Slowly, I’d become a world champion time-waster.
My work rhythms changed, and I lost my focus. A new features team came in at the newspaper which had given me regular freelance work for years, and suddenly the work slowed to a trickle, and then stopped.
It wasn’t unexpected, and I was ready for a change. I had ideas I wanted to work on, new directions to pursue. I was excited, at first.
But without deadlines to motivate me, instead I went into a trance. I’d sit at my desk all day, checking social media, answering emails, doing e-courses or quizzes, all the while promising myself that after this one last thing, I’d begin my serious work. Which somehow never got done.
Each day I’d start again with the best of intentions, then look up one fact I needed online. An hour later, I’d be watching a TED talk, with no clue as to how I’d got there.
I am not alone in this.
We live in distracted times, and many of us feel overwhelmed by choice, by information, At work, many of us feel pressure to be seen to be busy, rather than achieving real results. We are often judged by how quickly we answer emails, by our input at meetings, and it becomes increasingly hard to get any real work done.
For freelancers like me, sitting in front of a screen with no one monitoring or measuring my performance, it’s even easier to fall down the rabbit hole of the internet and get lost in trivia. Or to spend most of my day working through my in-box, responding to the latest deluge of email.
Yet really focused work is more valuable than ever before. In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport makes a convincing argument that it is one of our best chances of success in an increasingly digital and unfocused world. Put it this way: would you rather spend your days writing a book, or 1000 Facebook posts? Would you rather finish one significant project, or start 50?
But how do we change?
What we need to do, Newport argues, is retrain our brains to focus again, rather than seek constant stimulation. He suggests narrowing down your goals to focus only on what is wildly important to you. Then you carve out interruption-free time to do deep, concentrated work on those goals. For me, that meant going through the 10,000 different projects and directions that were tugging me this way and that, and choosing three that really mattered.
To track how you’re doing, don’t think too much about the results. On big projects especially, this can lead to little sense of progress, day to day. Instead, focus on your behaviour, the structure of your day, and the habits you need to put into place, in order to get where you want to be. Then keep a meticulous score, to check you do these new habits every day, with a weekly review with a coach/buddy/yourself to hold yourself accountable.
The habits I decided to put in place:
- After a five-minute scan for important emails first thing, I quit my mail programme so that I’m not distracted by incoming mail for the first three hours of the day.
- Blocking my Internet browser for the first two hours of the day.
- Dedicating the first two hours at my desk (usually 8.30–10.30am) to writing.
- Dedicating the third hour of the day, whenever possible, to marketing: sending out pitches, networking online, posting on Medium, following up with clients.
- Checking email/social feeds happens only after that, then I’ll go usually for a walk, or move in some other way.
I started small: two hours of concentrated work a day, each marked with a cross on my calendar. It was hard to focus even on that at first, and the idea of switching off my email and only going online at scheduled times filled me with panic.
But guess what? The world didn’t end.
Quite the opposite. As I began getting things done, writing more, moving forward, I began to get a quiet sense of satisfaction that had been lacking, I realised, for quite some time.
Newport argues that deep work — concentrating on a task that is difficult and absorbing — is a key to happiness. He could be right. When I began moving forward again, crossing increasing numbers of items off my to-do list, I realised just how miserable I’d been in my long, digitally-enhanced drift.
But it’s also difficult for any of us to concentrate intensely for more than a few hours. So Newport also advocates finishing work at a reasonable time, with a shutdown ritual to clear your mind.
My shutdown ritual:
- Put on a playlist of uptempo music that tells me it’s time to get up and move.
- Clear my desk any papers or notes. Then transfer any new tasks to my scheduler, so that I don’t forget them. (I use the Things app on my iPad and iPhone.)
- Write down the three things I really want to get done the following day.
- If I can, I make sure that what I need to carry out the priority task is ready. In the morning I can then start right in, rather than searching for the right file or document to open.
- Finally, I do a couple of stretches; snuff out the candle that is usually burning while I’m working; turn off the music and my iMac; and leave my study.
Playing well helps you work better.
Newport also encourages you to think carefully about how you spend your leisure time. He encourages you to play intentionally and relax mindfully, rather than just slumping in front of a screen. He also suggest taking a daily walk, using it to think through a specific work problem. This has been a game-changer for me. Getting outside and moving seems so more constructive than sitting at a desk, pushing and pushing for a solution. And then beating yourself up when it won’t come.
The book is very readable, full of real-life examples from Bill Gates to Carl Jung, and packed with easily actionable ideas. He gives detailed instructions on how to memorise a deck of cards, in order to train your brain. And tips on how to minimise email, or assess whether you should use the latest social media network.
Most of all, he offers a roadmap out of distraction and back into focus.Follow it, and you will get far more done. In less time.