  • Computers used to take up entire rooms and took hours to make a single calculation. Now we have more powerful computers in our purses and back pockets with our smartphones.

  • Lots of employees can now telecommute to the office from hundreds, and even thousands of miles away.

In 1946 a 9-5 job made sense because we had time after 5pm for a social life, a family life. Now we’re constantly connected to other people and the office, with the Internet, email on our smartphones, and hashtags in our movies and television shows. There is no downtime anymore.

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Different Folks, Different Strokes

Enjoying your downtime is an important part of life. It recharges your batteries and lets you be more productive. Allowing people to balance life and work can provide them with much needed perspective and motivation to see the bigger picture of what they are trying to achieve.

Some people are just more productive when they’re working at their optimal time of day, after feeling well rested and personally fulfilled.  For some that can be  from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m; for others, it could be  2 p.m. to 7 p.m.

People have their own rhythms and routines. It would be great if we could sync our work schedule to match. Simply put, the imposed 8-hour work day can be a creativity and morale killer for the average person in today’s world.

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Productivity and Trust Killer

Fostering creativity among employees is not always an easy endeavor, but perhaps a good place to start is by simply not tying their tasks and goals to a fixed time period. Let them work on their to-do list at their own pace, and chances are, you’ll get the best out of your employee who feels empowered instead of babysat.

That’s not to say that you should  allow your team to run wild and do whatever they want, but restricting them to a 9 to 5 time frame can quickly demoralize people. Set parameters and deadlines, and let them work at their own creative best with the understanding that their work is crucial to the functioning of the entire team.

Margaret Heffernan, an entrepreneur who previously worked in broadcasting, noted to Inc that from her experience, “treating employees like grown-ups made it more likely that they would behave the same way.” The principle here is to have your employees work to get things done, not to just follow the hands on the clock.

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A Flexible Remote Working Policy

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer famously recalled all her remote workers, saying she wanted to improve innovation and collaboration, but was that the right decision? We’ve all said that we’re often more productive in a half day working from home than a full day working in the office, right? So why not let your employees work remotely from home?

There are definitely varying schools of thought on remote working. Some believe that innovation and collaboration can only happen in a boardroom with markers, whiteboards and post-it notes and of course, this can be true for some. But do a few great brainstorms trump a team that feels a little less stressed and a little more free?

Those who champion remote working often note that these employees are not counting the clock, worried about getting home, cooking dinner or rushing through errands post-work. No one works their 9-5 straight without breaks here and there.  Allowing some time for remote working means employees can handle some non-work related tasks and feel more accomplished throughout the day. Also, sometimes we all need to have a taste of working in our pajamas, right?

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It’ll be interesting to see how many traditional companies and industries start giving their employees more freedom with their work schedule. And how many end up rescinding their policies like Yahoo did.

What are your thoughts of the traditional 9-5 schedule and what are you doing to help foster your team’s productivity and creativity? Hit the comments and let us know.

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