The power of deep work

If you’re like me, it is tremendously challenging to carve out time for so-called “deep work” while at work. Deep work almost seems mythical and elusive to me, at times. In one particularly intense role, I would “save” my challenging work and work that required deep thinking or problem solving for the weekends when I could have some quiet time. Not ideal at all. At other times, I do my very best to set myself up for deep work by closing my email and turning off notifications (all those chat notifications!!) on my computer and phone. In particularly busy periods where I’ve had several contracts I was working on simultaneously, I used online tools to block certain websites, mostly websites where I can waste a lot of time, in order to limit my temptation for distraction.  When I can get into that mode, it seems nearly magical. The ability to think. Just think. Seems like a rarely offered gift

In my work as a curriculum designer, I like to think through an exercise and imagine how it would play out in a training setting. I think about how people will move around a room or virtual space. I think about what materials I might want and if the use of those materials would be feasible and not too cumbersome for the facilitator. I do all of that thinking before I even put my fingers on a keyboard to write out instructions that match my vision. 

The evidence is abundantly clear that we are more effective, more productive, and less stressed out if we have the ability to single-task (as opposed to multitask).  How can we make it happen?

Mark Twain once wrote that “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” For me, if I am going to tackle something that requires deep thinking, my motivation, energy, and ability to pay attention are all at their height at the start of my work day.  If at all possible, I try to schedule my intense work for the morning hours. Luckily, I have a fair amount of control over my schedule and when I take meetings and how I structure my day. When I have found myself at the will of others or in particularly meeting-heavy roles, I have found that communicating about what I need to accomplish  and how I will best accomplish it (ie: quiet time in the morning) is usually well accepted and understood. My coworkers are usually amenable to rescheduling or shuffling the day around. I know I can forget that I also can say “no” to meetings. It seems nearly radical and even more radical in a remote environment when we may instinctually want to “prove” that we are at work and doing what we should be doing.  Yet, we have to be careful to not mistake busyness, in the form of being in pointless meetings and responding instantly to group chats, to being productive.

As a manager, I have also tried to give the gift of deep work to my team. In my last role, I blocked off Friday afternoons as quiet time. It was meant to be meeting-free time where we did not expect immediate responses to queries or requests. Plus, we were all working way more than we should have been, so this also gave permission for my team to leave before the official end of the work day if they were able to. 

What are your tips for deep work? How do you make it happen in your busy life? Do you work virtually? How do you manage to keep focused when household distractions abound (no judgement, I frequently do dishes and fold laundry while in meetings!)? Would love to hear from you!