I have a new system that’s completely revolutionised the way I work. It’s pulled me out of burnout and has HALVED the time it takes me to get things done.
Allow me to introduce you to “deep work”.
(Next stop: world domination.)
Let me set the scene of what my life was like beforehand.
My Life Before Deep Work
I’d wake up and lie in bed scrolling through social media on my phone. When the second, OK-now-it’s-REALLY-time-to-get-your-arse-outta-bed alarm went off, I’d drag myself up and out, and get ready.
After that it was a flurry of making breakfast and lunch for my daughter, packing her bag and getting her out the door for the school bus. Then I’d have my own breakfast in peace, with a side of more scrolling.
About 9.30am I would sit at my desk and get started on work.
And by ‘get started’, I of course mean glancing at my inbox, looking at my to-do list, fighting the urge to crawl back into bed, wondering what I could put off…
When I finally got down to it, I’d set a timer and work in 45 minute blocks, followed by 15 minute breaks. That system had been my bread and butter for several years and I never thought I’d improve on it.
Unfortunately, the 45 minutes were increasingly distracted, and I’d regularly carry on a text message conversation at the same time.
The 15 minutes were designed to get me up and moving on a regular basis but, more recently, would see me still sitting in front of a screen getting sucked into something that would last significantly longer than 15 minutes. (Think YouTube videos and yet more social media.)
When my daughter got back about 4.15pm it was helping with homework and playing outside, then dinner, and then a jumbled mess of small bits of work, some more scrolling, more YouTube videos, etc.
Inevitably, things from that day’s to-do list would get bumped forward or canceled completely.
Somewhere between 9 and 10pm I’d stumble to bed to read a few pages of a book (and check my phone 4 billion more times), and then it was lights out about 11, promising myself I’d do better the next day.
Aaaaand… rinse and repeat.
The Downsides Of Not Doing Deep Work
I was still getting a lot done but only in bits and pieces. I didn’t want to squeeze more into my day, I just wanted fewer distractions so I could actually focus on, and finish, something.
My screen stats at the time showed I was spending between 5 and 8 hours a day on my phone, the vast majority of which was spent on social media… and that’s excluding the scrolling I was also intermittently doing on my laptop.
I guess ‘fractured’ is the best way to describe my days back then.
Enter: Cal Newport’s bestselling book, “Deep Work”.
I had the eBook on hold on my local library's app for quite a while and, when it finally became available, it just so happened to coincide with a viral bug. So, laid up in bed for a day, I dove in.
In truth, even while I was reading the book I didn’t think too much of it. It was definitely interesting (though Part 1 was a slog) but I never imagined it would have as many benefits as promised.
Things rarely do.
Still, when the virus finally vacated my body, I decided to try it out. Burnout had been the bane of my life for a year at that point and I was living most of my days without feeling motivated or inspired. As an ambitious person, and one who’s previously suffered from depression, that can be worrying.
I was genuinely afraid it was my new default and that I’d never get my mojo back.
Imagine my utter relief and unbridled joy, then, when I found that deep work allowed me to focus again and get all my work done in half the time!
So what’s it all about and how does it work?
In essence, deep work is about eliminating all distractions and focusing in on one particular task for a prolonged period of time.
While much of it seems to be based on anecdotal evidence rather than science-backed research, it does make sense to me that, to really get sh*t done, you’d do well to lock yourself away for several hours and just get on with it.
After all, isn’t that what all the best writers and researchers do?
How long you can do it depends on your circumstances – most of us can’t take ourselves off to a cabin in the woods for weeks on end. And Newport reckons 4 hours is about the max amount of time you can spend doing deep work per day before your brain hits its limit.
So for those of us with regular lives and jobs, the book suggests working for 90 minute stretches, ideally breaking for about 90 minutes in between.
Now, 90 minutes is double what I was used to so I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to last that long. And, with the modern day diminished capacity to concentrate (something I’ve increasingly noticed in my own life) I was skeptical.
Still, I sucked it up, put my phone on silent, and got stuck in… and was surprised to find I was still going when the timer went off an hour and a half later.
Any time I felt my mind straying, I simple repeated the words “deep work” to myself and dove back in.
And just like that, a job that would normally take about 6 hours was done in 3.
When To Do It
Now, Newport knows that deep work isn’t always necessary or even possible – open-plan offices aren’t conducive to getting sh*t done, nor is the home environment if you have young kids running around. (My own interrupted me several times while writing this post.) So you should still have plenty of space in your schedule for breaks and the “shallow” stuff – phone calls, meetings, small chores, etc.
But when the chips are down and you need to crank out a report, a thesis, a Powerpoint presentation, the next chapter of your book, a tax return, or a research paper, isolating yourself with only the tools you need for the task at hand and then wading right into the thick of things is the way to go.
Only come up for air when you feel yourself fading fast.
(Or you need a bathroom break. Mother Nature waits for no workflow.)
What It's Not
It’s important to note that it’s not about cramming more work into your day. The long periods of deep focus also require long breaks. The benefit is in ticking tasks off your to-do list as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s in actually finishing things that might otherwise outstay their welcome.
Instead of doing jobs in dribs and drabs with every spare second you can snatch, you’re giving it your full attention for as long as you can so you can finally say it’s done.
It also doesn’t necessarily require sitting lest you’re concerned, as I was, about the lack of movement for such a long period of time. Newport cites various examples of people who got some of their best work done while walking and exploring.
I’ve gone from still feeling the effects of last year’s burnout and barely being able to churn out one blog post and one video a month, to getting back on track with weekly uploads, increased social media presence (without mindless scrolling), long strategising and forward planning sessions, working on several side projects, and – best of all – more time to relax and unwind.
I’ve more than halved the amount of time I spend on social media AND the amount of time it takes me to get work done.
And, as an added bonus, the longer periods of focus mean I’m doing a lot less mindless snacking, so my health is improving too!
My new routine looks like this:
My Life After Deep Work
I wake at 6.30am and quickly check emails before hopping out of bed. (No social media at all during this time.) I get myself and my daughter ready at a nice leisurely pace, often being able to fit in some small pieces of shallow work like responding to emails.
Once she’s gone, I have my breakfast and allow myself to scroll through Instagram only.
Then it’s down to work, putting my phone and laptop on silent, setting a timer for 90 minutes, and only coming up for air when it’s done.
That time alone is enough to clear a huge chunk off my to-do list.
After that I usually break for at least an hour, eating, doing some chores, texting friends and family, etc. (Still no social media, though.) Then I dive back into another deep work session.
My evening usually involves an hour-long session of shallow work, including spending some time scheduling social posts through a third party app.
I go to bed at about 8pm. There, I allow myself to check social media for about an hour BUT I don’t scroll my Facebook or Twitter feeds (I haven’t done that in weeks). Instead, I simply check my notifications and respond to comments.
Then I read for an hour or two and it’s usually lights out between 10.30 and 11pm.
So if, like me, you find you’re starting to lose your levels of concentration and you want to claw them back, as well as finally getting things completely ticked off your to-do list, I’d highly recommend doing some deep work.
Eliminate distractions, set up everything you need to complete the task at hand, and then be single-minded of purpose as you start work. Set your sights on the finish line and work for as long as you can to get yourself there (or at least as close as possible).
And then take a long, well-deserved break. (All the better if it involves many pats on the back for a job well done.)
You’ll soon be completing tasks you thought would never leave your list.
What on your to-do list right now requires the most amount of focus? You know what to do. 😉
Click one of these posts for even more tips on turning yourself into a time management ninja: