Articles | 03/08/2017

How to Get More Out of Your Time in the Office with Deep Work

The hullabaloo of modern life: it’s inescapable.

Devices beep, buzz, chirp and ring. Just this morning you may have overheard or said yourself: “My inbox is flooded,” “Have you checked your twitter feed?,” “Did you see what she posted on Facebook?,” “Oh those pictures you posted on Instagram are adorable!,” “Have you tried out that bot on Messenger?” And you may have texted, “Don’t forget to pick up some milk! 😘

We’re all inundated.

In a world that’s moving at breakneck speed it seems impossible to step off the digital train, but to do our best work it’s absolutely necessary. Alan Watts, British philosopher, writer and speaker, once said, “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”

So how do we do that and still get things done?

Deep Work

I found the answer in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, a book I picked up at a conference with its own fair share of electronic distractions.

Newport contrasts “deep work” with shallow work:

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.

Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much value in the world and are easy to replicate.

If you’re like me, you probably recognize that a lot of what you do throughout the day tends to fall into this second category. Checking emails, completing tasks, following social media – the kind of thing that keeps you busy, but doesn’t really create value.

Here are Newport’s rules to achieve deep work (and by the way I never said the answer I found was easy!):

Rule #1 – Work Deeply

To work deeply, it is helpful to come up with a ritual to put oneself in the right mindset. You may have a different approach than me.

Ask yourself where you’ll work and for how long? This should be a location where you can “turn off” all the distractions. Preferably this is not the same place where you usually work because it’s too easy to fall into bad habits. Think of the place where you’ll want to do deep work as a sanctuary. Maybe an unused meeting room or a kitchen table (if you work from home)?

How you’ll work once you start to work? You must establish rules for your ritual, such as a ban on Internet use and metrics of accomplishment (e.g., words per 30 minute interval, 2 problems solved in one hour, etc.)

How you’ll support your work? This may be as simple as ensuring you have a cup of coffee before you begin, to light exercise or walking à la Steve Jobs to clear the mind.

Rule #2 – Embrace Boredom

What? This rule sounds crazy you might say. Why on Earth would I want to embrace boredom? Because many creative and wonderful ideas occur to the reflective mind that is not distracted by entertaining diversions. The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. To train this skill, you must learn to become comfortable with boredom, through meditation or memorization skills, for example.

Rule #3 – Quit Social Media

Quitting social media is a tall order you say? Newport cites the Internet sabbatical of digital media consultant Baratunde Thurston who said (after shunning social media and email for 25 days), “I was less stressed about not knowing new things; I felt that I still existed despite not having shared documentary evidence of said existence on the Internet.”

Newport is not a hard liner on this point. Rather, he advocates a middle ground approach: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a social network tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts (such as irrational distraction).

Rule #4 – Drain the Shallows

Eliminate as much shallow work as possible. Newport points to an experiment by Basecamp, a software company, in reducing its work week to 4 work days. The idea was not to force employees to work 40 hours in 4 days rather than 5. Rather, the idea was that by reducing the work hours, it would force employees to focus on the important stuff during the time they did have to work instead of waste time on water cooler talk, or checking Facebook, or unproductive meetings. The experiment was a success and a win-win: employees get more free time and the company gets higher quality work from workers during the time they are in the office.

How would you implement these rules in your practice?

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