To accomplish something meaningful, you must fight back against constant distractions and get into a state of deep work.
Knowledge workers spend too much time plugging away on meaningless tasks that non-skilled workers are perfectly capable of performing—answering emails and messages, scheduling and attending wasteful meetings, etc… We fall into this trap because it’s easy to approach work and learning in a very productivity-focused way, which often means “snacking” on easy tasks. And it always feels good to “check something off of our list.” The challenge is that to deliver real value we need to spend more time engaged in deep work instead of the “shallow” work that consumes much of our days.
Deep work is where the magic happens. According to Cal Newport, deep work is defined as “cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.” To get into a state of deep work, Newport suggests focusing on a single, intense task for a long period of time to reach peak productivity. The key (and hardest part) is to not stop—or begin something else—until you’re completely done.
Why We Can’t Focus
In today’s world, it’s more and more difficult for us to get into a state of deep work. We’re constantly distracted by chat, email, and social media. We habitually check for new alerts and can’t go more than ten minutes without checking our phones. Actually, it’s much less than ten minutes.
Research firm dscout found that the average person touches their phone over 2,600 times a day. Even if we can avoid the phone based distractions, our attention span is terrible. The average human attention span clocks in at eight seconds according to a 2015 study by Microsoft. That’s one second less than a goldfish!
The distractions may appear to only be as wasteful as the time spent on them, but they’re actually more insidious. They suck away our attention and keep us distracted and unable to get into a state of deep work. The ten-second glance at our phone ends up doing more than ten seconds of damage. Just checking out Twitter or reading an email costs you about fifteen to twenty minutes of attention loss.
According to Sophie Leroy, a business-school professor at the University of Minnesota, people need to stop thinking about one task before they can perform well on the next one. And studies show that making that transition is difficult. Performance suffers when we attempt it. Leroy refers to the carryover that makes it hard to fully transition to the next task as “attention residue.”
Essentially, a portion of our focus remains on the previous task, even if it’s finished completely, leaving its “residue” in our brain. The remnants of the previous task continue to pull our focus away, even when we’ve moved on to the next thing. So when we check Twitter, email, and multitask back and forth, the residue builds up. Multitasking, for all its praise, is more harmful than good if you’re really trying to get shit done. Couple attention residue with constant distractions from social media and email, and you’ve got a recipe for a frustrating and wasteful day.
In this crazy world of endless distractions and limited attention spans, it may seem like we’re helpless in our fight for productivity. The good news is you have a few options to help you fight back and get into a state of deep work.
Control Your Time
Designate windows for when you will spend time on attention sucking tasks like email and chats. Ignore them outside of that window. Try an early morning, afternoon, and end of day cycle for messages, for instance. Block off other windows for actually doing work. Aim for at least a two-hour block in order to allow time to focus on a specific task or goal. If you work in an office with others, make those time blocks recurring meetings and don’t accept invitations for meetings scheduled over them.
Bore Your Brain
Train your brain to do nothing. Allow yourself to be bored. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that bored people “are more likely to engage in sensation seeking.” This means that when we’re bored, we look for things that will engage our minds and activate our brain’s reward centers. We’re more likely to come up with new ideas when bored because we practice “divergent thinking styles” in order to find a way to be “rewarded.”
Next time you need to get into deep work, try making yourself bored first. Researchers at the University of Central Lancashire asked 80 participants to perform boring tasks like copying and reading numbers from a phone book. They found that the groups that completed the boring tasks first came up with more creative answers than the control group that had not.
Focus on Goals
At Status Hero we’re big fans of focusing on goals. People confuse goals and tasks sometimes, so let’s distinguish between the two. Goals represent meaningful and impactful pieces of work. Goals lead to real change. They’re aspirational. Tasks, on the other hand, are mechanics and tactics. Tasks are the smaller chores that may — or may not — move you toward your goal. On their own, tasks provide little to no value. By setting goals each day, you hold yourself accountable for achieving something meaningful. It prevents “snacking” on tasks that may look substantial on a to-do list, but don’t actually deliver value. Start (or end) each day by setting a goal for yourself. You’ll find that the minute it takes to identify a goal will help you focus on where to spend your time.
Addition By Subtraction
Remove the shallow work from your life. Audit your recurring meetings and kill the ones that aren’t needed. It’s amazing how much time we waste going from meeting to meeting that could’ve been easily handled or communicated through email. Look for opportunities to remove unnecessary meetings. Hint: you probably have a bunch that are mainly for basic communication or sharing status updates and can easily be handled through other mediums.
Messages can be handled differently. To limit the urge to quickly respond to every message and guilt when you don’t, set expectations with co-workers and family. Let them know that you won’t respond immediately, so they shouldn’t be offended.
Getting into a state of deep work and avoiding the constant pull of distractions will take discipline. As much as possible, avoid the temptation of social media and email and stay focused on your goals. Use the tactics above to give yourself a fighting chance against the barrage of attention sucking activities and you’ll have a huge advantage over your peers and competition.
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