Do you also have a list you never get to?
Yes, I’m talking about THAT list. The stuff you want to do, but don’t have the time for.
These tasks often require focus, hard work, discipline, and a healthy dose of intrinsic motivation.
So many distractions stand in your way. It’s easier to check your smartphone, watch Netflix, or jump on Facebook. No wonder you never get any important things done.
The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task – also known as deep work – is becoming more valuable in our economy. But it doesn’t happen by chance.
We could all gain from scheduling deep work into our lives. But how on Earth can we do it?
3 strategies for deep work
Cal Newport shares three tips on how to carve out more focused time for yourself in his highly-acclaimed book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
We’ll start with the most aggressive strategy, and then move on to the more easy-going ones.
1. Eliminate shallow obligations
The first strategy – also known as the monastic philosophy – is effective, but sometimes hard to put into practice.
The rule goes something like this:
To maximise deep efforts, you must eliminate or radically minimise shallow obligations.
“Shallow obligatons” are easy to replicate and create little or no value.
I’ve used this strategy with mixed results. During my thesis, I shut down my Facebook account for two months. I knew I had to minimise distractions, and ruling out Facebook certainly helped. The surprising takeaway? I didn’t miss out on much.
This strategy, however, can be difficult to maintain in the long run. Unless your name is Donald Knuth. He is a computer scientist, who hasn’t used email since January 1, 1990. Talk about being disciplined!
Here’s Knuth, as quoted in Newport’s book:
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.
You may find Knuth’s choice a bit too extreme (I know I did), but it’s worth thinking about what shallow obligations you could turn down. If you want to keep your email, then Carl Jung’s deep work style might suit you better.
2. Go on a retreat
This tactic – also known as the bimodal philosophy – is all about going on a retreat. You go somewhere for a few days or weeks to work on your project.
Psychologist Carl Jung is a famous example. He left the busyness of Zurich to work on his books. You might not have this luxury, in which case you need to work with what you have. Maybe you can block out Friday afternoons or Saturday mornings.
I’m currently experimenting with a writing retreat. Starting Saturday morning, I switch off my phone and put it in a drawer, so I won’t feel distracted by it. This is my unofficial “writing time”. I either write in my journal or put together a blog post (like the one you’re reading right now).
Setting aside time and going on retreats can be a very effective method to scheduling more deep work into your life.
3. Joke like Jerry Seinfeld
The comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a famous approach to writing better jokes. It’s called writing every day. (Not funny? Wait until you hear about his method.)
He keeps a calendar on a wall. Every day he writes a joke, he crosses out the date on the calendar with a big red X.
“After a few days, you have a chain,” Seinfeld said.
“Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
I’ve used his method to keep up with my meditation practice, work on my master’s thesis, and even flossing my teeth.
Visual chains are powerful. Mixing them with small, simple tasks, and you’ll soon gain momentum. (If you want to read more about that, check out this post on kaizen.)
The method sounds so simple, you might even laugh it off! Please give it a try before you do.
Over to you
There are many ways you can schedule deep work into your life. You can eliminate email, go on retreats, block out time, or even put big red crosses on a calendar.
In a 2014 column titled “The Art of Focus”, David Brookes encouraged people to let ambitious goals drive focused behaviour, explaining:
“If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord, try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terryfying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.”
Look at THAT list again. Anything you want to say “yes” to?
Get to work on that next. It might be the most important thing you do.