You have a huge project due on a fast-approaching timeline. You are rushing in early and working later than you’d like but the job doesn’t get much closer to being finished. You just can’t get into a solid rhythm. Your phone keeps buzzing, meetings keep happening, and you are still accountable for other tasks. Sound familiar?
Of course it does. That sounds like most people’s days. Everyone has some element of multitasking in their day. However, very few understand the scale of damage it does to your productivity despite the depth of research available.
Research shows that only 2% of the workforce are good at multitasking. Everyone else just wants to be. Every time the rest of us get called into meetings, our workflow is compromised and it takes approximately 25 minutes in ‘switching costs’ to get back on track.
If you’re a multitasker, it could be taking you as much as 50% longer to get your tasks finished and you’re making more errors. That’s because it temporarily decreases your IQ. In a study by the Institute of Psychiatry in London, multitasking was actually found to lower your IQ 3 times more than smoking cannabis.
I’m dumber when I multitask. What’s the alternative?
The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. 92% of people multitask during the 25 million meetings that happen every day in the US. There’s no escaping that we’re far more distracted than we used to be.
What’s the answer? This is where Deep Work comes in.
Deep Work – Rules for Success in a Distracted World is a book on productivity from Cal Newport. It is essentially a guide on how to focus without distraction by stripping back your environment.
In the words of MR Newport, Deep Work is a:
“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
The concept of deep work isn’t an isolated philosophy. In fact, it harkens back to flow state by Mihayli Czichsentmihalyi. If you have never heard of flow, it can be described as the mental state that occurs when you are so involved in what you’re doing that nothing seems to matter.
Deep work is like a stream of water effortlessly flowing. It doesn’t stop when it meets an obstacle, it simply goes around or over it.
Why Deep Work?
Deep work is a powerful state to unleash and comes with a variety of unique benefits.
- You get better at your job. Learning in our roles today is quite a challenge. The more often you get interrupted, the less you absorb what you are doing. Deep work focuses your mind on one thing. You specialize quicker and by remaining deeply concentrated, you problem solve quicker without interruption.
- You are happier. Peak performance and motivation occur when we are intellectually challenged. Deep work uses stretch goals to bring us to the edge of our potential. When we succeed, you get a deep sense of satisfaction because you applied your strengths in a way that not everyone could. This level of motivation is the pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
- You are much more productive. Distracted and multitasking work takes nearly twice as long. From a business perspective, deep work is more efficient. You provide greater results compared to your peers and competitors because almost everyone else operates in a distracting environment.
How can you perform Deep Work?
Being able to perform deep work is a rarity in the modern workplace. Workforces just don’t achieve as much as they are capable of and businesses suffer because of it. To help you achieve deep work, here are our tips.
Adapt the 4 Disciplines of Execution Methodology
The 4 disciplines of execution are a road map to deep work and eminent success. While they were designed for businesses, they help employees to prioritize creating value with in-built accountability.
1. Focus on the wildly important
Put your biggest and most important projects to the front of the to-do list. Distractions will seem trivial in comparison to the essential objectives. These goals represent your opportunity to showcase high performance but also require the most concerted attention. Narrowing your focus to business-critical elements ensures that you deliver quality output.
2. Act on Lead Measures
There are two measurements of success in business: Lead and Lag. Lag measures are those that can haunt you. They are the outcome of your efforts like revenue, customer satisfaction or manager approval. They are lags because they are only visible after the fact.
Lead measures are the activities you can perform that affect the outcome. They are the predictors of success. If you were aiming to make more sales, lead measures are the number of client calls you make. Don’t fixate on the things you can’t do anything about. Understand what impacts the result and act on those.
3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
In business, the scoreboard is intended to gamify success. These might be the KPIs or revenue targets that show you progress in real-time that gives you an objective to achieve. The same can be applied to the individuals who track hours spent in deep work and then try to beat this target.
Newport, the author of Deep Work, has said that this metric is not as defined for embedding you into deep work as it can change by factors outside your control.
4. Create a Cadence of Accountability
Set challenging goals each week. At the end of the week or the start of the new week, review them.
What happened and why did it happen? Can you eliminate the distractions? Why did you fall short on your intentions? Being honest and disciplined with yourself unearths the best methods of staying in a deep work state.
Stop Sinking Time into Shallow Work
When a lawyer first opens a new firm, they are responsible for everything. They do the client intake, admin, billing, admin, and the lawyering. As they grow, they very quickly look to outsource or recruit people for non-billable tasks. To them, the shallow work doesn’t generate income.
Shallow work is work that you could train a college grad to do in no more than a couple of months. It is not the work that can only be done by someone with your talents. For most people the shallow work tasks include filling out reports, responding to emails or slack messages, and updating calendars. These are ancillary to what you are really there to do. Figure out what you can shed to free up more time for deep work.
Shut Down Social Media
The distraction economy is led by our use of phones and social media. If you’re to have any hope of a distraction-free working environment, you need to remove your phone from your environment. Every noise and vibration it makes interrupts your concentration whether you look at your phone or not.
If you’re not convinced, check this study. Cell phone interruptions are so powerful that even if you sleep through a notification, your brain activity still increases enough to disrupt your sleep.
No Meeting Days!
“Could this have been an email?” – The main thought running through most people’s minds as they sit in another meeting.
Speak to your manager about the rate and length of meetings. If it is essential for that time and place, fair enough. Most are not.
Try to set aside at least 1 day a week for “No meeting” days, to allow your team to get into deep work and make headway on bigger chunks of work. If possible, have your meetings at the start of a Monday or evening of a Friday. Get your action items and get going. Mid-day meetings just interrupt workflow and are rarely to anyone’s convenience and the added stress is usually not worth it.
It can be hard to start into deep work when you know a meeting is coming up in the next hour and it take time to switch back into deep work after a meeting, so for every 30-minute meeting, there is a buffer on each end of unproductive time.
Use Brain ‘Neutral’ Time’s to Think
When you get home, you’re likely to do the monotonous chores, get out for a run or do other activities where your brain doesn’t have to be ‘on’. These moments are nearly a refuge because you switch off for a while.
Using these moments to tease out your bigger obstacles is ideal because you are free to focus. Writers dealing with a block will often go for a run to take themselves out of a distracting environment and allow their minds to untangle the nuances of a plotline. Using brain-neutral time should be restricted and not overlap with rest.
On a basic human level, you need to replenish your energy stocks. If you want to continuously perform at your highest capabilities, rest is a priority. Take the time to relax your body and your mind. Create a shutdown ritual for yourself.
What environment is required for distraction-free work?
- Location. Pick somewhere that doesn’t lend itself to distractions. It might be a quiet office or even a work-from-home day but zero distractions are necessary.
- Timeline. How long do you plan to perform deep work for? Set blocks of time where you will be out of reach. Ensure that you still have time to attend to other tasks.
- Tell people. Do your colleagues, flatmates, family, etc know that you are locked in? Tell them when it is ok to interrupt or not.
- Equipment. What do you need to stay in the zone? Particular software packages? Noise-canceling headphones? A Do not disturb sign for your door? Add and subtract items that impact your ability to concentrate when you review your success.
Today’s workforce is losing the ability to focus. The internet is full of attempts to siphon time while social media literally manipulates your attention with addiction-inducing tactics. The result is employees having a ceiling placed on their ability to succeed.
Productivity and personal fulfillment are wallowing when they don’t need to. As HR managers, leaders, business owners, and everyday citizens, performing deep work is the road out of the distraction economy. A workforce propelled by deep work is both achievable and unstoppable.
Photo by Nubelson Fernandes