In our increasingly distracted world, it’s hard to argue there’s any greater skill than focus. From meetings to emails to calls to multitasking, our days are getting more and more scattered. And so are our minds.
Just think about your relationship with communication tools. In our own research, we found that the majority of knowledge workers are unable to go longer than 6 minutes without checking their inboxes.
How can anyone be expected to do meaningful work in 5-minute chunks? The honest answer is, you can’t. There has to be a better option.
Deep Work, is an antidote to our focus-fractured days. It’s a way to block distractions, break free from “shallow work” like emails, and focus intensely on meaningful work.
As far as productivity strategies go, Deep Work is a superpower. But this doesn’t mean it’s easy to implement into your own life.
We spoke with renowned web designer and author of Atomic Design, Brad Frost, to find out what happened when he started following the Deep Work doctrine.
What is Deep Work? And how does it help you find focus?
For the unfamiliar, Deep Work is both a productivity strategy and book of the same name written by Georgetown University computer science professor, Cal Newport.
In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport classifies Deep Work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
In other words, doing meaningful work. Writing if you’re a writer. Designing if you’re a designer. Coding if you’re a coder. And so on.
The opposite of Deep Work is what Newport calls “shallow work”—the emails, updates, meetings, calls, and other busy work that is “often performed while distracted [and] tends not to create much new value in the world…”
Unfortunately for most of us, our days are dominated by Shallow work with little room for anything else. When we looked at the data from 50,000+ RescueTime users, we found that at best, most professionals only spend around 38% of their workday on their “core” skills.
Newport’s main premise is that developing your ability to do Deep Work empowers you to focus for longer, be more productive, and learn new skills faster.
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.” – Cal Newport, Deep Work
To perform Deep Work, Newport suggests a lot of the old standbys—distance yourself from social media, prioritize and organize your tasks, avoid shallow work, get enough rest… However, one of the most powerful aspects of the methodology goes against how most people operate:
“It’s an idea that might seem extreme at first but will soon prove indispensable in your quest to take full advantage of the value of deep work: Schedule every minute of your day.”
If it sounds extreme, that’s because it is. But with the promise of more focus and less time on “busy work”, why not at least try?
Introducing Brad Frost, designer, developer, author, father, and Deep Work practitioner
✎ I'm now scheduling every minute of my day. https://t.co/IzIPcPIF97
Let's see how this goes!
— Brad Frost (@brad_frost) October 29, 2018
When Brad’s tweet came up on our timeline, we knew this would be a great opportunity to understand the realities of Deep Work.
Besides being an in-demand web developer, speaker, and consultant who has worked with companies like Netflix, MailChimp, Walmart, and more, Brad is a father, musician, educator, and author of Atomic Design.
With so many hats to wear, he’s the perfect candidate for exploring not only the results of Deep Work but the realities of bringing it into an already busy daily schedule.
(Luckily, Brad’s also a RescueTime user who documented and quantified his journey with Deep Work!)
Week 1: Going from treading water to training for the productivity Olympics
The most important aspect of Deep Work for Brad was taking control of his schedule. And so his first step was to create a template to follow that promotes Deep Work and focus.
Here’s what his calendar looked like on Day 1:
Prior to his Deep Work experiment, Brad approached his days like most people who juggle multiple responsibilities:
“As a business owner it’s tough to find an extended period of time to just do one thing. I would start my workday, float around between 100,000 tasks, and finish my day wondering if I actually got anything done.
“My attention was so fractured that I felt like I couldn’t sink my teeth into any one thing for any extended period of time. I was absolutely treading water and not making a whole lot of progress.”
Along with feeling a lack of professional progress, Brad also realized that his fractured focus was causing him to fall behind.
As someone working with modern web technologies, he knows how important it is to stay up-to-date and educated. But without dedicated time for research and reading, he was simply skimming the surface of what he needed to do:
“I’m the kind of person that has 800 browser tabs open and would flit between them without absorbing much of anything. So I realized in order to get this stuff to actually sink in I’d have to carve out dedicated time for learning.”
Add to that the fact that he and his wife had just had their first daughter and the option to waste time became suddenly unacceptable.
“Before having a baby, my wife and I would both work well into the evening hours, largely because we could and there was nothing stopping us! Of course, that isn’t healthy on a number of different levels. So it’s been great to ask ourselves, ‘how can I maximize my workday so that I can play with my kid?’”
Week 2: More time on meaningful work and with family (with fewer hours worked)
Sticking with a new schedule is no easy feat—especially one that asks you to commit to full days in advance. However, following a Deep Work schedule had a few unexpected results for Brad.
First, he replaced morning emails with Deep Work sessions. Instead of starting his day with the attention-scattering act of opening his inbox, Brad set time aside for focused, Deep Work.
To make up for that time, he kept his inbox closed and scheduled email check-ins for 3 times a day. You can’t ignore shallow work like email. But the goal of scheduling your day around Deep Work is to ensure that those tasks still get done—just at their appointed time.
Finally, simply seeing everything scheduled makes it easier to say no. As he wrote in his first update:
“Accepting a meeting invite requires me to take time away from something else, and now that is actually visualized.”
