This article originally appeared in Fast Company.
In an attempt to incorporate any type of stimulation into my day that doesn’t involve a screen, I began re-reading the paperbacks on my bookshelf. (I also took up cross-stitching.) As I cracked open Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World for a second pass, I realized just how relevant this book is to me right now.
Like most of the world, I am distracted; between rapid COVID-19 developments, Black Lives Matter making us come to terms with our privilege, and a looming presidential election, it’s hard not to be.
The deep work Cal Newport recommends hit me at a time when singular focus feels both impossible and selfish. But in a world that shows no signs of neutralizing anytime soon, professionals must take the art of uninterrupted focus into their own hands. More than ever before, and for nearly every industry, deep concentration is the skill of the future.
The re-read inspired me to put my learnings to the test with my own mini-experiment, and for an entire week I carved out two hours each morning for deep work. Here are four observations I had along the way.
To make space for deep work Cal Newport-style, first squash the shallow
If deep work is complete concentration on a single, cognitively demanding task, shallow work includes any minor tasks you do that don’t require total concentration. Think organizing your inbox, sending a colleague a question (Or in my case, a perfectly-curated GIF) in Slack, scheduling meetings — anything logistical that doesn’t provide much value to your overall career goals.
I went into the experiment thinking my biggest shallow work distraction would inevitably be email. After all, the average American spends a staggering 2.6 hours on email each day. While refraining from email was definitely a challenge, I found there were so many other distractions to compete with: Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Voxer, the list goes on. And don’t even get me started on the magnetic vortex that is TikTok.
I quickly realized that push notifications were my number one enemy, which upon further research I found is not that surprising. A 2016 study by Deloitte found that people check their phone, on average, 47 times a day. I knew that if I was ever going to get deep work done, I’d need to turn off all notifications and log out of email, which leads me to my next learning.
Embrace the learning curve
I thought the novelty of my experiment would give me a running start on day one. But I quickly discovered my usual focus triggers had badly atrophied, and I hadn’t factored in how others are relying on me both in my personal and professional settings.
Taking Newport’s advice, I set up a preparation routine each morning to ease myself into deep work:
- Make sure any urgent demands are squared away: If you’re like me, it’s really hard to concentrate knowing you have unread emails sitting in your inbox. Get those and any other urgent demands addressed before diving into a deep work session. You want to enter your deep work session with peace of mind.
- Alert your colleagues or family/roommates: Just because you’re going quiet doesn’t mean the people in your life will. You need to voice to those around you when you’re having your deep work sessions. Send your colleagues an email or slack message. If you’ve returned to working in an office, another option is to post a physical “Do not disturb” sign. In any case, clearly dictate the start and finish time of when you’ll be out of pocket.
- Turn off & log out of EVERYTHING: Log out of your email and social media accounts to avoid the temptation to check them. Turn off your push notifications on your laptop and phone. You can also leave your phone in a different room or put it on silent (This gave me separation anxiety, which was sad, but also very telling of my bad habits.)
Have a goal and deadline for your session
Use deep work periods to focus on what Newport calls the “wildly important”, and make sure not to go into the week with no direction on what you want to accomplish. I started by doing a brain dump of all the projects I had in mind, but kept putting on the backburner in my business. From there, I picked one goal and divided it up into different tasks or stages to execute during my bursts of “deep work.”
The reason Newport suggests setting a goal is pretty straightforward: When your brain knows the outcome of what you’re trying to achieve, it remains focused on that activity until it’s completed. Taking a big goal and dividing it into smaller pieces maintains momentum because with each small task completed your brain receives a spike in dopamine. That surge of euphoria you feel when you cross something off your “to-do” list? You’re not imagining it -- it’s actually a chemical reaction happening in your brain.
Use movement as a catalyst
Your deep work time doesn’t have to be conducted while sitting at your desk. Newport notes that physical exercise and meditation can help when trying to work out concepts, as they increase focus and attention.
Not only does exercise increase blood flow to the brain, but it's actually been found to boost the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain critical for learning and memory. Being able to go for a jog or walk my puppy while processing valuable concepts for my business was such an eye opener; it was as if my type A personality needed Newport’s permission to engage in some “me time” during the work day. Turns out, it really worked.
If you’re struggling to get your head back in the game right now, know that you’re not alone. And deep work doesn’t have to mean “disengage from what’s happening in the world”; if anything, being rigorous with your focus will help you be more active and energized for activism, not less. If you’re looking to hit the reset button for the second half of the year, consider some of the tips mentioned above to tap into deep work and stay inspired.