Tell me if this sounds familiar: you sit down at your desk at 9am to start drafting a brief or reviewing a contract, and someone knocks on your door. You chat about something non-work related and they hang around until the phone rings a few minutes later.
As soon as you finish the call, you turn back to your screen and out of the corner of your eye you see you've gotten a new email--the subject line is ambiguous enough to make you curious about the content, so you open it. You quickly decide it's something you don't need to respond to now, and instinctually you take a quick glance at your phone--no new text messages--before finally turning back to the brief.
It's now fifteen minutes later and you've made no progress on the brief, and can't remember where you left off.
We can all relate to this pattern of events--intending to do "real work" but being interrupted by a series of distractions that take us away the work we set out to do.
If you're serious about building a work day that's focused on completing your most important projects, consider building time into your day that’s dedicated to doing Deep Work.
The concept of Deep Work comes from an excellent book written by author Cal Newport, and here’s the central idea: in order to get our most important work done, we must create time periods and a work environment that’s distraction free. If we don't create a completely distraction-free environment, we get pulled out of the state of pure concentration that we need to complete cognitively demand work, and instead become consumed with surface-level interruptions.
Not only does our work suffer from this lack of concentration, but we can end up spending a large chunk of our day simply transitioning back and forth between tasks.
Some studies conducted on the effects of this "task-switching" suggest that we can spend anywhere from 10% to 40% of our productive work time in a day switching among tasks--in other words, several HOURS of our day.
How To Get Started
If you're serious about getting things done, here are the four things you need to do to get started:
1. Choose a time of day and set a time frame. Start by choosing a time of day when you think you'll be the most productive--morning or afternoon--and when you'll have the least amount of interruptions to eliminate. Consider starting with an hour of deep work time and working up to 1-3 hours per day. If you can't go for 3 hours without interruptions, break it up into two or three smaller chunks.
2. Create a distraction-free environment. Shut your door, turn your cell phone on silent (or even better, put it outside your office), have your assistant hold your calls, turn your email notifications off, and put a "Please do not disturb" sign on your door.
BEFORE WE GO ON TO NUMBER 3: I'm sure you're already thinking that you can't go for two hours(!) in the middle of a work day without responding to email or questions.
But I would challenge you to reconsider that assumption. It turns out that you go for hours without looking at your email all the time: you're in court, you're taking depositions, you're in client meetings, you're on planes without internet access. You really have done this before (without your whole professional world bursting into flames) and now you're just going to be more intentional about it.
3. Train your staff and colleagues. Most of the interruptions we have can be limited/eliminated by simply training those around us on our Deep Work routines. Let your colleagues and staff know what you're up to: that this is your most focused drafting time and to not interrupt you for the next hour unless there’s an emergency. Define what an emergency is and set a time right after you finish with your deep work to check back in with them, if necessary.
4. Remain disciplined. We saved the hardest part for last. At this point we're hard-wired to check our phone and our email all day long, so sticking with your plan initially will be challenging. But if you can push through that urge and fully engage in deep work, the amount of clarity and productivity you'll experience on the other side will be well worth it.