It’s no mystery that the skill of focus and critical thinking is being eroded by an ever-increasing notification-driven culture.
Even with the best of intentions, it’s more and more challenging to give our full attention to one thing for a prolonged period of time. It goes without saying, this has dramatic implications on our ability to solve problems and be productive. This is something Cal Newport addresses at length in his book, Deep Work.
As I’ve observed my own waning attention span, I’ve felt an increased urgency to place a higher priority on protecting my focus. Doing my best creative work (at work or home) doesn’t happen by chance.
Getting in the zone and doing great work doesn’t have to mean escaping to a cabin in the woods with no internet connection. I’ve found it just takes a little intentionality.
Reactive vs Measured
If you’re anything like me, Mondays can be a struggle. Besides it just being Monday, the fight to get reoriented with what’s most important for the week can be paralyzing, not to mention sorting through all the noise and deciphering what’s truly important versus what’s simply an urgent request.
The thing is, if we don’t define what’s truly important ahead of time, our default in the moment will always be what feels most urgent.
Getting to the important stuff requires pushing back the urgent long enough to make a sliver of progress. Most of the time, the really important stuff is not what readily presents itself.
Speaking from experience, the days I fail to take time to clearly define my most important tasks are precisely the days I’m least productive. When I fall into a reactive state of work bouncing from one urgent request to the next, I finish the day feeling frazzled and wondering if I made any significant progress. The answer is usually no.
But on the flip side, when I take time to identify what is most important and what supporting tasks will move the needle forward, I have a far more effective day.
As a note: urgent-important work will usually always find you. If there’s a task that really needs to be done by the end of the day, chances are someone is going to let you know, possibly multiple times, that it needs to be done. The point being, you don’t have to worry that you’re going to miss an urgent-important task.
Reacting to your day is a recipe for memes and cat videos, and this could be due to something called dual focus.
Dual focus is the sneaky culprit that undermines your ability to operate at your best.
It’s opening the blank project announcement document without first having spent the time outlining the scope and goals of the project. You simultaneously try to outline the project scope while writing up the project plan announcement for your team.
It’s picking up your camera to snap some creative images for your Instagram feed without first sitting down to plot out what editorial theme and content you want to share. With a conflicted brain, you start snapping images all over the place with no unified storyline. Had you first defined a specific theme to focus on you could have better spent your creative energy on telling that story.
Dual focus is trying to do two things at once and thereby limiting yourself from doing either well.
Tips for avoiding dual focus:
- Break a project down into smaller steps that feel manageable, then do one step at a time.
- If you feel stuck, ask yourself if you’re trying to tackle more than one task. If this is true, isolate the one that has the least complexity and start there.
- If you’re using a computer, close all the windows besides the ones you need for completing the task at hand.
Decide What’s Important Ahead of Time
If reacting to incoming requests is a bad way to structure your day, and dual focus cuts your ability to do your best work in half, what should you do?
Decide what’s important before you sit down to do the work.
Defining what is most important ahead of time does two things.
- Allows you to define what is most important without the fog of your emotions in the moment of trying to get stuff done.
Side-steps dual focus by telling you to focus on one thing at a time.
Don’t wait until you’re in the heat of a Monday morning to try and decide what’s important. Set aside a few minutes on Friday afternoon to look ahead as your week is wrapping up.
- What didn’t get finished this week that needs my attention?
- What projects are coming up, and what do I need to do to move them forward?
- What task have I been putting off? What’s the next step in the process to move closer to the finish line?
Obviously, life happens and it’s not always possible to plan on a Friday afternoon. In this case, taking 10 – 20 minutes on a Monday morning to plan out your week, which is incredibly more productive than throwing your week to the clutches of urgency.
Once I have a general plan for my week, I’ll take a few minutes at the end of each day to set up my most important tasks for the next day. Looking at the big outcomes for the week, I assign myself sub-tasks to move me closer to finishing what I hope to complete by Friday.
Get in the Flow and Stay There
Now that you’ve done the hard work of prioritizing your attention, you can reap the benefits. The only thing left to do is the work itself. You’ve defined what’s important, so now it’s time to crush.
I like to start my day with the tasks that I know are going to require the most mental strain and creativity, such as writing, planning, detailed reports, and analysis. My peak creative output happens between 8 and 10am, and then again from about 1 to 2pm. I want to spend my sharpest mental energy on the projects that truly require my best.
Things like email, compiling data, and other administrative tasks don’t require the same kind of mental energy. Cal Newport defines Shallow Work as “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.” For me, I save these kinds of tasks for my non-peak performance hours in the late morning or afternoon.
When it’s time to lock in on a more mentally demanding task, I set a timer for the minimum amount of time I’m going to work on that thing. When I sat down to write this article, I set a timer for 30 minutes and allowed myself to completely focus on writing. This gives me permission to tune everything else out. When distractions pop into my mind about some task I need to take care of, I do my best to acknowledge it and remind myself that I’ve set aside time for that task later. Or if need be, I’ll write it down and continue focusing on the current task.
These stretches of singular focus can feel challenging or awkward at first — especially if we’ve gotten used to a more shallow work approach and can’t shake the subtle fear that you’re ignoring something that you should be working on. We’ve become so used to dual focus that we’ve actually become addicted to busywork. We must retrain ourselves to understand that productivity is not linked to the amount of email sent or administrative tasks completed. Meaningful productivity is linked to our ability to spend our time and attention on the things that matter most.
Here are some tips for developing and strengthening a deep work practice.
- Be consistent about when you engage in this type of work. What time of the day is best suited for focused, mentally challenging work?
Develop a start-up-routine that helps you get in the zone. For me, that involves my favorite Tycho album and writing in Ulysses full-screen. The habit will help you get started when you’re not feeling inspired.
Set a timer for the minimum amount of time you are going to work on a task. Do your best to block everything else out during this time and stay focused. Feel free to keep going if the timer goes off, just don’t stop before 🙂
Going back to an earlier point, know what you’re going to work on when you hit start on your timer. Give yourself as clear a target as possible. The greater clarity you have regarding the work you’re trying to accomplish, the greater likelihood of you completing that work.
When we approach our work (professional or hobby) from a reactive state, we’re far less likely to produce our highest quality work. To do our best work, we need to avoid dual focus and prioritize what is truly important, not just urgent.
Finally, when we’ve identified what’s most important, we must carve time out for it. Tune out distractions, set aside the shallow work, and spend your best mental energy on the things that matter most.