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Published on January 21, 2020

How to Stay Focused at Work by Using Deep Work

How to Stay Focused at Work by Using Deep Work

In this increasingly distracted digital age, many of us have lost the ability to tune out distractions for long periods. Some of us do not even know how to focus at work.

We’ve got so distracted that if someone can sit down for an extended period and focus deeply on a single task without getting distracted, they are seen as possessing one of the superpowers of this generation. It sounds a bit extreme but it might be more accurate than you think.

But there are some unique methods that, if applied properly in the right circumstance, could improve your ability to tune out distractions and develop laser-like focus.

Why Are Distractions Robbing You of Time and Energy?

Due to the over-dependence of digital devices that are deliberately engineered to capture our attention, priorities and deep focus have fallen prey to an onslaught of attention traps.

Just think about how many times you check your devices (social media, text messages, email, YouTube, etc.) during any given day, even at work. Probably a little too much right? But do not feel ashamed.

Multiple studies have shown that most of us spend too much time on our phones.[1] However, our screen time habits are not the only distraction that is harming our ability to concentrate extensively at work.

Navigating between the myriad of activities and responsibilities crammed in our usual daily work routine also makes deep concentration very challenging, especially if you’re a key decision-maker.

Having to deal with pesky co-workers who are constantly tugging at you, vying for your attention, can be very distracting and even maddening. Unfortunately, these disruptions have become the norm. We now live in a world that inundates us with stimulation and requests for our attention, leaving us with little to no uninterrupted time to focus.

An empirical study from UC Irvine found that[2] the typical worker switches tasks every three minutes on average. It can take about 23 minutes to bounce back from a distraction at work.

The study revealed that workplace interruptions can result in a lot of lost time and energy throughout a workday. It also revealed that the resulting anxiety from the perceived time lost from interruptions at work increases stress.

Succumbing to these distractions can lead you down the road of mediocrity and failure, which you never want in your job.

Which leads to the million-dollar question – how do I stay focused at work?

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Strategies on How to Stay Focused at Work

Word of caution – there is no “quick or easy” fix to how to stay focused at work. A well-publicized hack or finding that perfect to-do app or just meditating might not be the most effective answer for everyone.

The key is to be very strategic in your approach and to be prepared to experience some discomfort.

If you can’t, chances are your work hours will slip away towards activities that Cal Newport, a renowned author and computer science professor at Georgetown University, refers to as ‘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.”

This is the type of work that fills most of our days.

A more efficient and ultimately productive way to spend our work hours is by practicing what Newport calls ‘deep work’:

“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.”

The concept was coined by Newport in his 2016 bestselling book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted WorldThe author of six self-improvement books suggests that by taking back control of our time and attention from the many diversions that try to steal them, we will be able to master the art of deep work.

Let’s take a look at some of Newport’s unusual strategies and recommendations that can significantly improve your ability to tune out distractions at work or in your everyday life.

1. Know Your Triggers

To achieve ‘deep work’ or consistently stay focused for long periods, the first step is to look deep into yourself to find out why you’re resisting focus in the first place.

We are all different in some way or another. Some of us can have a desk filled with work material and still be able to concentrate but get thrown off by a co-worker just entering our space.

The likelihood of being distracted is directly related to the amount of pull something is having on our attention. So, increased self-observation and deep introspection will help you to identify boundary cues.

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There are three typical cues that you need to either set boundaries for or you are letting your boundaries slip:

  1. Discomfort
  2. Resentment
  3. Guilt

You can’t always avoid every single distraction. But if you’re aware of your weaknesses, the better the chances of putting the right systems in place to greatly reduce exposure to distractions.

Set Boundaries

A boundary is a limit defining you in a relationship with someone or something. Boundaries can be physical, digital, emotional and even spiritual.

Learning how to set boundaries is essential in limiting disruptions and distractions in your life. Healthy boundaries give you the room to do what you want to focus on. It serves as the framework to focus your efforts and harness your energy enabling you to do your best work.