Here’s a look at the results of all these changes in Brad’s RescueTime report:
As Brad explains in practical terms, just over one week into practicing Deep Work resulted in:
- Coding every single day (something he struggled with previously)
- Publishing 3 posts and 4 shared links on his blog
- Reading 2 and a half books
- Being able to end his workday earlier and spend more time with his daughter (while still feeling accomplished)
Week 4: Staying committed to Deep Work when dealing with disruptions
As we wrote in our post on “The Goldilocks Rule,” the true test of any productivity system is how easy it is to keep up with.
In Brad’s case, his first month of Deep Work coincided with a number of disruptions to his usual working routine, from traveling to unexpected family visits.
“Scheduling your ideal workday is a nice rosy picture, but of course life isn’t nice and neat like that. There’s always interruptions, tasks, errands, crying babies, and sometimes incredibly disruptive events.
“For instance, in December my dad landed in the hospital for a month with spinal meningitis, causing me and the rest of my family to put our respective businesses on hold to address this incredibly serious medical emergency. Thankfully he made a full recovery, but you just don’t plan for disruption like that.”
However, one of the other major benefits of scheduling every minute of his day was that he had a plan for getting back into his routine:
“Having a structured schedule helped me bounce back to work after that scary situation, and has also helped me get back into the swing of things after going to conferences, getting sick, and other big and small routine-disrupting events.”
Even with all these events going on, Brad’s RescueTime dashboard showed that his focus on Deep Work was increasing his productivity and ability to do more within the confines of his schedule.
Here’s a look at his stats a month in:
Again, despite the distractions and disruptions of real life, the simple act of meticulously planning your day meant more time spent coding, less time on communication, and a clear end to the workday.
Brad Frost’s tips for making Deep Work work for you
Making any changes to the way you work is a huge task. But if Brad’s results are anything to go on, the payoff is worth it.
More focused time means better productivity, more chances to build your core skill set, and, most importantly, more time for the things that matter most to you.
Beyond what we’ve already mentioned, Brad made a few extra suggestions on how to make Deep Work work for you.
Give yourself permission to be flexible
Deep Work might seem like an all-or-nothing strategy. But the truth is that we can’t always be in control of our days. And just like when you’re trying to build better habits, it’s important to be flexible rather than get disheartened when things don’t go exactly as you planned.
As Brad explains, the same goes for Deep Work. While his schedule promotes a certain way or working, he’s made sure to be flexible with it depending on his workload:
“After playing it out for several months, I’m really happy with where I seem to have landed. I definitely don’t follow the schedule I’ve outlined to a T, but the broad stokes are certainly there.
“For instance, I’ll often skip a shallow work session (typically answering emails) if I’m cranking on a project. But I certainly don’t sweat that. So long as I start my workday with some substantive work and wrap up between 5:30 or 6 I feel pretty good about the in-between stuff being a bit fuzzier.
“No doubt if I was following the process religiously I might feel constricted, but because I’m not being too strict with it I feel like it’s working for me just fine.”
Be aware of the impact on recurring meetings
When you go all-in on scheduling your time, it can have some unforeseen consequences. And a key aspect of Deep Work is being able to use your calendar as a barometer for your attention.
But as Brad explains, that can get tricky when you’re changing things around:
“There have been a few procedural things that are a little annoying. On one hand, it’s really great to have to delete a ‘Work’ block from my calendar in order to slot in a meeting. It’s a good way of having to explicitly say, “I’m going to have this meeting instead of doing actual work.”
“But doing this is also super annoying. Because they’re setup as recurring events, I have to delete my ‘Work’ block, confirm I want to just delete this instance, and then ultimately add my meeting. It’s a little annoyance, but it becomes a bigger annoyance when it’s multiplied across every meeting invite I accept.”
Don’t forget to give yourself permission to find Flow
When your day is completely planned out, it can feel like you’re not able to get into Flow—the state of effortless productivity where you’re totally engrossed in the task at hand.
But as Brad explains, that’s just part of adjusting Deep Work for your needs:
“Getting lost in tasks is often a good thing, as entering a state of flow means you tend to lose track of time. For worthwhile tasks, I want to latch onto that state of flow. But for shallower tasks, I want to be reminded that there are bigger fish to fry. These aren’t impossible problems to solve, but it takes a bit of management.”
Finally, remember that Deep Work is just one of many strategies you can use to be smarter with your time
Adding Deep Work to your productivity toolbox is a powerful way to commit to focus. But to make the most of it, you need to ensure other aspects of your life are set up to support you.
Brad has a few suggestions for that as well:
- Keeping a tidy desk and clean work area (We also put together a list of ways to upgrade your work environment for productivity and focus)
- Using a tool like RescueTime’s FocusTime or similar to block out distracting sites during the workday (As Brad explains:“My fingers instinctively go to Cmd+T and type ‘T’ for Twitter, so having that blocked is incredibly important!”)
- Try to shut down my computer each night and start each day with a clean slate
- Task-appropriate music, such as listening to instrumental music when doing tasks like email
- Recognize that I’m not going to solve every single thing on my to-do list in a day
- Remember that work isn’t the only thing in life
We could all benefit from more focus in our lives. And Deep Work can help you find it. By being intentional with your time, you’re not just able to be more productive. But also find time for what matters most to you.
To find out more about Deep Work, check out Cal Newport’s site.
For more on Brad and his work, check out his blog and personal site.