During the pandemic, many people who began working from home became more productive. The lack of commute was part of it. So was the dramatic decrease in interruptions and distractions.
I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge something. For workers with young children, the number of interruptions and distractions skyrocketed. Those people deserve medals. Really. Big. Medals.
The Art of Making Things Happen: Deep Work versus Shallow Work
Now that non-essential workers are returning to the office, the idea of productivity is on our minds. Interruptions and distractions hamper our ability to engage in “deep work.” This is the subject of Cal Newport's book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Productivity experts have long focused on how to manage to-do lists. They talk about how to get more done in less time, how to manage your email in-box, and more. Newport describes that, along with attending endless strings of meetings, as “shallow work.” It’s busy-ness. It does not tend to advance longer-term goals such as developing a new product line, engineering a solution, or writing a book.
For such longer-term goals, we need to be able to engage in deep, focused thinking—free of distractions. Far easier said than done.
Bill Gates has often talked about his “think weeks.” During those periods, he spent time alone in an isolated location. He read proposals and ideas from his employees and thought about the future of Microsoft.
Most of us cannot afford to do something that dramatic. Nonetheless, there are still steps we can take to develop our ability to engage in deep work:
Planning your day in blocks of time can help you focus on a single task. It also limits distractions and shallow work to specific time periods. When my kids were young, I was running a company and also ended up as a delivery lead for some significant client work. I had over committed yet needed to meet my commitments. To get through that season, I went to bed early and found that I could get more done between 3:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. than I could in the rest of my normal workday. While I do not recommend sleep deprivation, this extreme version of time blocking allowed me to bring my best thinking and capabilities to my company and to my clients, and to also be there for my family’s morning and evening routines.
Minimizing distractions and interruptions
Disabling the wi-fi on your computer while working on a writing project can help you focus. Leaving your cell phone in a different room during a deep work session has a similar effect. Many people also find noise-canceling headphones beneficial in this regard.
Making a grand gesture
Relocating for a deep work session sends a signal to your brain. Something different is about to happen. It’s not business as usual. For students, that could mean studying for finals in the library instead of in their dorm room. For writers, it could mean spending a night or a weekend in a hotel while finishing a novel. For others, it could be as simple as working in a different location of their home or office building when it’s time for a deep work session.
Reducing the expectation of instant communication
Constant emails and group chat messages impede our ability to engage in deep work. People have grown to expect near-instant responses. In most lines of work, though, delaying a response for an hour or two won’t actually hurt anything.
One option is to identify specific times for reading and responding to messages. To manage expectations, people sometimes say so in an automatic response. For example, “Thank you for your message. I read and respond to messages from 9 to 10 each morning and from 3 to 4 each afternoon.”
Others take the opposite approach. They specify when they will not be available because they are engaging in deep work. For example, “Thank you for your message. I am offline each day between 10 and 11 and again between 2 and 3.”
Of course, if you’re not the boss, you need to make sure your boss is okay with your adopting this type of approach. If you are the boss, adopting this behavior shows your employees that you value deep work. It also encourages them to engage in it.
Dealing with social media
Cal Newport doesn’t hold back when discussing the hold that social media has on our attention. Spoiler alert: he’s not a fan. Many people turn to social media in their down time. Their mindless scrolling does nothing either to relax them or advance their goals.
It is unrealistic to believe that people will stop using social media. That said, Newport urges us to consider which social media tools we use. Do the benefits outweigh the negatives? Can we delete social media apps from our cell phones so that we turn to them less often? Can we develop non-online leisure activities, such as learning a musical instrument?
Training our minds to focus
Memory training requires focus and concentration. As a result, it can be an excellent way to prepare for deep work. Memorize a poem or a song. Commit to memory the order of individuals in a group photo. Try to remember all the spices in your spice rack. Doing so can help train your brain to ignore distractions. It also trains your brain to focus on one specific challenging task for a limited period of time.
How Much Work is Enough?
In conclusion, I want to emphasize one thing. Newport isn’t suggesting that we engage in deep work for the majority of our workdays. Even experts at deep work can manage only four hours a day, and not usually in one four-hour chunk. For beginners, an hour a day divided into two half-hour segments is more realistic. Try it out, and let me know how it goes for you.