The first step in setting boundaries is knowing your triggers and limits – are they mental, emotional, physical or spiritual?

Keep in mind that your limits are your own, so it’s likely to be different than the limits of others.

Stand Firm

Imagine the ridicule you’ll receive for placing a “Do not interrupt” sign on your office door or your desk in this ultra-sensitive era. It will likely not be received favorably by your colleagues.

Most of us are just too much of a crowd-pleaser to become conveniently reclusive and risk getting rebuked for it.

Often, our inability to set boundaries results from our fear of offending those around us. But frankly, you have little to no obligation beyond your own guilt to be immediately available to everyone all the time.

2. Prioritize Your Emails

Depending on which company you work for and your specific role, there’s a strong possibility you’ll receive a steady stream of company emails daily.

Emails are one of the most inescapable aspects of work life. We’re currently sending approximately 200 billion emails per day.[3]

Newport argues that emails take up mind space and attention that could be devoted to deep work. He believes that email is the:

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“Quintessential shallow activity is particularly insidious in its grip on most knowledge workers’ attention.”

Those little virtual envelopes sparks such feelings of curiosity and excitement, it’s quite difficult to loosen its powerful grip on our attention.

Newport recommends several strategies:

Guard Your Email Address

  • Don’t list your email address publicly or have it on your website if you’re a business owner.
  • Have different emails or separate contact forms for different queries.
  • Have a process-centric approach. Reduce some of the back-and-forths of emails by sending more thorough and complete correspondence. This will close the loop on a conversation more quickly.
  • Prioritize the emails you receive. Understand that not every email you receive requires a response.

The Inbox Zero Method

Another email strategy you could apply is the polarizing Inbox Zero method.

Originally coined by Merlin Mann, owner of 43 Folders, Inbox Zero will help you to dedicate specific chunks of time to reading and answering emails so that they don’t take over your day.

Here are some tenants of Mann’s original view of Inbox Zero:

  • Keep your email application closed for the majority of the day.
  • When processing emails follow the principle of Delete, Delegate, Respond, Defer or Do.
  • Respond immediately to messages which can be answered in two minutes or less.

3. Eliminate Digital Distractions

We mentioned earlier how much of a distracting force digital devices have become.

If you’re like most workers, you don’t spend all of your hours at work doing actual work. Be honest. And even if you do, you’re the envy of many reading this article.

Cyberloafing is so rampant in workplaces that it costs US businesses up to US$85 billion a year, according to a University of Nevada study.[4]

To overcome this, Newport suggests staying away from distracting websites and apps for a predetermined amount of time.

“Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.”

Here are several strategies to help with your digital de-clutter:

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  • Use site-blocking apps to access the internet at set intervals.
  • Develop the willpower to not check your phone every 10 minutes. Get used to select the ‘do not disturb’ mode on your smartphone or keep it face down.

Minimize Your Notifications – Ignore the Noise

Unapologetically screen your phone calls – set boundaries to accept only very important calls during work hours.

4. Methodically Schedule Each Day

Meticulously planning each day is the best way to approach deep work and one of the best strategies on how to stay focused at work. It imposes time limits, creating a healthy ‘pressure of time’.

One of the main reasons why most people lose focus during a workday is because of a lack of a structured plan or schedule.

Newport acknowledges that not every day will go exactly as planned. But recommends that you “schedule every minute of your day” regardless.

The time-blocking (also known as time boxing) approach will hold you accountable by allocating specific periods for specific types of work. Dividing your workday into blocks and assigning activities to each one allows you to prioritize what’s most important.

There are different time-boxing methods such as the previously mentioned Inbox Zero and Day-theming.

Day-theming is dedicating each day of the week to a specific theme instead of switching between different types of work or areas of responsibility throughout the day. This strategy is not about scheduling a perfect day. It’s really about giving structure to your workday by forcing you to be more intentional with your time.

When you schedule each workday you’ll be more control of time because you’ll know exactly what you want to accomplish and when.

