“Deep work is a luxury not all of us can afford” is what a colleague recently mentioned in passing when I suggested he hunker down to finish a manuscript. His thinking, like a lot of people, is that with everything on their plate, finding one let alone two hours in a day for focusing on a single task is next to impossible. This presents a false dichotomy. Too busy to engage in meaningful, focused work while at the same time spending hours and hours every day on less valuable tasks.
It might not seem possible to dedicate time in your life for single-tasking but it’s actually easier than you think. The key is to make a commitment and stick to it. Taking an inventory of how you’re currently spending your time, and what less valuable tasks you can eliminate or batch is the difference between feeling overwhelmed and actually getting to work on the things that matter. Make a commitment to engaging in deep work by literally penciling it into your calendar the same way that you would with anything important that you absolutely don’t want to miss. You wouldn’t ditch a meeting with your boss, so why not give yourself the same treatment? If you want to get ahead in your career, regardless of how busy you are at work, deep work has to become a priority.
Once you have made a commitment to engage in deep work, resist the urge to concentrate on a bunch of small, lesser priority activities. The next step is to find the time in your schedule to actually get to work. As humans we’re incredibly good at over or underestimating how long a particular task takes. Often times we find ourselves with ‘dead’ time on our hands and instead of preparing to transition to the next task, we whittle it away. If you know you have a manuscript that needs editing, or a presentation that needs to be completed, what can you do in the 10 minutes before a meeting starts to get in the mindset to switch to that task once you’re done with your meeting?
If you’re physically able to change up your space in order to better concentrate on a particular task that can be a big help in actually getting deep work done. If not, headphones are a great idea. Use the email autoresponder to signal to your colleagues when you’re not available and go analog as much as possible. Whether that means ditching the internet, or using one of the many available browser extensions that limit your ability to distract yourself with internet surfing if you have to use a computer.
Another deep work strategy I’ve written before and use all the time is to not go home straight away after work and clock an hour or two in a coffee shop, or library engaged in deep work. This is particularly helpful if what you’re hoping to focus on is more of a side hustle or passion project. Even half an hour is better than nothing, and if you do it consistently, even a handful of times a week, over time that adds up as you make progress towards your goals.
Finally, reward yourself every time you keep your commitment to engage in deep work. For me that usually involve a piece of chocolate or TV time, but anything that makes your life more pleasurable. Once you get in the habit, it will become easier to single-task and the more you find yourself ahead of expectations, surpassing your goals, the easier it will be to make deep work happen regardless of how busy your season of life.