Good things take time: the power of deep work
It’ll take 25 mins for you to return to what you were doing before opening this article. Yes, distractions are that damaging to productivity (sorry 😬).
These days, a million things are competing for our attention, and distractions aren’t going anywhere soon. The digital world was designed to absorb us in an infinite doom scroll, and when we pry our eyeballs away? Algorithms double their attempts to bring us back. Ping. That notification was designed to distract you.
Tech truly is an enabler – but not always in the best way. When humans can share our thoughts as soon as we think them, we do exactly that. We’re now conditioned to immediacy; our brains prioritise emails, calls, texts, Teams DMs, Slacks and shoulder taps. Good old-fashioned work? That comes in second.
While we trick ourselves into thinking productivity comes from jamming our days with meetings and quick wins, actual work (the stuff that adds value) is reserved for the odd evening. Concentration is a muscle, one that’s been ignored for far too long. We should (and can) change that.
To really move the needle in our organisations (and careers), deep work matters.
Deep work, works
Deep work is a state of peak concentration. During periods of deep work, you can reach flow and create quality outputs quickly. Deep work’s best friend is uninterrupted time. Lots of it. However, big change comes from tiny habits, not overhauling your entire life in one go.
If you’re currently caught in a shallow work spiral, these 5 steps will help you progressively break free from the busy trap. Start small, learn by doing, and get the motivational boost that comes from success. Ready? It’s time to put down your phone, load up your brain and give yourself the time to get productive:
1. Keep a to-do list
If you’re anything like us, you carry an endless list of to-dos in your brain. Get it out of there! That mental list adds mental load, which causes you to do silly things (like panic about your grocery delivery in the middle of a 1:1 meeting). You do not need that distraction.
Your to-do list should physically exist. Keep it on your phone, in a doc, on a piece of paper and keep it close. Every time you remember something you need to do (work, life, kids, presents, dinner), add it to the list. Bam! You’ve freed up space in your brain to use on far more productive things.
2. Block out a practical time
Multitasking isn’t a thing. You’ll never be able to fully concentrate on anything else when you’re driving kids, in a meeting, or on the phone. No, you’re not the exception; you’re just making your poor brain very tired.
Pay attention this week. When are peak people connection times? Do you continually get distracted by post-lunch chatter or early morning water-cooler chat? What about pickup duties? When does hunger strike? Scratch off all those times. You won’t be able to do deep work during them. That’s ok! These are the times when you can check email/LinkedIn/Teams and give yourself permission to give into distraction.
The time that’s left? Those blocks are candidates for deep work. Pick one (and make it recurring). There’s no fixed rule, but the general consensus is the longer the block, the better – Bill Gates’ is a master of deep work, and he disappears to an isolated cabin for ‘think weeks’.
While most of us can’t escape reality for weeks at a time, we can still make deep work a discipline. However, know your limits. If you’ve never intentionally embarked on deep work, start with short bursts. Even 10 minutes. Your goal is to get some wins under your belt and trying to change too much too quickly is a surefire way to fail.
3. Intentionally remove distractions
Before you kick into deep work, prep your space. Get to a comfortable, calm spot. If you can’t find solo space, create a visual indicator (we love this cheesy sign, but you can DIY!). Feel free to put on your headphones, even if you’re not listening to anything – they’ll help block out noise. Bonus points if you tell your colleagues that headphones mean do not disturb.
Turn off all notifications on your computer, and consider closing all unnecessary tabs (or at least minimising them). Take off your Apple watch. Put your phone upside down and away from you; it’s full of tiny little billboards calling out for attention. Finally, set a timer for 10 minutes.
Phew, when you look at that list, it’s no wonder we find it hard to focus! 😅
4. You have one job
The next part is easy. Pick one thing on your to-do list and do that (and only that) until the timer goes off.
You only have 10 minutes, so it could be a good idea to pick a task that you can tick off in that time – maybe something you’ve been putting off for a while? Don’t get too caught up in choosing; this is about training your brain to concentrate. Once you’re in the habit, you’ll smash through your top priority to-dos.
5. Review how it went
We deliberately suggest 10 minutes because it still leaves you with 5 at the end of a typical calendar block. Take this time to think about what you just did. What did you notice? What worked? What could you improve next time?
Make any changes, lock in your next session, and then return to business as usual.
30 second action:
Create a physical to-do list (on your phone, in a doc, or on paper). Make sure it’s somewhere you’ll have access to all the time! Add all the to-dos you can think of off the top of your brain..
- 3 career habits to break (and 1 to make) in 2023 Looking for a new career challenge this year? Learn how to break 3 career-limiting habits that are holding you back, and make one that will help you achieve positive change.
- How to stop doing everyone else’s work Overwhelmed at work? Your delegation skills may be letting you down. Learn five actionable ways to get out of doing and back to leading.
- Got a seat at the meeting table? Raise your voice Women have a seat at the meeting table but still struggle to have our voices heard. These well-known techniques will help establish your leadership presence.
- How to: run a great one on-one-meeting One-on-ones should be a top priority, but you’ve probably never had formal training on how to run them effectively. Here's 5 tips from the experts.