The Bottom Line

As Newport highlighted in the book:

“Our ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable.”

Our brains are barely equipped to handle the massive amount of attention triggers that are perpetually trying to disrupt our concentration daily. No wonder learning to become masters of our focus instead of slaves to our ever-increasing distractions is so hard.

Fortunately, there are strategies on how to stay focused presented in Deep Work that if properly and consistently practiced can significantly increase your productivity at work.

More Tips to Help You Stay Focused

Featured photo credit: Bench Accounting via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on October 22, 2020

2 Transformational Ways to Spark Your Creative Energy

2 Transformational Ways to Spark Your Creative Energy

Good things come in twos: Peanut butter and jelly, Day and night, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The same is true for what sparks our creative energy: our thoughts and actions.

Creativity is an inside job as much as it is about a conducive schedule, physical environment, and supportive behaviors. By establishing the right internal and external landscape, creativity can blossom from the abstract to the concrete and we can have fun along the way.

Sparking creativity is all about setting up the right conditions so a spark is ignited and sustained. The sparks don’t fizzle out. They are allowed to grow and ripen.

Think of a garden. Intention alone will not produce the delicious red tomato nor will the readiest seed. That seed needs attention at its nascent stage and as it grows a stalk and produces fruit. If we want to enjoy more than one fruit, we keep at it, cultivating the plant and reaping multiple harvests.

Creativity lives in each of us like seeds in the earth or encapsulated in a nut. Seeds of ideas, concepts, designs, stories, images, and even ways of communicating that surprise and delight await activation.

By sparking our creative energy, we activate these unique seeds. Like snowflakes, they are of a moment and always without a match. The smallest sparks encourage even the smallest, most dormant seeds to sprout.

The good news is that our creative energy wishes to be sparked—to be invited to play. It wants to be our regular playmate.

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1. Be Childlike in Your Thoughts, Attitudes, and Approach

Being childlike in our thoughts, attitudes, and approach is an easy way to internally have our thoughts be gracious prolific gardeners to our creative energy. If we want it to come out and play and hang around as our regular companion, then let’s return to our 5-year-old selves.

Our childhood selves are naturally curious. We still have that curiosity! All we have to do is remind ourselves to get curious. We can do that by simply observing and being with what is in front of us instead of making up a story about what won’t work or why something can’t be done. So, it’s about cultivating curiosity instead of jumping into judgment.

Move Your Inner Judge to the Sidelines

When we get curious, creativity percolates and, ultimately, takes its place in the world. To give a hand in choosing curiosity over judgment, we can move the judge that also lives inside us to the sidelines. The judge squashes our creative urges, even when they are as small as sharing a point of view. It’s that pesky voice that causes us to doubt ourselves or worry about what others will think.

The judge is also risk-averse. The judge likes things to stay the same. Change makes the judge nervous.

Creativity is all about risk and changing things up. It needs risk, even failure, to be its naturally innovative, dynamic, impactful self. The judge likes to convince us failure is something to be avoided at all costs.

To move the judge to the sidelines and let curiosity reign, we can pay attention to who we are in conversation with and who is calling the shots.

Is it the voice of fear, doubt, or anxiety (the inner-critic—the judge’s boss)? Or is it the voice of wisdom, courage, strength, and non-attachment, and of course curiosity (the inner-leader)?

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We can easily tell the difference by how each makes us feel. The inner-critic depletes and slows us down, putting roadblocks in the way. The inner-leader energizes and a natural rhythm develops.

It’s all about who we spend time with. If we wish to exercise, we will seek out our friends who go to the gym or hike. If we want to lose some weight, we will opt to eat dinner with someone who prefers a healthy spot over fast food.

After getting curious, we can honor what our curiosity prompts us to do. The spark can do its job and a fire starts to glow when commitment enters. Our childhood selves were fully committed to being creative. That level of commitment is still something we are very capable of exercising!!

Again, we need to let go of the judge. We can ask ourselves, what do we want to commit to—negativity that depletes our creative energy, depth, and output, or the understanding that our thoughts and attitudes matter and that right thoughts and attitudes are the sparks that really let our creativity come alive?

