Take back control of your time with Deep Work
Do you ever look back at a workday that felt busy and realize that you haven’t done anything really valuable? You answered a ton of emails, clicked back-and-forth between team chats, hopped into some Zoom meetings, and barely had time to grab some lunch in between. But were you actually productive or just… busy?
You can be ambitious and strive for excellence. And your current lifestyle may very well fit the perfect stereotype: wake up early, always on the move, always working, and always locked-in on a screen. Your calendar? Completely full.
But when you look deeper into your last workday, did you actually practice that new skill you wanted to master? Did you come up with new well-researched ideas for that project you wanted to start? Did you finish writing that blog?
In short: did you get any closer to your long-term goals at all? If not, it’s time to adopt a different approach to your everyday working life. It’s time to get rid of the clutter.
It’s time for Deep Work.
What is Deep Work?
Deep Work is a term coined by Cal Newport, who explains its definition in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Activities such as checking your text messages or replying to emails are considered ‘shallow work’:
“Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
The world moves quicker than it ever has, making it essential for professionals to keep learning new things at a faster pace than ever before. In order to make a difference or even be exceptional, too much shallow work won’t do the trick. Once you master deep work, you will thrive in a world where more and more people get swallowed up by distractions.
Mastering Deep Work
If you really want to master Deep Work the right way, I advise you to read the book. You won’t regret it.
In this blog, you’ll find some actionable tips to start practicing Deep Work in your daily life right away.
Find a strategy and a routine
When I started getting into deep work myself, one of the first things I struggled with was how to get started. When was I actually supposed to practice deep work? I couldn’t simply say no to all meetings. I would love to never have to reply to an email again, but I didn’t think that would be an option either.
In his book, Newport describes four different ways to schedule your life around deep work. I’ll save you the difficult terms attached to them, because you’ll forget them anyway. But here’s the gist of them:
- You focus almost all of your time on doing deep work and radically say no to anything else that comes across your desk. This is the most dedicated form of deep work, but probably the least realistic one for most modern professionals. As I said, some emails do need to be answered.
- You split big periods of your time up in times of deep work and shallow work. These periods have to take about a week of your time at the very least, but it could also be months. For instance: you could work on deep work in January and on shallow work in February.
- The third strategy is the way I go about practicing deep work. Every day, I divide my day into deep work and shallow work. This usually means I spend my morning working on deep work, and the later afternoons on shallow work. This may vary depending on my schedule, which I don’t have complete control over.
- You practice deep work whenever you have spare time in your schedule. This is probably the most practical strategy in today’s society, especially for people who are busy and don’t have a solid schedule ahead of them. It requires you to be very aware of your time and to have the discipline to dive into deep work whenever you have the chance. Jumping back-and-forth from shallow work to deep work can be a tough transition to make, so you need the dedication to make this strategy work.
To put together a sound routine and get the most out of your scheduled time for deep work, you need to consider four things:
Find a place that feels good for your deep work sessions. Obviously, a place where you won’t be disturbed or distracted is favorable here. Whether that place is your kitchen table or a quiet spot in the office is up to you.
Pick a time in which you will practice deep work. At first, this could be ten minutes per time, with small breaks in between. After a while, you’ll get the hang of it and increase the amount of time you can stay focused.
Give yourself some basic rules. For instance: don’t grab a snack during a session, don’t check your phone, turn off your WiFi, and so on. Besides that, you should set clear expectations about what the results of a session should be.
Arrange whatever you need to do your best work in complete focus before you start your deep work session. In my case, this is a pair of headphones, a full bottle of water, and one of my favorite Spotify playlists.
There’s a lot more to the strategy and routine that we could discuss in this blog, but I’ll save you most of it. What I do want to stress is the importance of downtime.
It’s simple: in order to dive deep into the sea called your work, you need to take enough time to catch your breath. Practicing deep work is not the same as working your ass off without any breaks. There’s nothing fun about working around the clock and also: it’s not effective either. At all.
You simply can’t practice deep work for too long. You need the time to restore energy and let your subconscious brain work out some problems you couldn’t figure out before.
Besides that, where’s the fun in life without a little downtime to enjoy it?
Get rid of your distractions
“To master the art of deep work, you must take back control of your time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them,” says Cal Newport.
In other words: it’s time to get a grip on our social media addictions.
Let’s face it. All of us know what it’s like to sit around on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter for hours and hours. Sometimes we may even have an excuse for it. “I need it for my job, I need to stay up-to-date on the last trends”. And to be fair, this can be true. What’s also true, is that when you use social media for work, you tend to stay for other stuff. Such as pictures of dogs or memes, or whatever your favorite time-waste niche is.
