Deep Work: 9 Tips for Getting Ish Done
Whether you’re a student, a freelancer, or the owner of a company, we’re all out here struggling to get sh*t done, but we’re constantly distracted with emails, conference calls, meetings, and the temptation to scroll through Instagram or other social media platforms. As a CEO, I’ve had to learn where my priorities lie and how to get what needs to be done, done. It’s been challenging to say the least, but I’ve done my fair share of research and have found a way to efficiently tackle my to-do list, so I can have more time to spend relaxing with the ones I love and doing things I enjoy. The answer to my struggles, you ask? Deep work.
“Chris-Tia, what the heck is ‘deep work’?” I know; it sounds a little fake deep, but I promise there’s something to it. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, describes deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Deep work includes the tasks that propel your business forward and enhance your professional development. It’s important that we incorporate more deep work, on average, into our workday than “shallow work,” which includes mundane, everyday tasks, like meetings, emails, and reports. We often trick ourselves into believing that shallow work is “real work”, which leaves us feeling like we never have time to really focus on our big picture tasks, or get anything done.
In today’s world, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stay laser-focused on our goals and responsibilities in the workplace, which is where the concept of deep work comes into play.
So, I’ve compiled a few of my favorite tips that will allow you to tap into deep work mode, so you can start working smarter instead of harder and get sh*t done!
- Focus on your top priorities. Make a list of a small number of really critical goals that you will pursue during your deep work hours. This year, I did this and saw a major improvement in what I was able to accomplish. Instead of focusing on checking and responding to email and other shallow tasks, I created a list of priorities and decided to focus on just three things: 1) finishing my book, 2) developing innovative products and 3) hiring great people. When I finally pushed email to the bottom of the list, I started to really get sh*t done.
Whatever your profession, consider focusing on the big picture tasks, which generate tangible and substantial benefits, and letting the shallow work go. In the case of goal-setting, less is definitely more.
- Make deep work a regular practice. Commit to scheduling consistent blocks of deep work into your schedule, and stay consistent. For me this is first thing in the morning during the week, and unfortunately Sunday afternoons. During the week, I never schedule calls or meetings before 1pm, because I know how distracting they can be. Building a productive, predictable routine around your work schedule will minimize your chances of becoming distracted. Choose a quiet space to execute your deep work, pick a timeframe that allows you to work uninterrupted, and develop an execution plan so you stay on track with your goals.
- Be aware of what your shallow work tasks are. Checking emails, filling in spreadsheets, or responding to messages in Slack are all examples of shallow work. Acknowledging what your shallow work tasks are will allow you to better avoid them and work on more important projects. Leave those simpler tasks to either the very beginning or very end of your day, and do not allow them to distract you during your designated deep work hours. If possible, delegate these tasks to another member of your team.
- Stop Multitasking. I used to be the queen of working on ten things at a time. Coming from corporate America, I was always under pressure, and would often find myself on a conference call, checking emails. responding to IM, and drafting documents all at the same time. I was a multi-tasking ninja and thought that was the way to accomplish more. But as I have gotten older and wiser, I realize focusing on just one thing at a time is the key to achieving optimal results.
- Hold yourself accountable. To keep yourself moving toward your goals, you must review your progress regularly. I have a business coach, and am also a member of CEO peer group. These are my accountability partners. Your girlfriend or a fellow business owner could be your accountability partner. The key is to hold regular check ins to measure your progress. This could be a weekly, monthly, or quarterly review. Whenever you plan your progress updates, it’s important to see how much you’ve accomplished and make an updated plan for the weeks ahead. If you find you’re not exactly where you need to be, make a note of what you can do differently and adjust.
- Quit social media. All of those notifications and the constant urge to mindlessly scroll hurt your ability to stay focused. Social media isn’t all bad, but it’s definitely a bad habit. Start by removing troublesome apps off of your phone during the workday, and see how much more productive you become. I found that when I deleted the Instagram app off my phone and checked it once a day on Safari, I got so much more work done. Simply saying I’m going to cut back on social media is not enough, when you’re addicted to the gram.
- Start saying no. Be selective when deciding what opportunities to go after and what tasks get your attention. Anytime you fail to explicitly say no and set boundaries, you’re saying yes by default. I used to be much more willing to schedule coffees and lunches to talk about “nothing’, because I was scared of saying no. These days I’m much more willing to say I’m not free for coffee, but I can hop on the phone for 15 minutes and hear about X opportunity or how we can work together. Even then, I try to limit the number of those conversations and restrict them to certain days of the week.
- Meditate. Ten minutes of meditation in the morning will greatly increase your ability to focus throughout the day, and it will allow you to tap into your subconscious and evaluate your priorities more effectively.
- Reduce distractions. We currently live in a world of distraction. Long, uninterrupted stretches of time at work are all but impossible, but it doesn’t end there. We’re even distracted in our personal lives with television or social media. As a result, our attention spans have decreased; our brain expects and requests distraction. The smallest interruptions can have devastating effects, delaying our progress and lengthening the amount of time required to complete important tasks. Constant task-switching or multi-tasking lessens our capacity to focus. Deliberate, focused work, on the other hand, leads to a more efficient workflow.
Interested in removing distractions and improving your focus? Here’s how:
- Headphones. Wearing headphones will make coworkers think you can’t hear them, and their urge to interrupt you will decrease. Plus, certain headphones cancel out surrounding noise, which will allow you to focus with more ease.
- Work remotely. Start by asking for a half-day, preferably mornings. Working remotely allows you to create a distraction-free, task-oriented environment, so you can truly tap into deep work mode and stay there.
- Email: Treat emails as a to-do and schedule it in your calendar twice per day: late morning and late evening. Establish boundaries for yourself when it comes to answering and organizing emails; this task should not take more than 30 minutes out of your day.
- Disable phone notifications. Disable all notifications, especially ones from social media platforms. If it’s truly urgent, people will call you.
- Schedule Internet time. Schedule time for Internet use and avoid it outside of those times. Restricting your usage at home will help improve your concentration training.
- Set yourself to neutral. At the end of your workday, close all tabs and programs, delete or move all files from the “Downloads” folder, empty the trash, and shut off your computer. Resetting your workstation to neutral helps “future you” get started easier.
As you can see, quite a bit goes into implementing a deep work practice into your everyday professional life. This is by no means an overnight switch, and it will require some consistent work on your part in order to truly reap the benefits of such a process. Again, it’s all about working smarter not harder!