“Deep Work”

Editor’s Note: Jim was recently interviewed by Laura Vanderkam of Fortune for his tips and tricks on “How to Focus on Your Work and Ditch the Distractions.” In addition to what he shared with Vanderkam, below he outlines other helpful ideas for tapping into “deep” work:

"To do list," © 2010  IvanWalsh.com, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Photo Credit: “To do list,” © 2010
IvanWalsh.com, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

If you’re not doing “deep” work, you’re doing shallow work, and if you’re a leader in an organization, shallow work doesn’t even justify your salary.

The first concept is to believe that deep work really is the most important thing. Most people who make it to a leadership role have figured out how not to be constantly seduced by distractions, and very few are distraction junkies, like so many of the talented and ambitious people who get stuck in the upper middle of an organization or in whatever they’re trying to achieve in business.

It’s not magic, though. There are very learnable skills and tactics to get to the important stuff.

First, you have to know what the important stuff is, which means that it’s absolutely essential to prioritize daily. If you spend 10 or 15 minutes a day rank ordering the most important things that you can do that day and then working from top to bottom, you will be doing “deep” work. Two notes: “Important” and “urgent” are not the same thing. Second, this works at all levels, not just for the boss.

Second, know which things are “musts” for the day on your priorities list. I highlight them in red. There will be priorities I don’t get to every day, but I start at the top and each day, I hope to do everything that’s in red, at least. Other things on the list are easy and only take a few minutes. I highlight those in yellow, and I make sure to do all of those each day, too.

Third, many of those “musts” require focused time, so put the “musts” on your schedule, the way you would a meeting. It’s essentially a meeting with yourself. Start with 30-minute blocks. You’ll be amazed how much you can achieve in 30 minutes of solitude in front of a white board or notebook. I suggest you do this away from your computer because a computer is the world’s greatest distraction machine. This will feel strange to some people, but think of this: There seems to be time for every useless meeting or check-in, but no time for the things that will actually improve the business. That’s silly. Change it.

"Whiteboarding," © 2013  Alper Çuğun, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Photo Credit: “Whiteboarding,” © 2013
Alper Çuğun, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Fourth, use tricks for focusing your mind. As I said, step away from your computer and even phone. I have an entire wall of my office that is a whiteboard, and I also have an oversized notebook and sharpie I can carry if I leave my office. You’ve already scheduled time, now make sure you use it. Here’s one little trick I play on myself if I just don’t seem to be able to focus on a problem: Get an egg timer and set it for 7 minutes. Surely, you can think only about a problem for 7 minutes. At the end of that, you’ll have some momentum and ideas to build on, and you can add another 7 minutes and another and another till you’ve done what you need to do. (Yes, you can use your phone for this, but there’s something about the egg timer that keeps you focused. Whatever timer works for you is fine though.)

Fifth, use tricks for dealing with interruptions. People will often interrupt you when you’re focusing on something. “Hey Jim, can you blah blah blah?” Learn these two simple phrases: “Is it urgent? Because I’m working on something important right now.” Most (virtually all) of the time, they will say, “No, it’s not urgent.” Here’s another one: “Yes, I’m happy to help. Can I come find you at 2?” You’re not saying you can’t help or deal with the issue; you just can’t do it right now.

Another way to avoid interruptions is to leave the office. Find a couple of places near the office that are welcoming and comfortable for 30- to 60-minute stretches. Take your big notebook (probably not your computer) and work your problem. I recently built out my home office, making it more functional, but also more comfortable. If I know I’ve got a LOT of work to do, I pack it up for a few hours, usually at the end of the day, and work there, where I’m harder to bug.

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