For a lot of us, it gets truly out of hand when we use the so-called ‘Any-Benefit’ approach. This means you justify all of your apps and social media when there is even the slightest opportunity they may provide benefit. You don’t need Facebook to remember birthdays. You don’t need Twitter to follow the news. And you also don’t need Instagram to look at dogs.
The Craftsman Approach
With the Craftsman Approach, you identify the most important life goals, both personal and professional. Then you figure out which activities need to be done to get to those goals. When that’s established, you determine which digital tools actually help you achieve those goals, or if they get in the way of that.
A great way to find out which social media platforms actually serve you, is by deleting all of them from your phone for a month. After a month, you can look back and determine what you missed from it. Did people miss you on there? Did you not receive any value that it usually adds to your life?
If all these digital distractions used to take up a lot of your time, you’ll be left sitting around doing nothing. In this ‘black hole’, it can be temping to check back into all of that digital chaos. That’s why it’s important to find more healthy substitutes. Some examples are reading books (I can hear the voices of my parents now, “put down that Gameboy and go read a book or something”), working out or picking up an instrument.
Manage shallow work wisely
We now know how to go about Deep Work and our distractions, but there’s still a middle ground that we haven’t gotten into yet: shallow work.
First off, let’s determine what shallow work really is. Here are some examples:
- Responding to team chat messages
- Reading and organizing messages in your inbox
- Attending weekly meetings that could have been an email
Sadly, we can’t just eliminate all of this work. Some of it just has to be done. Those weekly meetings simply may be mandatory. And some socializing in the team chat also has its benefits.
The goal isn’t to become a robot.
However, in order to make sure shallow work doesn’t get in the way of progress, it’s important to be aware of it first. Then, Newport suggests you plan your day quite rigorously: every minute of your day needs to be accounted for. Sounds wild, but it doesn’t take as much time as you think.
By dividing your day into blocks of deep work, shallow work, and down time, you create the most effective workflow. So figure out what shallow work lies ahead of you and plan it all into one or two blocks per day. This way, you won’t have to interrupt your deep work too often and you can stay focused on the most important tasks.
Here’s a schedule of one of my workdays:
|07:00 – 07:45||Morning run|
|07:45 – 09:00||Shower, breakfast and getting ready for work|
|09:00-09:20||Daily marketing sprint|
|09:20-10:00||Check and respond to emails and give feedback on content (if requested).|
|10:00-12:00||Deep work session: keyword research for new content.|
|12:00-13:00||Go for lunch and a walk.|
|13:00-15:00||Deep work session: write a blog about Deep Work.|
|15:00-16:00||Brainstorm session with the content team. If time left, respond to chats and email.|
|16:00-17:00||Deep work session: continue with the blog about Deep Work.|
|17:00-17:30||Plan the next workday and reply to emails.|
|17:30-20:00||Dinner and time to relax|
|20:00-20:30||Go for a walk|
|20:30-21:30||Watch an episode of Peaky Blinders|
|22:30||Go to bed|
As I said, the goal is not to be a robot. No, my day doesn’t always go as planned. Yes, I get interrupted sometimes. Yes, I watch Netflix too. However, this method still gives me the structure I need to really get stuff done. Both professionally and personally.
I do like to keep all my shallow work in one place, which mostly consists of managing email. To do this efficiently, our team (obviously) uses Trengo. In here, team members can easily communicate within an email thread, without having to resort to a team chat or CCs. Besides that, we have automation in place that forwards emails to the right team members, which saves us a lot of time.
As you can see, I also make sure to limit my workday. I make sure that everything I need to do is done before 17:30. After that, everything is about my personal life. I’m rigorous about getting rid of shallow work, I say “no” quite often, all to get enough rest in to be productive again the next day. It’s all about balance, not working ’round the clock.
In order to really be able to stick to your deep work routine, here’s a golden tip:
Inform your boss and direct colleagues
Unless you’re a one-man-band, you’re gonna have to deal with your surroundings. That’s why you have to get your team on board with deep work. In many companies, you’re considered a good employee if you reply fast, are always available, and make long hours. They don’t necessarily look for quality work, they look for signs that you are busy and ‘work hard’.
That’s why it may be hard to convince your team that deep work is the way to go. If that’s the case, my advice is to start small. Don’t try to block off entire mornings for deep work, but begin with an hour, and make sure to share the results with your team.
Trial and error
Convinced? That means it’s time to try deep work out for yourself. Remember that it’s not about becoming a productivity robot, but getting back control over your own time. It’s a trial and error process for everybody, but big changes always take time. Luckily, you’ll have more time on your hands than ever with this method. Good luck!