Learn to Recall Your Childhood Self

To get in touch with that unabashedly committed childhood self, recall your childhood self. If you have a picture, pull one out. Keep it around so you can remember to activate that innate creative nature that was prominent then and wants to be prominent now and always.

Soak in the essence of that being. Commit to their commitment to brave and dogged trial and error because it is yours as well. You are that person.

Remember how tenacious you were when you wanted to build that sandcastle. You kept at it as the waves came in. You built with fury or reconfigured the walls. Also, remember that there was a willingness to fail since you were as invested in the process as well as the outcome—but less with the outcome. You were willing to experiment and start again. There was vitality—the main lifeline of your creative energy—instead of a rigid attachment.

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When you notice you are in conversation with your inner-critic or being held back by it, simply acknowledge, name it, and then switch to your inner-leader by taking a few good deep belly breaths, rubbing two fingertips together, or listening to ambient sounds in the background.

Physical movements shift our negative thoughts over to the positive domain of the inner-leader. As our judge continues to sit on the sidelines, our ability to quiet the inner-critic becomes stronger. We taste freedom. A simple taste emboldens us to say no again to the judge and yes to what makes our hearts and spirits sing—our creativity.

We begin to spark creativity to the point it no longer needs to be invited to play. It becomes our regular playmate—the younger sibling or the kid next door ready to have some fun, maybe even make some mischief by shaking things up.

When we align with our inner-leader and think and act from its promptings, creativity flows up and out with ease, as it needs to!

Letting those initial sparks generate a creativity fire that keeps burning is something we can all do! That’s the inside job.

2. Listen to Your Inner Leaders of Creative Energy

If we listen, our inner-leaders will let us know just what we need to set-up and do in our physical world to maximize that gorgeous, hungry creativity we now have flowing freely in us.

The seed has been unlocked! So, now what?

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To enable our creative energy to take its form and place outside of us, there needs to be spaciousness! Spaciousness in our physical worlds impacts our internal one. It lets the voice of the inner-leader be heard. It lets creativity have room to be sparked and acted upon.

With a little discipline, we can easily create spaciousness in our daily lives—spaciousness that will spark our creativity and let it take shape.

So, no matter who you are and what conditions help your creativity thrive, check-out these easy-to-implement basic suggestions:

  • Reduce or eliminate multi-tasking.
  • Say yes to what matters and what aligns with your big values and goals.
  • Say no to all else.
  • Say no again.
  • Schedule time in your calendar as you do with other things in your life to just be, to ponder, to let ideas percolate, and to create.
  • Spend time doing the things that bring out your creative energy. It could be walking, singing, or simply looking out the window.
  • Meditate.
  • Breathe—long breaths in and long breaths out through the nose.
  • Invite your body and heart into your experiences so your mind is a part of you and not all of you.
  • Try a new thing to spark your creativity. If you spend time running, try a different route. If running feels stale, cruise around a museum, or go for a bike ride.
  • Play a game. Indoors out or outside. Think of what makes you happy that you haven’t done in a while. Is it a physical game like badminton or cards? Maybe it’s storytelling? Play is creative, and it sparks the creative energy, too.
  • Spend time in the places that bring out your creativity. What spot in your home could be your spot for entering into that mode? Do you need to get out? Maybe a park bench is the right spot, with a book of poetry, or even nothing at all.
  • Spend time in nature. Nature brings us to a place of calm and awe and through that our creativity is easily sparked.

Final Thoughts

These are all habits—habits of mind and habits of doing. Experiment with what works for you. Have fun. If you give even 50% to altering your thoughts and actions, then you will begin to spark your creativity. It takes a lot of curiosity and commitment, but it can definitely be done.

Our innate creative energy is a deep source of all that we seek—joy, connection, renewal. It deserves and looks forward to the changes you will make that will let sparks fly and ignite!

More Tips to Spark Your Creative Energy

Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

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