How do you start your day at work? Do you ease in by checking email and other platforms? Do you begin with a little busywork and then end up doing more busywork as you procrastinate? Do you ever wonder what happened to your attention span and ability to focus?
Your co-workers seem to have the same issue since many of them drop by to chat before getting down to business. But before you know it, a meeting reminder goes off. There’s no use starting anything major right now, you might as well check a few more messages and updates.
Given all these handy distractions and interruptions, lots of people find it more and more difficult these days to settle down, concentrate, and find time for deep work. In our last post, we discussed the difference between deep work and shallow work, a concept popularized by Cal Newport in his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Newport defines deep work as activities done in distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. Deep work creates new value, improves skills, and is hard to replicate—it is truly productive work.
On the other hand, shallow work involves logistical tasks that don’t require much brainpower and are often done while distracted. This type of busywork doesn’t usually create new value and is easy to replicate. You can stay busy with shallow work, but it’s usually not productive work.
At the end of a busy day of shallow work, you feel brain dead and exhausted. Looking at the list of things you wanted to accomplish, you realize you have to move the important ones to tomorrow’s list. You’ve been moving these tasks from one list to another for several weeks now. Will you ever find time to accomplish them?
Making a case for deep work
If you could minimize shallow work and focus more on deep work, you’d get a lot more meaningful work done. We’ve all heard the same advice for improving focus at work:
• Put your phone away.
• Turn off notifications.
• Check email and other digital platforms at set times during the day, not every 20 minutes.
But all that is easier said than done. Your association’s managers and volunteer leaders may understand the need for improving focus, but they don’t always promote and support a culture that honors concentration and focus. Here’s what you can do to make a case for more support of deep work.
Audit your time. Use Rescue Time, Toggl, or another time tracking app to measure how you’re really spending your day. Now, you don’t want to be the only person on your team who’s willing to get real about actual productive working hours, so persuade some colleagues to do the same.
Explain the concepts of shallow and deep work. Share a summary of Newport’s book with co-workers and supervisors so they understand the difference between shallow and deep work.
Show your boss how you’re spending time. Use examples from your workday to illustrate the problem you and your colleagues are experiencing. Most likely, the ratio of shallow to deep work will be skewed toward shallow work.
Ask for guidance. Ask your boss, “What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work?” Their answer probably won’t align with the existing shallow/deep work ratio, so follow up with, “What can we do as a team to reduce the amount of time we all spend on shallow work?” Be ready with some strategies of your own—we’ve got some ideas to share on that topic.
16 ways to find time for deep work
#1: You get the email you deserve. Treat other inboxes like you want yours treated. Is email the best way to communicate on this matter? Is a message, call, or visit to a desk better?
#2: Create a communication manifesto. Work with your boss and team to define how you will use different tools (email, phone, messages, collaboration tools) and the expected response times for each.
#3: Be more thoughtful about when you break your concentration and ask others to do the same. Work out a system with your boss and co-workers so you can enjoy blocks of uninterrupted quiet time. Put on your headphones and tape a sign to your door or cubicle along with a notepad and paper so visitors can say why they stopped by and when they’re available to talk later.
#4: Reset meeting defaults to 30 minutes in Outlook and Google Calendar. Shift expectations on how you use each other's time. Consider standing meetings too.
#5: Use white noise and headset music. Give yourself space to think and avoid having to hear someone’s half of a phone conversation. Isn’t that the worst? Your brain can’t help but listen.
#6: Set intentions. What would make today (this week, this month) great? Ask yourself every day so you know where to focus.
#7: Experiment with the Eisenhower matrix. Assign each of your tasks to one of four quadrants:
• Urgent and important
• Important but not urgent
• Urgent but not important
• Neither important nor urgent
Prioritize tasks in the first quadrant, then the second, and so on.
#8: Don’t start your day with busywork (the tasks in the third and fourth Eisenhower quadrants) just because it’s easy to cross them off your list. Delegate, automate, eliminate, or save these tasks for short gaps in your schedule, like between meetings.
#9: Block out deep work time in your calendar, for example, create a private appointment for two hours a day.
#10: Confront conflict. You should ‘sweat the small stuff.’ Little issues can turn into big problems if you let them fester. It sounds stressful, but putting off tough conversations with a boss, colleague, or direct report creates tension, hurts your focus, and drains your energy.
#11: Figure out why you’re procrastinating. Procrastination is an energy-robber. Instead of beating yourself up for it, get to the root cause, which is usually fear. But fear of what? Fear of talking to someone, asking for help, doing it wrong, looking stupid, coming up short, or not knowing what you’re doing?
#12: Break deep work down into smaller manageable (and less scary) tasks. We often procrastinate and avoid deep work because it seems too difficult to start. Break a big project down into small steps that can be accomplished in less time and give you a sense of progress.
#13: Become aware of your distraction triggers. Every time you find yourself breaking away from deep work, losing focus, and getting ready to do something else instead, stop and figure out why. Take note of these triggers so you can figure out a way to eliminate or overcome them.
#14: Understand your energy level. Take breaks when you really need them, not at some arbitrary time you decided upon. Spend your breaks doing something that recharges you and rests your eyes, like staring out a window, closing your eyes and listening to music, or walking around the block—not talking to a toxic colleague.
#15: Become more chill. You know your day won’t go as planned. Maintain a flexible attitude when crappy stuff happens. If you’re too rigid in your expectations, you set yourself up for additional stress and angst.
#16: Practice focus. The ability to focus is a skill. You need to build that ‘muscle’ and train your mind to sustain concentration. If you have trouble reading an entire article (or blog post—that’s okay, we understand skimming), that’s a sign you need to improve your focus.
Meditation helps because it improves your ability to rein in your attention and get back on task after being distracted. During meditation, your mind continually jumps around, that’s normal. Each time it does, you pull it back. Over time, you get better at recognizing when you’ve lost focus and bringing that focus back.
You can only do so much on your own to create working conditions that allow you to focus on meaningful deep work, not the busywork that takes up too much of your day. But start clawing back time for yourself and share your success with trusted colleagues. Maybe you can start a deep work revolution at your office that will spread to other association offices.