How to get truly valuable work done and how to start enjoying it.
If you want to be successful at work or in your studies, you’ll inevitably have to do some ‘hard’ work. Now everybody knows these types of things that are demanding and mentally strenuous. Tasks that can only be performed in a state of full concentration and that take up our whole attention in that moment. Surprisingly it seems to be especially this kind of hard work that we procrastinate on the most. Rather, we devote our precious time to tasks that are simpler and faster in order to mark more things on our ToDo list as done. We want to unite the multitude of tasks in the categories of full-concentration, hard-to-replicate and demanding under the term Deep Work, initially coined by Cal Newport in his book of the same name.
For students, most of the effort during study falls into the deep work category. Especially understanding and use of complex methods, however, require our undivided attention more than anything else. As you might have noticed yourself: It is one thing to write a summary of a lecture, but a totally different thing to face the difficult tasks from the exams. Difficult here means essentially that it cannot simply be memorized and replicated. It is so strenuous to face these tasks because initially we are bound to fail. It requires enormous willpower to stick to it, until eventually we get our head around it.
At the same time, it is deep work that is intrinsically valuable. This might not be so obvious in the case of exams, where you might study formulas you will never see again, but it certainly applies to the business world. For the true value of a knowledge worker does not come from holding meetings and writing emails, but from putting effort into deep work.
Although it seems obvious what it is that needs to be done, we wander through our day scattered with Meetings, WhatsApp messages and news tickers, all the while trying to get our work done. Our mind is constantly distracted, which has become so normal a state, that we don’t even notice it.
Maybe you took the first steps already and brought some structure into your day. You plan your training, your shopping and your meetings. This way you manage to spare a lot of time for your studies or your actual job, but still feel like you don’t get enough done? You seem to invest so much time without being rewarded by significant results? Then stick with me for a little longer, because the methods of Deep Work provide a solution to your struggles.
The first step to improve your status quo is to notice the negative consequences of ‘wrong’ work. On which days are you particularly effective while studying or working? When do you seem to get nothing done? What sets these day appart?
Once you’ve shed some conscious light on the differences your are able to ask the question: What can we do to make the successful sessions the standard?
With Deep Work. In the next few paragraphs I want to elaborate on the methods we can use to make our work a sort of high-performance ritual in order to cultivate invaluable focus.
Deep Work Blocks
It all starts with the so called Deep Work Blocks, extended periods of time that we spare solely for our Deep Work sessions. Ideally, we manage to set the same time window each and every day so that our body (a routine machine) can get used to the rhythm. For example, we take the two hours between 9 and 11 am every morning for ourselves.
Only two hours? Yes, you read correctly. Studies have shown repeatedly that even high-focus performers can only manage around four hours of maximum focus every day. Most importantly however, we set out with the objective to minimize our time input for the same qualitative output in order to have more meaningful free time.
Deep Work, not Peep Work
Deep Work Sessions come along without absolute ‘radio silence’. Which is to say: No smartphone, no mails, no internet if it isn’t essentially required for the work itself. It is in any case worth it to block some mental trash cans like Facebook, Instragram and YouTube.
So now it is ten to nine and you are about to start your Deep Work session. Do you know what you want to do in the next two hours? Setting clear tasks and goals is essential to Deep Work as to every other process. Take the time to quickly jot down the goals you set out with, that helps you to get your head focused. Is is absolutely critical to set one goal at time and one goal only,because multi-tasking, as we will see in another article, is a dangerous illusion.
Take your written goals and go to your dedicated workspace, freed from distractions and equipped as minimally as possible. Library offer a good atmosphere for that.
Now the focus begins.
The largest aspect of deep work sessions is the mental concentrations. To train this is a long, but important process which we will shed more detailed light on in other articles.
For now: Sit down, take a few deep breaths and watch your thoughts come and go. Is there something that bothers you? Write these things down, so you can pick them up later. The mere act of writing the content of a thought down, helps you to be at ease without it. This way we can free our mind to be fully focused.
No one of us is a focus magician. Therefore we need breaks, distractions and the occasional mental stroll. Our mind is basically made to wander off, so we should offer it the opportunity to do so.
A good baseline is always: Less distractions like social media, mails and phones in general is always better. However, instead of planning to just use these distractions ‘less’, we specifically set distraction times throughout our day to consume media. To check your inbox three times a day is more than enough for the average person. Despite social convention, the same counts for WhatsApp and even more so for non-essential networks like Snapchat or Instagram.
Maybe inform your friends before you start with this approach. This way, no one will judge your longer response time and you will have your freedom back.
A new understanding of work
For many, ‘work’ always has a negative ring to it. “I have to learn for two more hours today”, “I have to go work”, I have to, I have to, I have to,…
It may seem like hypocrisy, but a small change in mindset can bring huge benefits. Deep Work helps us to clearly define when and what to work. This way work and leisure are strictly separated. If we manage to set out for our compact deep work sessions with motivation and conviction, success is inevitable. Over time, deep work sessions create immense focus and with it comes the deeply satisfying feeling of flow, which can make all sorts of work enjoyable.
Work Hard, Play Hard
Before we come to a close: What is the purpose of working less hours if our freetime doesn’t gain quality through it?
Initially it is not that obvious, but with a good work routine should come an even better free time planning. By leisure we mean the things we do voluntarily. The activities and people we do and love without any agenda and goals. It is the things we do for the sake of doing them.
Some ‘depth’ in these aspect can be of transformative power. By no means, however, do we want to apply the rigid routines of deep work to our free time. Joshua will elaborate more on this depth in social environment in one of his articles.
Through focus we literally rediscover our ability to see reality in all it’s detail. Instead of a blurred and distant world, we experience each and every detail in unknown proximity. That is focus.
Deep Work and the rest of the day
How and when you set your deep work sessions is all yours. Regarding the topic of managing your day and tasks in general, much can be written. For the sake of brevity, we will cover that in yet another article.
Deep work is exactly that work, which can only be done with high focus, which requires long practice and cannot be easily replicated by someone else. Deep work is intrinsically valuable.
How to do it?
1. Set Deep Work Blocks in your calender. No meetings, no phone, no mails.
2. Disconnect — physically and mentally
- turn of your devices
- Clear your mind by noting down thoughts and things that bother you.
3. Plan for distractions
- Set distraction times just like you set work times
- Punish yourself if you give in to the urge to look at your phone.
4. Change your mindset
- Work is only what you make it. Focus can create Flow which creates intrinsic satisfaction.