‘Deep work’ – How to bring in focus and stand out
From dusk to dawn, we’re plagued by digital distractions in every aspect of our lives. Emails pop up on screen, Whatsapp messages flash up on our smartphones and social networks constantly demand our attention, interrupting our train of thought. The latest research reveals that millennials check their phones at least 150 times per day, and collectively, we’re becoming a society that’s increasingly addicted to screen-based communication. Yet, by allowing ourselves to be constantly distracted, we’re making it more difficult for ourselves when it comes to knuckling down and taking on serious, cognitively-demanding tasks that require our full attention.
On top of this, our ‘cult of busy’ is having a negative impact on our productivity. Parkinson’s law dictates that our work expands to fill the time available for its completion; and according to research from Stanford University, output falls sharply after a 50-hour week and dramatically so after 55 hours. In fact, someone who puts in 70 hours produces nothing more with those extra 15 hours.
Cal Newport explored the concept of maintaining a laser focus on work in his recently published book; Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He describes ‘deep work’ as being time “where you are really concentrating without distractions [that] produces the value and changes the world…” Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates also adopted this productivity technique during his 20s. He set aside periods of time each week to do his most demanding tasks without any distractions, something that Newport remarked as “enabling [him] to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.”
If we can train our brains to focus on doing a few big things well every day – rather than hundreds of little things half-heartedly – not only will our productivity increase, but also our internal profile with our employer, making us stand out amongst a crowd of distracted multi-taskers.
So how can we succeed in finding focus both at home and in the workplace?
Make time for deep work
Many office cultures are based on constant communication and availability, which makes focus on a single task near-on impossible. By blocking out time in your calendar (Newport recommends a minimum of 90 minutes), as with an appointment or meeting, you’re giving the task the attention it deserves. Remember Parkinson’s law, stick to the time allocated and don’t let yourself get distracted.
Adopt the 20% rule
When setting yourself a deadline, reduce it by 20%. By adding a sense of urgency to the task, you will be driven to scramble with as much intensity as possible to complete the job on time.
Prepare for deep work
Clean your desk, hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door or move to a quiet space when completing deep work. These are all things that will tell your brain to switch off from the persistent noise of the rest of the world and focus on getting the task done.
Stick to a zero-tolerance policy
Even briefly glancing at your phone or inbox will cut your cognitive capacity to focus – according to research from Carnegie Mellon University, it can take up to 25 minutes just to regain focus after being distracted. To avoid this, don’t allow for any distractions to creep in when you’re engaged in deep work – close your inbox and switch your phone off!
Work towards clear outcomes
Having a fixed goal tells your brain what it should be working on, enabling it to pool its resources towards completing that task.
Become a subject matter expert
In our ‘always-on’ society, we seemingly have less time to complete work than ever before. As a result, we’re increasingly being pushed to multi-task, spreading ourselves as thinly as possible across a number of different disciplines. But by concentrating on single specialities, we can train ourselves to become subject matter experts, helping us to stand out.
Delete social media apps from your phone and only allow yourself to access them on your computer. According to Newport, this “removes the temptation to feed yourself with distraction at all times.”
With artificial intelligence and robotics set to take on millions of repetitive, menial jobs over the next decade, now is the time to re-focus, switch off from digital distractions and train your brain to get tasks done. This will help to differentiate you in an ever more competitive working environment, enabling you to learn complicated things quickly and produce work at a higher level.