4 ways to make deep work happen more often

Stuart McLeod

Today, our phones and laptops are engaged in a constant battle for our attention.

We spend an average of around four hours daily on smartphones, which are specifically designed to fragment our time. Much like a slot machine, social media rewards you superficially with likes, retweets, and comments in exchange for time. Before long, the sun is setting and you’ve got very little real, productive work to show for it.

That’s not to say our devices aren’t useful in many ways — they give us access to an unlimited wealth of information and make it easier to communicate with loved ones far away. But the constant chatter ensures much of our work remains surface level.

The meaty, big-picture stuff happens when you’re deep in the flow state.

You know that magical (and rare) feeling of being so engaged in a project that you look up and three hours have gone by? That’s deep workCoined by scientist Cal Newport, “deep work” is defined as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.” If you spend large portions of your day in a state of fragmented attention, it can permanently reduce your capacity for concentration.

But when you distance yourself from distractions and improve time management, you have a better chance to dive deeper into our thinking and reach new heights of productivity.

Here’s how to take back control of your schedule and make deep work a priority:

1. Set the right tone for your day.

The internet (and this site, in particular) is full of “hacks” for morning routines. Suggestions to wake at 4:30 am to meditate, write in your journal and eat a choc-quinoa vegan protein ball. Most of these are kind of bullshit. But what they do get right is the importance of having, and sticking to, a routine.

If you want to make deep work a daily habit (and you should), you need to find the routine that works best for you personally, and stick to it as much as possible.

For example, I always make sure to hit the gym first thing in the morning so that I’m energized and ready to work by eight o’clock on the dot.

This is a conscious change I made. Back when I lived in San Francisco, I’d take my kids to school, rush to get to work, catch up with coworkers, and before I knew it, it would be 10 am. By the time I actually sat down at my desk, I’d feel rushed, stressed, and way more likely to seek distractions.

But by setting the right tone early in the day, I’m ready to get down to business. For me, that’s programming and writing, or occasionally sketching with my Apple pen. I’ll get into the zone, look up at the clock, and realize that in the blink of an eye, an entire afternoon has passed.

That’s when I get my best work done, and it feels great to knock a major project off my to-do list.

If you feel scattered or rushed, deep work won’t happen. But when you create a dedicated routine, it’ll be much easier to get in the zone.

2. Protect your time.

Take a look at your calendar. It probably looks a lot like mine used to — a mess of half-hour meetings.

I’d be buzzing around all morning, and by lunch, I’d think I finally had time to do some solid work. Then I’d realize I had another meeting in half an hour and that wasn’t enough time to get anything meaningful done.

Put simply, this scattered schedule made it impossible to ever get into a flow state.

That’s why now, I schedule all my one-on-one meetings for Monday. This frees up the rest of the week for deeper work — whether it’s outbound research or strategizing for a meeting prep.

If you can’t put all your meetings on one day, try to consolidate your meetings and block out chunks of uninterrupted time for you to get deep work done.

For example, if I’ve got a big strategy meeting coming up on a Thursday, I’ll block off a few hours beforehand to get my thoughts and resources together.

The point is to reserve some time totally free of distractions.

3. Time yourself.

If you’re constantly interrupted by Slack pings or email notifications, you aren’t getting deep work done.

It’s important to rid yourself of disruptions before you begin working so you don’t get sidetracked halfway through your task. Sometimes this involves turning your phone off or listening to white noise to drown out external sounds. Even simply turning off notifications on your devices can do wonders.

Another great way to maximize efficiency is the Pomodoro Method. Here’s how it works:

  1. Choose a task to be accomplished.

  2. Set your timer to 25 minutes.

  3. Work on the task until the timer rings, then put a checkmark on your sheet of paper to denote the passage of a timer.

  4. Take a short break (five minutes is OK).

  5. Every four checkmarks, take a longer break.

The Pomodoro Method is a cyclical system. You work in short sprints, which makes sure you’re consistently productive. You also get to take regular breaks that bolster your motivation and keep you creative. I use the Be Focused app as my Pomodoro timer and to generally facilitate time management.

If you’re strategic with your time, you should have no trouble getting everything done.

4. Don’t just sit there.

When you’re sitting all day, you feel lazy and lethargic from two o’clock on.

But if you make a habit of moving around throughout the day, just a little, you’ll be amazed at how much more you can accomplish.

Not only will you burn more calories, but you’ll also have increased energy. Physical activity also helps your mental well-being, especially as you age.

Here are a few easy tricks to avoid feeling stagnant at the office:

  • Take a break from sitting every 30 minutes. Walk to a local coffee shop instead of using the machine in your breakroom, or just take a stroll around the block.

  • Stand while watching television or talking on the phone. I find myself involuntarily standing at my desk during calls, and when I move around, I’m able to think much more clearly.

  • If you spend hours at your desk (and most people do), try a standing desk. You could also improvise with a high table or counter.

  • Try a walking meeting instead of sitting in a conference room.

  • Position your work surface above a treadmill so that you can be in motion throughout the day.

Often the best way to get deep work done is to simply step away from the desk.

The pace of innovation continues to accelerate, which means you can’t afford to get too complacent. And in a world filled with digital distractions, deep work is one of the first things to fall by the wayside. When you don’t get our big projects done (or done well), you won’t be generating any new ideas.

But by organizing your time and making deep work a daily priority, you can accomplish more than you ever thought possible.

Stuart McLeod

CEO & Co-Founder, Karbon

Stuart started his first business 11 years ago and has had many successful ventures, including Paycycle, founded in 2009, which he sold to Xero in 2011. He then built the global Xero Payroll team that delivers payroll software across the US, AU, UK and NZ markets. Stuart is now paving the way for smarter tools to improve how knowledge workers collaborate with their colleagues and look after their clients.


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