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How to Stay Focused at Work by Using Deep Work

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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.

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More Tips to Help You Stay Focused

Featured photo credit: Bench Accounting via unsplash.com

Reference

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Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Published on September 21, 2021

How Remote Work Affects Your Productivity And Wellbeing (Backed By Data)

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How Remote Work Affects Your Productivity And Wellbeing (Backed By Data)

The internet is flooded with articles about remote work and its benefits or drawbacks. But in reality, the remote work experience is so subjective that it’s impossible to draw general conclusions and issue one-size-fits-all advice about it. However, one thing that’s universal and rock-solid is data. Data-backed findings and research about remote work productivity give us a clear picture of how our workdays have changed and how work from home affects us—because data doesn’t lie.

In this article, we’ll look at three decisive findings from a recent data study and two survey reports concerning remote work productivity and worker well-being.

1. We Take Less Frequent Breaks

Your home can be a peaceful or a distracting place depending on your living and family conditions. While some of us might find it hard to focus amidst the sounds of our everyday life, other people will tell you that the peace and quiet while working from home (WFH) is a major productivity booster. Then there are those who find it hard to take proper breaks at home and switch off at the end of the workday.

But what does data say about remote work productivity? Do we work more or less in a remote setting?

Let’s take a step back to pre-pandemic times (2014, to be exact) when a time tracking application called DeskTime discovered that 10% of most productive people work for 52 minutes and then take a break for 17 minutes.

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Recently, the same time tracking app repeated that study to reveal working and breaking patterns during the pandemic. They found that remote work has caused an increase in time worked, with the most productive people now working for 112 minutes and breaking for 26 minutes.[1]

Now, this may seem rather innocent at first—so what if we work for extended periods of time as long as we also take longer breaks? But let’s take a closer look at this proportion.

While breaks have become only nine minutes longer, work sprints have more than doubled. That’s nearly two hours of work, meaning that the most hard-working people only take three to four breaks per 8-hour workday. This discovery makes us question if working from home (WFH) really is as good a thing for our well-being as we thought it was. In addition, in the WFH format, breaks are no longer a treat but rather a time to squeeze in a chore or help children with schoolwork.

Online meetings are among the main reasons for less frequent breaks. Pre-pandemic meetings meant going to another room, stretching your legs, and giving your eyes a rest from the computer. In a remote setting, all meetings happen on screen, sometimes back-to-back, which could be one of the main factors explaining the longer work hours recorded.

2. We Face a Higher Risk of Burnout

At first, many were optimistic about remote work’s benefits in terms of work-life balance as we save time on commuting and have more time to spend with family—at least in theory. But for many people, this was quickly counterbalanced by a struggle to separate their work and personal lives. Buffer’s 2021 survey for the State of Remote Work report found that the biggest struggle of remote workers is not being able to unplug, with collaboration difficulties and loneliness sharing second place.[2]

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Buffer’s respondents were also asked if they are working more or less since their shift to remote work, and 45 percent admitted to working more. Forty-two percent said they are working the same amount, while 13 percent responded that they are working less.

Longer work hours and fewer quality breaks can dramatically affect our health, as long-term sitting and computer use can cause eye strain, mental fatigue, and other issues. These, in turn, can lead to more severe consequences, such as burnout and heart disease.

Let’s have a closer look at the connection between burnout and remote work.

McKinsey’s report about the Future of work states that 49% of people say they’re feeling some symptoms of burnout.[3] And that may be an understatement since employees experiencing burnout are less likely to respond to survey requests and may have even left the workforce.

From the viewpoint of the employer, remote workers may seem like they are more productive and working longer hours. However, managers must be aware of the risks associated with increased employee anxiety. Otherwise, the productivity gains won’t be long-lasting. It’s no secret that prolonged anxiety can reduce job satisfaction, decrease work performance, and negatively affect interpersonal relationships with colleagues.[4]

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3. Despite everything, We Love Remote Work

An overwhelming majority—97 percent—of Buffer report’s survey respondents say they would like to continue working remotely to some extent. The two main benefits mentioned by the respondents are the ability to have a flexible schedule and the flexibility to work from anywhere.

McKinsey’s report found that more than half of employees would like their workplace to adopt a more flexible hybrid virtual-working model, with some days of work on-premises and some days working remotely. To be more exact, more than half of employees report that they would like at least three work-from-home days a week once the pandemic is over.

Companies will increasingly be forced to find ways to satisfy these workforce demands while implementing policies to minimize the risks associated with overworking and burnout. Smart companies will embrace this new trend and realize that adopting hybrid models can also be a win for them—for example, for accessing talent in different locations and at a lower cost.

Remote Work: Blessing or Plight?

Understandably, workers worldwide are tempted to keep the good work-life aspects that have come out of the pandemic—professional flexibility, fewer commutes, and extra time with family. But with the once strict boundaries between work and life fading, we must remain cautious. We try to squeeze in house chores during breaks. We do online meetings from the kitchen or the same couch we watch TV shows from, and many of us report difficulties switching off after work.

So, how do we keep our private and professional lives from hopelessly blending together?

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The answer is that we try to replicate the physical and virtual boundaries that come naturally in an office setting. This doesn’t only mean having a dedicated workspace but also tracking your work time and stopping when your working hours are finished. In addition, it means working breaks into your schedule because watercooler chats don’t just naturally happen at home.

If necessary, we need to introduce new rituals that resemble a normal office day—for example, going for a walk around the block in the morning to simulate “arriving at work.” Remote work is here to stay. If we want to enjoy the advantages it offers, then we need to learn how to cope with the personal challenges that come with it.

Learn how to stay productive while working remotely with these tips: How to Work From Home: 10 Tips to Stay Productive

Featured photo credit: Jenny Ueberberg via unsplash.com

Reference

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