After stumbling across an interesting article entitled “Why Deep Work Matters in a Distracted World” I found myself cataloguing just how much time is lost to shallow work (read more here).
By shallow work, I mean doing work (in my case writing), while:
- People are present
- I’m listening to music
- I have multiple projects open at once
- I’m in a noisy environment, like a coffee shop
The masters of deep work
What’s disappointing about the practical efficiency of work under these conditions is that they go against the image of a modern writer. I personally imagine a multi-tasking Shiva, taking turns between cigarette drags and sips of harsh, black coffee, with the occasional distraction by a pretty girl walking past said writer as he tries to put the finishing touches on his magnum opus.
But the article in question reminded me that the most productive writer is perhaps in a cave, on a deserted island, chained to a wall until the last drop of ink covers the last inch of papyrus.
I remember a mathematics professor of mine laughing about the countless students who would come to him, asking for tips on learning the material:
First, he would always ask them if they read the assigned chapters. About half would say no. “Well, then go read the damn material,” he would say, half confused how you could even ask about learning the material without having read it. Then, if they did do the work and read the material, he would ask in what environment did they read the material. “For a half hour, listening to music while everyone else in the room watches a movie,” they would say. He would laugh and say that anyone who thinks they can be productive in such a situation is either silly or is quite a rare-breed.
Music off, no distractions whatsoever, and you read the material until you get it, no matter how long it takes.
Classic. Rugged. Disciplined.
Which made sense, considering his age. He was from a time where grades weren’t inflated and if you wanted to succeed, you had to work.
You need to work to get stuff done – You need to establish deep work
Well, the latter situation isn’t too different from the modern day, except that we pretend you’ll somehow win without putting in the work. It’s in the quotations we post on Facebook and very often in our “cheer up, everything will be okay” talks that we give to depressed friends (but for some reason forget about when it’s ourselves that are depressed).
You need to work to get stuff done. And to work better, and faster, you need to work deep.
Here’s a few ways to do that (and obviously downloading a productivity app like FocusMe will do all of this for you, without the need for willpower).
Turn Off the Music
Yes, even if it’s music without lyrics. Occasionally, I can get into the zone with some lyric-less post-rock or classical music. Other times, I may find it possible to focus while listening to some rap or heavy metal. But the majority of my time, I’m kidding myself – I’ll either zone out and get lost in the superhero fantasies that heavy metal seems to inspire, or the baller lifestyle fantasies that rap inspires, or, I’ll spend so much time picking the right type of music for my mood that it turns into an activity in and of itself (like when you spend so much time looking for something to watch on Netflix that you inadvertently could have watched one or two episodes in the meantime).
The best music to focus with and be productive is silence.
Download Automatic Alone Time
I am by nature an extreme extrovert and introvert. Living alone, then, is my best setup. Solitary confinement is my norm. If I want to socialize, I invite people over or go forth into the city. Natural switch.
On the other hand, if I live with others, as I have in the past, I am perpetually on the cusp of socializing. This incessant bridge to other people being my constant environment, I have to escape my own castle to isolate myself. Not exactly ideal for my temperament, or for productivity.
By living alone, I can easily isolate myself into deep work without the most irritable distraction known to man – other people.
As a further note, this is a recommendation to not go to public places to get work done, even a library. Though, I may be more susceptible to distractions than you are and need extreme defenses to prevent said distraction.
And yes, for the married readers out there, I know this might not be an option. That’s why you build a study in your house (or a man-cave, if, for some reason, your entire house isn’t a bastion of your masculinity).
Uninstall FOMO and Be More Productive
I am very easily peer-pressured. It doesn’t take much to convince me to go out to a party when I already thought I’d have a night of writing ahead of me. I am addicted to adventure and spontaneity (which is why I love FocusMe).
And yet, when I do focus on my work, I remember the deep satisfaction of deep work and completing a goal.
If on the small scale, whether that’s finishing an article or staying consistent with my workout schedule, it feels this good. Imagine what it will feel like to actually finish one of my books?
Perhaps we need to stop fearing missing out on the small things. Instead fear missing out on the big ones.
FOMO is a terrible application that social media has forced you to download. Uninstall that (and then go install FocusMe).
Overestimate the Time Required
To the people who can get small things done in between big projects, I applaud you. I simply cannot. Personally, I am good at doing one thing at a time and doing it well, so long as I’m given time before the task to prepare for it mentally, and time after to cool down from it and redirect my interest.
I need time. Lots of it. I am a slow writer, a slow thinker, and, well, very slow in general. Consequently, I, usually, produce good work (not even going to add a humble “or so I think.”).
The next time you think you need thirty minutes to research that one topic for a presentation, or need an hour to finish that project, double the allotted time. Worst case scenario is you finish early; then you can go do the next thing on your schedule (or give yourself some much-needed quiet time). If, however, you underestimate the time required, you might find yourself almost done but panicking as your coffee meeting with a friend quickly approaches (if I have a date with a girl on a day or I am meeting a friend, I’m pretty much useless an hour or two before the scheduled time).
The Reward of Focus
Do all of this and what’s your reward?
Tunnel Vision. Singular focus.
It’s difficult getting into this deep work mode. If you remove the obstacles to it (i.e., distractions), it will come quicker and quicker (it took about 45 minutes of writing this article before it kicked in for me, and now I’m going full-speed).
Like I said, FocusMe can’t block a friend from knocking on your door, but it can keep you from listening to distracting music and set a period of time where everything but your necessary application and websites is blocked. It can also block you from logging on to Facebook and being entranced by the illusion that everyone else is living this amazing life and you’re missing out on it (which is, for the most part, untrue; they’re usually having a pretty shitty time. If they were really having a great time, they’d be too busy to post about it on social media).
Download FocusMe, get deep into deep work, and make your dreams a reality. I predict that will make you far happier than almost anything else you could come up with.