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Published on October 1, 2019

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.

How to Master Your Management Skills and Build a Strong Team How to Complete Any Task in the Most Time Efficient Manner Deep Work: 9 Grounding Rules to Stay Focused How to Quit Social Media for a Happier and More Focused Life How to Kill Endless Meetings and Stay Productive

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Last Updated on December 9, 2019

7 Techniques to Stay Focused and Avoid Distractions

7 Techniques to Stay Focused and Avoid Distractions

The world has become a very distracting place, you don’t need me to tell you that. Where once we could walk out of our house or office and disappear into our own world with our own thoughts, we are now connected 24 hours a day to a network that’s sole purpose is to make us available to anyone and everyone at any time they choose to disturb us.

Of course, it is very easy to sit here and say all you have to do is turn off your electronic devices and just allow yourself several hours of quiet solitude; but the reality is far harder than that. There is an expectation that we are available for anyone whenever they want us.

However, if you do want to elevate yourself and perform at your best every day, to produce work of a higher quality than anyone expects and to regain control over what you do and when you will need to regain some control over your time, so you can focus on producing work that matters to you…

The good news: You do not have to become a recluse. All you need are a few simple strategies that will allow you enough flexibility in your day to stay focused to do the work that matters and still allow you to deal with other people’s crises and dramas.

Here are 7 ways you can stay focused and be less distracted.

1. Find out When You Are at Your Most Focused

According to research, brilliantly documented by Daniel Pink in his latest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, our brains have a limited capacity to stay focused each day.[1]

From the moment we wake up to the time we turn in for the day, we are using up our brain’s limited energy resources and, depending on the time of day, we will be moving between strong concentration and low concentration.

This means that for most people, their optimum time for sustained concentration and focus will be soon after they wake up. For others, it could be later in the evening—a kind of second wind—but that is rare.

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Once you understand this, you can take time to learn when you are at your best and to protect that time on your calendar as much as possible. If you can, block it off and use that time for the work you need to do that requires the most concentration each day.

2. Get Comfortable Using ‘Do Not Disturb’ Mode

We have the ability to switch our electronic devices to do not disturb mode. Where all notifications are off and your phone or computer will not alert you to a new email or message.

Now after testing this function for a number of years, I can happily report that it does work.

When I sat down to write this article, I put all my electronic devices to do not disturb, closed down my email and began writing. I am safe in the knowledge that until this article is written, and I turn do not disturb off, there will be no interruptions or distractions.

Of course, it is not really about whether do not disturb works or not, it is whether you are willing to turn it on or not.

Most people believe they have to be constantly available for their boss or customers. This is not true at all. What has happened is because of your always available status, you have conditioned these people to turn to you first whenever they have a problem.

You are not actually helping them at all. You are preventing them from having to think for themselves and develop the skill of problem-solving. By not being so readily available, you help them a lot more.

What it comes down to is your boss and customers are going to be far more positive with you, if you deliver your work to the highest quality and on time than you being available 24/7. Trust me on that. I also tested that one.

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3. Schedule Focus Time Every Day

This technique is a lot easier than you may think.

First, you figure out when you are least likely to be disturbed. For me, that is between 6 and 9 am. for a lot of my clients, they find the first 90 minutes in the morning at their workplace is when they are not likely to be disturbed. This is important because you want to be building consistency.

Most people start their day by checking their email and other messages. While they are doing that, they are not going to be bothering you. Now there is no rule about when you should be checking your email. The chances are email is not going to be where you want to spend your most focused time, so you can decide to check your email at say 10:30 am.

Dedicate 30 minutes from 10:30 am to 11:00 am for email processing and use the first 90 minutes of your day for doing your most important work. You will surprise yourself by how much work you get done in that ninety minutes.

4. Plan Your Day the Night Before

One of the inevitabilities of life is there is always a plan for the day. The choice is whether the plan you have is a plan of your own making or not. If you don’t have a plan, then the day will take control of you. Other people’s priorities, urgencies and dramas will fill your day. As the late Jim Rohn said:

“Either you run the day or the day runs you.”

If you take control and make it a habit to plan out what you want to accomplish the next day before you go to bed, you will find yourself staying more focused on your work and be less likely disturbed.

Now when I say plan your day the night before, I do not mean you need to spend an hour or so planning and mapping out every minute of the day. Planning your day should only take you around 10 to 15 minutes and you only need to decide what 10 things you want to complete — 2 “must do” objective tasks and 8 “would like to do” tasks. What I call the 2+8 Prioritisation Technique:

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Do not be tempted to go beyond 10 tasks for the day. When you do that, you do not have enough flexibility in your day to handle crises and other unknown issues that will pop up throughout the day.

When you do not build in flexibility, you will soon stop planning your day. Only plan tasks that will have the biggest positive impact on your work and projects.

5. Learn to Say “No”

I am sure you’ve been told this before. We are wired to please and this results in us wanting to say yes to every opportunity that comes our way. The problem is we cannot do everything and every time you say “yes” to one opportunity, you are saying “no” to another opportunity. You cannot be in two places at the same time.

Jay Shetty shared an inspiring video on JOMO “Joy Of Missing Out”. Here’s the video:

Rather than allowing ourselves to be succumbed by FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out), we should replace that ‘fear’ with the “joy” of missing out. Because of our need to please, we say yes to things we really don’t want to do; yet when we do that, we miss out on doing things that bring us joy—creating something special, spending time educating ourselves and just having some quiet alone time with ourselves.

Learn to say “no” every time you get a notification to your phone. Ignore it. Learn to say “no” to your colleagues when they want to gossip. Learn to say “no” to volunteering when the thing you are being asked to volunteer for does not excite you. Just learn to say “no”.

By saying “no” to opportunities, distractions and interruptions, you are saying yes to better and more meaningful things. Things you do want to focus your attention on.

6. Create a Distraction-Free Environment for Your Focused Time

This has been possibly the most powerful tip I learned when it comes to focusing on what is important. Have a place where you do only focused, high-concentration work.

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Now this place needs to be clean and only have the tools you need to do your work. If it is writing a report or preparing a presentation, then it needs a table and a computer, nothing more. Files, paper and other detritus that accumulates on and around people’s desks need to go. A clean, cool and well-lit environment is going to do a lot more for your focus and concentration than anything else.

The dining table in our home is where I go for undisturbed, focussed work. I take my laptop or iPad, and only have my writing app open. Everything is closed down and the computer is in “do not disturb” mode. There is nothing else on the dining table just my computer and my water tumbler.

Because that is my designated focus area, I only go there to work when I have something that needs total focus and concentration. I am there right now!

7. Be Intentional

The reality is, if you absolutely need to get something done then you need to be intentional. You have to have the intention of sitting down, focusing and doing the work.

There’s no magic tricks or apps that will miraculously do all your work for you. You need to intentionally set aside time for undisturbed focus work and do it. Without that intention, you can read as many of these articles as you like and you still will not get the work done.

It is only when you intentionally set yourself up to do the work, turn off all notifications and do whatever it takes to avoid distractions will the work get done.

The Bottom Line

The strategies and tips I shared in this post will go a long way to helping you become better at focusing on the important things in your life. No matter what they are, you are in control of your time and what you do with it and where you spend it, never give that control away to anyone else.

Protect it and it will be your servant. Give that control away and it will become your master and that is not a good place to be.

More About Staying Focused

Featured photo credit: Manny Pantoja via unsplash.com

Reference

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