What do JK Rowling, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates have in common? Whether they realize it or not, they are all proponents of using “deep work” habits—a concept developed by Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University—to accomplish their goals.
Rowling, for example, didn’t have a presence on social media while she was writing the “Harry Potter” novels, despite the series’ growing popularity at the time. Musk is known to schedule his day down to five-minute time blocks, spending 80 percent of that time focusing on engineering and design, rather than email and phone calls. And as Microsoft CEO, Gates conducted “think weeks” twice a year, during which he isolated himself and did nothing but read and think big thoughts.
These are all habits that help professionals do deep work, which Newport defines as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” Deep work is the opposite of shallow work (“non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.” Think: email responses.)
The Benefits of Deep Work
Deep work is becoming increasingly rare, and also increasingly valuable, in today’s competitive economy. Technology is shifting the labor market in unexpected ways, and more skills are becoming obsolete, automated, or easily outsourced. Newport predicts that two core abilities will be key to thriving in the new economy: 1) The ability to quickly master hard things, and 2) The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. These abilities, he argues, require a commitment to deep work.
While we may not have the luxury of isolating ourselves in a cabin for two weeks at a time or ignoring our work emails, we can find ways to apply the rules of deep work within our office walls, in order to do the serious writing, thinking, idea-generating, and creating we must do to thrive in our careers and our lives. Try the following ideas from “Deep Work”to streamline your current workflow and make room for the more cognitively challenging work you’ve been itching to tackle.
6 “Deep Work” Habits to Adopt:
1. Block important work into long, uninterrupted stretches.
How long a period of time you’re able to block off on your calendar depends on your particular work situation, company culture, and the expectations of your colleagues and your boss. With that said, your “deep work” time may be an hour, or it may be three hours. If it’s not possible to complete your deep work blocks during work hours, you may decide to create a special “deep work” block early in the morning or late at night to focus on important projects.
The important part is that you block the time on your calendar and protect that time as if you’ve scheduled an important meeting. Create a space for yourself where you can work without interruption, and eliminate distractions such as email, social media, phone calls, and people popping by your desk.
2. Schedule every minute of your day.
Newport recommends that to be more intentional with your time, you should create a daily schedule that is blocked off down to the minute. (Yes, you read that correctly.) As humans, we’re not great at estimating how much time it will take to complete a task, and it’s easy to spend much longer on a menial task than originally intended.
To combat this and create a harmonious balance between the shallow and deep work you’re doing, Newport suggests that every morning, you mark every other line of a piece of paper with an hour of the day, from the time you start work to the time you finish. Then, divide the hours of the workday into drawn-out blocks and assign activities to them. Include time blocks for things like lunch, relaxation, and internet and email breaks. Small tasks like “submit expense report” can be included in a generic work block in which you complete a number of these types of tasks.
You may find yourself revising your schedule again and again—because as we all know, things pop up often during the course of the day. That’s OK. The goal isn’t to stick to a given schedule at all costs, Newport points out, but instead to “maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward—even if these decisions are reworked again and again as the day unfolds.”
3. Batch shallow tasks.
By designating certain times of your day to check and respond to emails, make to-do lists, fill out paperwork, and complete other “shallow tasks,” you will naturally be creating longer stretches of time in which you’re able to focus on deeper work and important deadlines. Again, how often you schedule these batches depends on your workplace. Even if you need to schedule them quite frequently, the act of actually scheduling them will help you avoid multitasking and doing “quick checks” that may be more harmful to your focus than you realize.
Which brings us to the next point…Sophie Leroy, a business professor at the University of Minnesota, wrote in a 2009 paper that when you multitask (switch from Task A to Task B), your attention doesn’t immediately follow. A residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task for quite a while. Even toggling to quickly check email for a few seconds can completely throw you off your game. Refraining from this switching back and forth by batching tasks helps you maximize performance on one task before moving to the next.
4. Create rituals.
Rather than following a haphazard schedule, being strict in your work habits and following a series of daily rituals can help you minimize friction in your transition to deep thinking, organize your thoughts and be productive when you most need to be.
The rituals you create may include things like:
Where you’ll work and for how long.What is your consistent location for your efforts—your office desk with a “do not disturb” sign on the door? A comfortable couch or recliner? Outside on a bench with the birds chirping around you? Define your time frame for work, and stick with it. What your structure and rules are once you start to work.Do you turn off your Wi-Fi? Give yourself a desired output goal before you allow yourself to stop working? How you’ll support your work.Do you brew a strong cup of coffee or green tea? Take a brisk walk before you begin? Put on your favorite “deep focus” music playlist?
Define your rituals, and then aim to repeat them every time you turn to deep work.
Newport isn’t necessarily talking about traditional meditation here—but about what he calls “productive meditation”—taking the time to be occupied physically but not mentally, in order to enable your subconscious to work out a challenge or problem. The activity you choose can range from biking, to walking the dog, to running, to driving. During your chosen activity, focus your attention on a single, well-defined professional problem you want to figure out. As you would in mindfulness meditation, you must keep bringing your attention back to this singular problem whenever it wanders into other thoughts (and it will). Try doing this 2-3 times a week, and you’ll likely find that the more you do it, the more your mind will work out these challenges and come to a solution. Bonus? You get some exercise or “me time” in the process.
6. Implement a “shutdown ritual.”
Create a series of steps to follow and check off each day before you “shut down” for the day. This may include doing a final sweep of your email inbox, transferring scribbled-down to-dos into your official electronic task list, and planning for the day ahead.
This shutdown ritual embodies both a physical and mental shutdown, as it entails ensuring that every incomplete task, goal, and project on your plate has been reviewed, and that you either have a plan for completion of each of them, or that you capture them in a place where you will revisit them when the time is right.
Once you can confirm all of your tasks, goals, and projects have been accounted for, you say a phrase, such as “work shutdown complete,” to indicate completion of your shutdown ritual. (You may want to avoid shouting it if you don’t want to get strange looks from your co-workers). This verbal phrase provides a mental cue, Newport says, that it’s safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day.
In the meantime? It doesn’t hurt to start perusing vacation rental sites for that perfect cabin in the woods.
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