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April 02, 2021

Deep work: 5 ways to achieve the state of focus

Resource Management
BigPicture Team

Distraction is among the major challenges of professional life these days. No wonder the term digital overstimulation is getting more and more popular. Pop-ups, apps, and notifications are hijacking your attention. Under the flood of distractors, staying focused is getting ever more difficult. Fortunately, new methods of staying focused are emerging. One of them is deep work, which means deep immersion into chosen objectives. Specific steps might help you achieve such a state of mind.

What is deep work?

Let’s look no further than Cal Newport’s, author of the book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,” definition. Deep work, he claims, is when professional activities are performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes an individual’s cognitive capabilities to their limits. Effectively, deep work users can create new value and improve their skills.

As Newport mentions, the average knowledge worker checks email at least 75 times a day. Moreover, 30 percent of their work time is dedicated solely to checking and reading emails. It is estimated that employees spend 60 percent of the workweek engaging in electronic communication and internet searching. That’s the data from before the pandemic, so it’s easy to imagine that over a year of global anxiety has only increased these numbers.

Therefore, the key to holding the deadlines and minimizing the number of missed schedule items is to properly prepare yourself and your environment to work. Here are a few tips on how to do it.

Prepare your surroundings for work

Albert Einstein allegedly said that a messy desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, but an empty desk implies an empty mind. With that being said, it’s worth noting that the world’s most famous physicist didn’t work on his laptop, with a smartphone in palm’s reach and other distracting devices surrounding him. No wonder the contemporary approach for a workplace encourages you to keep the desk as neat and minimalistic as possible. It’s especially hard with remote work, but submerging into work for hours is much more productive than slacking and procrastinating the whole workday.

Begin your day with a schedule-preparing routine

 It can be a simple to-do list, but some people prefer to prioritize some tasks over others. The popular method is dividing the schedule into four parts, each in a different color. They represent: 

  • important things that cannot wait, 
  • less important things that cannot wait, 
  • important things with an extended deadline,
  • less important things with an extended deadline.  

Of course, this solution has a bit of a twist: you need to diagnose each quest properly. At first, it may seem not easy to pinpoint the tasks correctly, but it gets much more manageable when scheduling becomes a daily routine. It also helps with potential distractors – when they do not connect with highest-priority tasks, it’s easier to dismiss them.

Kill the notifications in your work station and take the phone out of the picture

Looking from the workflow perspective, notifications are probably one of the most treacherous distractors. It’s easy to check email or company’s communicators quickly, but after emerging from deep work, one must come back to this state again. The apparent solution is cutting popups in, e.g., Chrome and using Slacks’ “do not disturb” mode. Most apps and programs are adjustable, as IT and devs understand how focus and attention are important.  

The rule applies to smartphones too. The problem with these devices is they shorten users’ attention span. According to a study from IDC Research, about 80% of smartphone users check them within 15 minutes of waking up each morning – and get instantly distracted by notifications. Interestingly, even keeping the flipped or locked phone in eyesight is distracting. 

To “kill” a phone, one may hide it, for example, in another room, turn off all the notifications, and enable a monochrome screen. The last one may sound weird, but it’s proven that apps use specific colors to gain and keep users’ attention. It would help if you remembered that most apps, especially social media apps, depend on dopamine shots, the “happiness hormone.” Their design is there to hook you up and make you come back, craving for more. A Black and white screen is an effective way to urge the desire to look at the phone every 5 minutes.

Start using productivity apps and programs

Motivation is a tricky thing – how can you stay on your best game for as long as possible? For some, the solution is productivity apps. These tools usually allow you to organize and assign tasks for practically every aspect of your work. There are apps like Litmus that helps with managing your mail marketing. Or Google Keep, which offers digital sticky notes for your ideas. Forest is also interesting – this phone-only app allows you to plant a tree with your focus. As long as you don’t look at the screen, it grows, but a moment of weakness can wreck the whole process. 

It’s also worth mentioning the apps like Calm or, focusing more on the cognitive aspect of work, with mindfulness sessions or music that works as a brain stimulant. It’s important, as studies show, that digital overstimulation can lead to lower empathy, higher anxiety levels, and worse focus ability. BigPicture can also be regarded as a productivity tool in a manner it helps manage the work of teams you supervise. Properly configured, it can save you a lot of time with most mundane management tasks, making room for soft aspects of the job.

Think about background music

This is probably the most subjective aspect of deep work. Some find music distracting or too absorbing, while others find it helpful, especially with more mundane, repeatable tasks. Even a hypothesis called the “Mozart effect” assumes listening to classical music at the workplace improves performance and IQ level, but this effect is relatively short-lived. So is music beneficial at work?  A meta-analysis, made in 2011, had interesting conclusions: namely, music “disturbs the reading process, has some small detrimental effects on memory, but has a positive impact on emotional reactions and improves sports achievements. Effectively, one must check and choose if music helps them focus better or is it otherwise.” 

Interestingly, all music recommendations are about non-vocal music – sometimes these are classical tunes, nature sounds, or ambient music (we strongly recommend Brian Eno tunes). There were studies about the influence of vocal and instrumental music on verbal learning, but conclusions were pretty harsh: they did not influence this process in any meaningful way. This may be a sign that music is a purely subjective matter, especially in the work context.