Deep Working: How To Focus Your Brain to Get Results
Have you ever been so “in the zone” with a piece of work that you get an extraordinary amount done in a given time frame? Many of us have experienced these hours of crazy productivity when your focus is honed with not a distraction to be had. That being said, I am sure more often than not, getting into this space of complete concentration when working is a rarity rather than a daily practice. We live in a world of distraction after distraction – from email to social media to meetings which could definitely be half the amount of time they are scheduled for – so achieving this state of ultimate deep learning is pretty tough. However, if you have a project you are passionate about getting off the ground, have a business you want to make succeed or a goal you want to achieve, you must produce and produce well. As I have been writing up my PhD thesis and toying around with different methods to be productive, I have realised a few practices constantly allow me to get my best work done. And all of them rely on giving my brain the ability to focus solely on the task in hand.
“Deep Work” is a term coined by Cal Newport in his book “Deep Work: The Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”. This state is described as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit”. In terms of neuroscience, this state requires selective attention; a process which directs focus at a single task whilst suppressing distractions. Our brains run off a high but limited amount of energy – representing about 20% of the bodies metabolic energy. When we employ selective attention – proposed to be mediated by frontal and parietal brain circuits – it is thought to shift energy to the brain cells involved in focusing on the task in hand, leaving other brain areas with reduced capacity. Therefore, really focusing on a task is a pretty tiring and costly experience for the brain as a whole.
All skills require practice to be mastered. And there is no better conditions for such mastery than uninterrupted, distraction free practice. The way your brain solidifies skills is through repeated activation of the brain circuitry involved in such skill. This repeated activation makes the neurons (brain cells) involved in that circuit form stronger connections between one another, meaning lots of practice over time makes said circuits stronger and hence such skills easier to perform. How these circuits are strengthened has been proposed to lie in the connections between the neurons involved as well as more recent work suggesting increased insulation of neuron processes; with this action permitting quicker signalling between cells with the same amount of initial effort. Therefore, activating such circuits for prolonged periods of uninterrupted time should promote enhancement of the skills you are trying to master.
If you are working on a project or want to achieve more with your working hours, here are several ways you can try to get deep work into your life on a daily basis.
Block hours for given tasks: Use a calendar to block out time for a given task – preferably in the range of hours. This allows you to solely focus on a specific piece of work without having to break up your attention with other things. Pick your best hours for the most important or hardest tasks (for me this is first thing in the morning) and dedicate less productive hours for ‘shallow’ tasks like email and admin. If possible, group shallow tasks together – for me, I now only look at email 3 times a day: at 11am, 2pm and 4pm.
Plan your work in advance: Set aside an hour on the weekend to plan your week (you can see how I do this here!) and make sure you are directing your weekly focus around the MOST important tasks. A famous principle called Pareto’s principle states about 20% of our work gives 80% of our results – identify those 20% and make them your priority for deep work.
Record progress by tracking daily actions: This is a tough one as many of us measure our productivity based on our achievements. But by the time we can measure our long-term output, it is too late to change the actions which led to our end result as this measure is consequence of past behaviour. Instead track daily behaviours which will lead you to success – for me, I now count the number of hours I spend in deep, focused work each day.
Remove distractions: The majority of our brains cannot multitask. Instead, when we are trying to do two things at once, our brains flick from one task to the other. And with each flick, it takes some time for you to fully concentrate back on your current task. So to get the most out of your working hours, try to not leave emails open or have a notifying device in sight! I personally switch off all my phones notifications and put it in a draw when I need to get work done (just to be extra sure I don’t want to grab it!)
Allow yourself to be bored: Concentration is a skill and like any other skill, it takes time and consistent effort to build up. A good way to get into the zone of concentrating for long periods of time is to break the ‘distraction habits’ many of us have. As we can get information and be entertained so easily, we rarely allow ourselves to just be bored. So when we are working and our minds wander, our brains fulfil their entertainment craving by having a quick scroll through social media or checking the news. Start to break this ‘automatic’ reaction to boredom by letting yourself be bored. There are so many opportunities to practice this throughout the day – like when you are waiting in line at the grocery store – try not going for your phone and just stand. This may not seem like much but over time, this repeated action should help lessen the distraction itch you get when working.
Take real breaks: Deep work is an energetically expensive task – it requires a lot of concentration and focus, using a huge sap of the brain’s limited energy source. Therefore, taking proper breaks after these stints of productivity is essential for being able to perform ‘deep work’ every day. I make sure I take my evenings (from 6pm) and at leat one day at the weekend completely off from work.
Give some of these things a try and let me know if you experience any changes to your productivity!
Julia xoxo (@Julia.ravey.science)
This blog post was based on the book “Deep Work: The Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” by Cal Newport. For more brain science and productivity tips, subscribe to my YouTube!