How to focus at work

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal NewportEver wonder after a busy day at work if you actually accomplished something meaningful and valuable on that day?

In his latest book, Cal Newport argues that it is becoming increasingly difficult for knowledge workers to make meaningful contributions at work.  He says that there are two types of work: shallow work and deep work. Shallow work includes a lot of the things that take our time at work: multitasking, responding to email instantaneously, running from meeting to meeting, etc. Deep work on the other hand includes tasks such as forming a new business strategy, writing an important proposal or preparing a presentation on a key project.

Deep work requires a state of distraction-free concentration in order to be able to produce high-quality deliverables. However, as you know, focusing at work can be difficult when there are so many distractions vying for our attention (e.g. influx of emails, chat or text messages, Internet surfing, social media, etc.).

Since I finished reading “Deep Work” two weeks ago, I have been applying some of the strategies suggested in the book. The impact on my productivity has been significant. Just to give an example, I was able to complete an important proposal that was approved very quickly and I also completed a monthly report in half the time it used to take me before.

Being productive not only feels great but also helps you stand out in your career. Below I share a simple strategy to help you practice deep work on a daily basis.

1. Prepare

Deep work requires lots of mental energy. It is thus important to cultivate a ritual that transitions you from shallow work to deep work. For example, you could put up a “do not disturb” sign or restrict email and Internet temporarily (even better, assign specific times throughout the day to check and respond to email).

2. Clarify

Be specific about the goal you want to achieve. Having a clear picture of what success will look like at the end of your deep work session will help you sustain your focus. For example, for the proposal that I mention above, my goal was “to prepare a clear yet appealing case that addressed my manager’s feedback from my first draft.”

3. Stretch

Take your goal from the previous step and identify the next logical chunk of distraction-free work (1-3 hours). In this step you should slow down and advance deliberately. This chunk of work should include enough difficulty that you get stuck. This is important because a challenging task helps extract the most out of your current abilities and ensures that your abilities continue to improve.

4. Measure

Because you can’t manage what you don’t measure, it is important to track the number of hours you spend on deep work each day. You will be surprised by how little time you naturally spend doing this type of work. I’ve started writing on my calendar how many hours I spend each day in a state of deep work. Not surprisingly, the days I spend more time working free of distractions are the days I accomplish more meaningful work that adds value to our company.