It happens all the time. You start out the day with great intentions to get that financial report done or to work on your marketing plan only to find it’s 3pm and you’ve barely scratched the surface. Every time you sit down to work on something, a ping, ding or dong stops you in your tracks.
Social media and email are our biggest distractors, according to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. While turning off devices may seem a simple solution, Newport says the problem runs much deeper. Our attraction to digital devices has created a permanent fracturing of our attention, affecting our ability to maintain focus and be present.
Cultivating our ability to focus means engaging in a practice Newport calls “deep work.”
“Deep work is when you focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task,” he says. “You work on it as hard as your brain is capable for an extended amount of time without any distractions.” Working on something while in “deep work” mode will produce much better results than working with distracted, fragmented attention – what most of us do every day. “Most people don’t go five or ten minutes without glancing at their phone or inbox,” says Newport.
Engaging in deep work isn’t as simple as setting aside a chunk of time to work on something. “You have to treat your attention with a lot of respect, like a professional athlete might treat their body,” says Newport. This also means training your brain to focus.
In order to engage in deep work, Newport says you need to develop a few habits:
Block out time.
Schedule time on your calendar to work on something. If you’re engaging in a cognitively demanding task, Newport recommends no less than a 90 minute chunk. Once it’s in your calendar, treat that time like an important meeting or appointment. If someone asks to meet at noon and that’s in the middle of your deep-work time, schedule the meeting for another time.
“Be wary of the habit of never being bored,” says Newport. Many of us fall into the habit of whipping out our phones every time we feel a little bit bored. “Your brain loses its tolerance for boredom and lack of stimuli which means when it comes time to do deep work it’s going to have a hard time staying focused,” says Newport. Improving your ability to focus means training your brain to be a little bored. Try it next time you’re standing in the line at a bank. Reduce the urge to whip out your phone and be ok with being a little bit bored.
Train your brain to focus by thinking of a single problem that you want to solve and hold that problem in your mind for a set period of time. Newport says this works best if you go for a walk. Just as in mindful meditation, when you see your mind wandering from the problem, notice it and bring your mind back to the problem that you’re working on.
Adopt a zero-tolerance policy.
When you’re engaged in deep work, don’t allow for distractions. Even glancing briefly at your inbox will reduce your cognitive capacity to focus.
Prepare for deep work.
Just as a long-distance runner stretches her muscles before a run, you may need to adopt some rituals to prepare for deep work. Your deep-work ritual could be as simple as cleaning off your desk and hanging a "Do Not Disturb" sign on your door -- anything that tells your brain that it’s time to shut off the rest of the world and focus on the task at hand.
Know the outcome.
Having a fixed outcome that you’re striving for lets your brain know what it’s supposed to be working on and will pool its resources towards that task.
The '20 percent less rule.'
Whatever deadline you set for yourself, cut it by 20 percent. “Now you have to scramble with as much intensity to get this thing done,” says Newport. Adding a sense of urgency to the task is like doing interval training for your mind. It forces you to work just a little bit harder.