Just before Christmas last year I was feeling frustrated by my lack of ability to stay focused when trying to do bigger tasks that needed concentration. Tasks such as writing an assignment or a blog post took ages and I rarely stayed on task for long.
If it wasn't emails popping up, Facebook or phone calls distracting me I would in fact distract myself! Thinking of other tasks ( like many people I have a big to do list) or flipping off topic if I got slightly bored or 'stuck' with what I was trying to do. I would then find myself on a completely different task than the one that really needed doing.
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I was procrastinating by 'being busy'! Sure I was getting lots of little tasks done but not the key important ones that needed more effort put in to move myself and my own business forward.
I wasn't sure how I could improve my focus, simply knuckling down just wasn't working for me.
Thankfully the answer arrived just after the New Year when I came across a blog post of recommended books by Micheal Hyatt. He shared his top 3 books for 2016 and on reading the reviews I decided to order 2 of them. I was hoping one of them might suit a task of a book critique I needed to write for my Life Coaching course.
The cover and blurb of 'Deep Work - Rules for a focused success in a distracted world' by Cal Newport immediately grabbed my attention when the books arrived in the mail. This book had only been released in 2016 and the author himself had coined the term 'Deep work - the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task'. In fact the back blurb states... "In short, deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive economy."
Well I wasn't sure I was racing to compete but I sure wanted some of that super power to be able to focus and get on with the job.
Cal Newport's book is essentially trying to shine a light on how, in this current world of distraction, emails, social media and fast change we, as individuals have lost the ability to stay focused and do what he terms ‘Deep Work’. We are in fact shallow workers and thus shallow thinkers unable to achieve the very best we are capable of.
In this book the author is trying to increase awareness of the issues of shallow work by giving us various modes of proof from others’ research, his own observations and self reflections. He aims to give the reader a sense of why Deep work is so important to each of us - no matter what field of work we are in and then works to give us rules to enable us to engage in deep work.
I personally took from the book a sense of the urgency for myself to focus on Deep Work. To develop my strategies to reduce shallow work and to hopefully help others achieve the same if they desire. I began applying deep work strategies straight away. It took me a while to work out what strategies best suited to me and I am still honing and practicing the skills of 'deep work' but gradually I began noticing a difference in the way I think and work.
Cal outlines 4 key rules and strategies to apply the rules. There is no one way to do this and we need to work out what strategies will work best.
4 Basic Rules for Deep Work
#1 Work Deeply
Cal outlines 4 different modes he has discovered people operate for their deep focused activity. It really is up to you which way you want to work. Perhaps even you need to trial different strategies to see what works. I am thinking that as I improve my skill in deep work I can apply different methods. For now I have chosen to work by the Rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling as much as I can early morning Deep Work where I don't get connected on line until after 11am... that gives me at least 2 hours most days to work in a concentrated manner. Whilst I can't do this every day I strive to schedule it in when I can.
#2 Embrace boredom
Cal refers to research by Clifford Nass. His research revealed that constant attention switching on line has a lasting negative effect on your brain. Once your brain has become accustomed to on demand distraction it's hard to shake the addiction. As Cal puts it more practically "If every moment of potential boredom in your life, say, having to wait 5 minutes in a line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives - is relieved with a quick glance at your smart phone, then your brain has likely rewired a point where it's not ready for deep work. Even though you regularly schedule for it." (Pick me for filling in waiting time like this - I thought I was being productive.. perhaps not)
So embracing boredom is training our mind not to seek the 'hit of distraction' and thus reducing our addiction.
#3 Quit Social Media
I don't want to quit social media entirely as I enjoy the connection to friends and clients that social media brings. So despite Cal's advice - What I am trying now is to lock in specific times to make that connection or rather block out times when I don't look at it. This has helped stop me frittering away time during the day so I encounter far less often Facebook pop ups that lead me down rabbit holes where half an hour later I pop up wondering in frustration where the day went!
Quitting Social Media is something for me still to consider and reflect on. However I must admit that the more I avoid it the more I can resist it but the moment I post I seek the responses back and get lured by the big numbers appearing on the FB icon on my phone screen. I plan to do some further research into social media addiction - these tools are getting better and better at tapping into our addictive tendencies so no doubt will be harder to resist.
#4 Drain the Shallows
Newport suggests that we look at reducing the Shallow work. Tasks that can be done when multi-tasking, that potentially don't need deep thought - such as emails scheduling meetings, responding quickly to requests, phone calls etc. In a connected world these activities are important and can't always be avoided but you can weigh them up as to how important they are, schedule time to focus on them around your deep work time and apply strategies to reduce the to and fro of emails such as by writing emails in the first place with more detail. For example suggesting a meeting time (or a few to choose from) instead of an open ended meeting suggestion which means more replies between the 2 or more of you communicating thus wasting valuable time for all. Cal goes on to suggest other strategies that are well worth considering to make your time more productive.
Has applying 'Deep Work' made a difference to my ability to Focus?
I am excited to say it most certainly has!
I am currently working in Deep Work mode as I type this blog. Although I am working on my computer - My phone is on aeroplane mode, my email account is turned off and I have the office door closed so no-one is about to distract me.
I have chosen to try a regular routine of Deep Work and discovered, for me, that the best time is being off line until 11am. Working from home I can exercise, do regular chores, sort breakfast, then meditate before starting my Deep Work and do this until 11am. When I do this I feel great and have very productive outcomes.
IF I step into the Facebook or emails in that time - I lose it, end up changing focus. A challenge is when the Deep Work involves being connected to the web but this obviously requires more work, practice and strategies to enable that to no longer be a distraction.
I have been applying Deep work time for a while now, and am continuing to strive to achieve better abilities/skills. 5 months down the track I am seeing the benefit of this work with a gradual change in my brain and the focus I can apply.
Yes my brain still does face distractions but again and again I am seeing improvements. For example recently working on a book review I found myself working in a much more straight forward manner than I had been previously. I wasn’t seeking references/links to various things, thinking of other urgent projects (Of which I have many) and other than the focused text book beside me I was drawing on my own knowledge and experience and my brain wasn’t ‘darting about’ in its usual distracted manner!
I wasn't flicking from section to section looking for the easier bit to sink my teeth into but starting at the top and working my way through. My strategies are changing - for example when I needed to put in a link to a web page instead of opening access to the web and risking distraction I highlighted it red to come back to later in the final edit after I had completed by deep work mode of working.
I have added a note to my business email signature that alerts clients that I participate in regular Deep Work to help develop my clients expectations of my availability and hopefully works as a model. I am thinking I might add a link to this page to help explain a little of what Deep work actually means.
"🎯Please note that I am focused on practicing regular DEEP WORK up until 11am each day, so may not likely respond until after that time."
I personally am finding this focused, less distracted activity is in itself becoming addictive and rewarding as I complete bigger tasks. Now when I am in the mode of undistracted deep work I am finding it harder to turn back on the connections. I think this is a great way to work and making a habit of it is certainly making it easier. Each time I refer back to the book to write a book review, engage in a live chat about the topic or here reflecting in this blog post I discover more insights and strategies to put into practice.
With this in mind I am considering developing a series of live online events focused on Deep Work and the strategies Cal Newport suggests in his book. If you too would like to explore the concept of Deep Work more and engage in upcoming live online events related to this topic please register your interest here so I can invite you to events & offer resources as I develop them.
I invite you to comment in the blog comments box below to share your questions and insights into limited focus, distractions and the concept of Deep Work.
Have an awesome day! Vivian