What is deep work? Here are my tips to set priorities, avoid busywork and boost your productivity.
You know about the power of decluttering.
You know it’s unhealthy to rush through life and you value experiences over things.
But when you’re at the office, it’s a different story.
It’s hard to slow down and stick to your minimalist principles when you’re flooded with meetings, deadlines and impossible to-do lists. It’s often a struggle to just stay afloat.
And busyness is often equated with a person’s importance while stress is glorified as ambition. Doing “nothing” is difficult even on the weekends when society teaches you to always be striving towards something.
The corporate culture reinforces these values – even when stress costs billions in employee absenteeism, turnover and mistakes.
But does business actually produce better work? Or are we so hurried that we’re too distracted to really get anything done?
Ironically, you get more done when you work slower.
Deep work (a term coined by Cal Newport in his book of the same title) is all about setting priorities, eliminating busywork and finding efficient systems that focus on meaningful output.
It’s not about an endless stream of chat messages, emails and meetings that qualify as “work” in many offices and – ironically – make it difficult to focus.
So how can you incorporate deep work principles into your day?
Here are the top deep work tips to boost your productivity and cut out distractions:
1) Work when you’re most productive
The eight-hour workday is an invention of the industrial revolution popularized by Henry Ford. It’s based on the optimal running-time for machines and assembly lines.
It’s not a scientific or research-based model for optimal productivity. The eight-hour day is simply how factories were best run.
But studies show that most people are actually capable of 4 or 5 hours of focused work a day. Though in a busy office, you’re often lucky if you get an hour!
We also know that humans work best in intervals of 90 minutes followed by a 20-30 minute break. And the energy you feel is just as important as the number of hours you work.
So learn from these studies and maximize your work day instead of feeling like you have to clock in 8 hours behind your computer. Organize a schedule that works for you based on these productivity studies.
A few hours of focused work is infinitely better than a day spent chasing emails.
2) Free yourself from your inbox
Check your emails briefly at the start of the work day. If there’s nothing urgent then dive into some deep work that’s focused on a meaningful goal.
There’s hardly ever an email that requires an immediate response. And just because your phone pings doesn’t mean you have to drop everything to answer.
Set yourself a timer (for an hour, to start with) and dive into some focused work on a priority project.
When you’re done, get back into your inbox and deal with anything that’s come in.
But don’t use your inbox for distraction or procrastination. You don’t have to check your emails every few minutes.
3) Do less – but with more impact
The daily grind often prevents you from asking deeper questions like: what’s your ultimate goal and what are you trying to achieve?
When there’s not much meaning in your work – and you’re struggling to keep up – take some time to reevaluate your “why” and your career ambitions.
This helps you streamline your daily routine and moves your most essential tasks to the top of your list.
And it’s also the first step towards letting go of busywork and everything that’s not moving you forward.
It can also mean it’s time for a difficult conversation with your boss, reshuffling your responsibilities or letting go of what isn’t working.
4) Work in blocks of time – not to-do lists
Schedule all of your work into blocks of time instead of to-do lists. This small shift will likely double your productivity and eliminate busywork.
Divide up your workday into blocks of time that are each assigned a specific task.
To do this, first figure out your priority tasks. Then estimate how long they will take and plug them into your blocks of time in your weekly planner.
Spend one block of time on a project and work on that without checking your messages. Once that time is up, take a break and move on to your next block.
Time blocking gives you a sense of accomplishment and keeps you focused instead of chasing emails and drifting into rabbit holes.
When you’re time blocking, you always know what you should be working on at any given hour. You’re not wasting your energy wondering what to do next or jumping from one task to another.
Time blocking also helps you maximize your time. You’ll quickly learn what tasks can be grouped together and what times are best to tackle your most difficult projects.
You’ll understand how long tasks actually take and you’ll be able to plan more realistically in the future.
5) Write a “got-done” list
Ditch your daily to-do list and replace it with a list of weekly priorities.
A to-do list often turns into an overwhelming and non-specific mess of tasks.
A list of priorities separates the essentials from the busywork and anything else that can be cancelled, delegated or postponed.
Look back at the end of the day and make a quick mental note of everything you’ve accomplished. You’ll notice that even on the most frustrating days, when you beat yourself up for getting little done, there’s always something that’s moved forward.
Looking back objectively on the day puts your small successes into perspective and doesn’t let the failures overcloud your mood.
6) Let go of social media
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious, take a break from social media.
Check your screen time and limit the hours you spend on different apps.
Although it feels like escapism, social media is actually the worst way to relax during your free time. It makes you more anxious – and makes it more difficult to focus.
Limit your screentime and you’ll be amazed at the hours that suddenly free up in your day.
A little digital detox goes a long way towards creating more time for the work (and the people) that really matter in your life.
Going offline might seem impossible when you’re addicted to your smartphone.
But set it aside even for an evening and get busy with something you really love. You’ll be amazed at how little you miss your phone after a few hours.
7) Stop multitasking
Hopeful job seekers once wrote “great at multitasking” on their resumes back in the 1990s when society glorified busyness (and didn’t know any better).
But studies show that groups who smoked a joint and then completed a series of tasks actually focused better than those who were multitasking. So yes – that means multitasking is about as efficient as working while you’re under the influence.
Multitasking lowers your focus and makes you more prone to mistakes.
So forget multitasking and jumping between one thing and the next.
Instead, focus on one task at a time. Even if it feels counter-intuitive at first, mono-tasking actually vastly improves your productivity.
Work deeper in focused time blocks and you’ll be amazed at the hours you save.
8) Prevent stress instead of handling burnout
Stress is not a marker of how much you care about your work. So focus on preventing stress instead of “handling” it.
And while stress is often an inevitable part of life, shift your focus towards preventing needless headaches by planning ahead and streamlining your work systems.
Instead of going back-and-forth with colleagues over email, stop by their office for a quick chat and form a plan of action.
Ask yourself how to make your day easier tomorrow, next week and next month. Be your own future best friend who looks out for yourself and anticipates problems.
9) Enjoy the process
Remind yourself how fortunate you are to be doing what you love.
And if you’re like most people and don’t like your job, remind yourself of the good things about it – however few.
There’s always something to appreciate, even if your current role is just a stepping stone towards your dream job.
Everything is a learning experience when you shift your perspective.
10) Take lunch breaks and vacations
Vacations are often a luxury reserved for those with dependable jobs and high salaries. Many people struggle to even step away from their desks for lunch.
But constantly skipping breaks is actually slowing you down.
Time away from work isn’t only good for your health but it also boosts your creativity.
In his book In Praise of Slow, Carl Honore writes about the benefits of time off – even if that’s just a coffee break in the afternoon:
“Slow Thinking is intuitive, woolly, and creative. It is what we do when the pressure is off, and there is time to let ideas simmer on the back burner. It yields rich, nuanced insights and sometimes surprising breakthroughs.”
Some beliefs around work are so ingrained that it takes years to shake them off. Even when you know those old beliefs are holding you back.
But you’ll ultimately boost your productivity when you slow down and focus on deep work, no matter how unforgiving your office job is.
Start caring for your health and stop glamorizing busyness. Focus on concentrated efforts that make a real impact instead of spending your days in your inbox.
You’ll work better when you work deeper.
I would love to hear from you. How do you make deep work happen in your career?