How to Stay Focused at Work by Using Deep Work
In this increasingly distracted digital age, many of us have lost the ability to tune out distractions for long periods. Some of us do not even know how to focus at work.
We’ve got so distracted that if someone can sit down for an extended period and focus deeply on a single task without getting distracted, they are seen as possessing one of the superpowers of this generation. It sounds a bit extreme but it might be more accurate than you think.
But there are some unique methods that, if applied properly in the right circumstance, could improve your ability to tune out distractions and develop laser-like focus.
Why Are Distractions Robbing You of Time and Energy?
Due to the over-dependence of digital devices that are deliberately engineered to capture our attention, priorities and deep focus have fallen prey to an onslaught of attention traps.
Just think about how many times you check your devices (social media, text messages, email, YouTube, etc.) during any given day, even at work. Probably a little too much right? But do not feel ashamed.
Multiple studies have shown that most of us spend too much time on our phones. However, our screen time habits are not the only distraction that is harming our ability to concentrate extensively at work.
Navigating between the myriad of activities and responsibilities crammed in our usual daily work routine also makes deep concentration very challenging, especially if you’re a key decision-maker.
Having to deal with pesky co-workers who are constantly tugging at you, vying for your attention, can be very distracting and even maddening. Unfortunately, these disruptions have become the norm. We now live in a world that inundates us with stimulation and requests for our attention, leaving us with little to no uninterrupted time to focus.
An empirical study from UC Irvine found that the typical worker switches tasks every three minutes on average. It can take about 23 minutes to bounce back from a distraction at work.
The study revealed that workplace interruptions can result in a lot of lost time and energy throughout a workday. It also revealed that the resulting anxiety from the perceived time lost from interruptions at work increases stress.
Succumbing to these distractions can lead you down the road of mediocrity and failure, which you never want in your job.
Strategies on How to Stay Focused at Work
Word of caution – there is no “quick or easy” fix to how to stay focused at work. A well-publicized hack or finding that perfect to-do app or just meditating might not be the most effective answer for everyone.
The key is to be very strategic in your approach and to be prepared to experience some discomfort.
If you can’t, chances are your work hours will slip away towards activities that Cal Newport, a renowned author and computer science professor at Georgetown University, refers to as ‘shallow work’:
“Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
This is the type of work that fills most of our days.
A more efficient and ultimately productive way to spend our work hours is by practicing what Newport calls ‘deep work’:
“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
The concept was coined by Newport in his 2016 bestselling book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. The author of six self-improvement books suggests that by taking back control of our time and attention from the many diversions that try to steal them, we will be able to master the art of deep work.
Let’s take a look at some of Newport’s unusual strategies and recommendations that can significantly improve your ability to tune out distractions at work or in your everyday life.
1. Know Your Triggers
To achieve ‘deep work’ or consistently stay focused for long periods, the first step is to look deep into yourself to find out why you’re resisting focus in the first place.
We are all different in some way or another. Some of us can have a desk filled with work material and still be able to concentrate but get thrown off by a co-worker just entering our space.
The likelihood of being distracted is directly related to the amount of pull something is having on our attention. So, increased self-observation and deep introspection will help you to identify boundary cues.
There are three typical cues that you need to either set boundaries for or you are letting your boundaries slip:
You can’t always avoid every single distraction. But if you’re aware of your weaknesses, the better the chances of putting the right systems in place to greatly reduce exposure to distractions.
A boundary is a limit defining you in a relationship with someone or something. Boundaries can be physical, digital, emotional and even spiritual.
Learning how to set boundaries is essential in limiting disruptions and distractions in your life. Healthy boundaries give you the room to do what you want to focus on. It serves as the framework to focus your efforts and harness your energy enabling you to do your best work.
The first step in setting boundaries is knowing your triggers and limits – are they mental, emotional, physical or spiritual?
Keep in mind that your limits are your own, so it’s likely to be different than the limits of others.
Imagine the ridicule you’ll receive for placing a “Do not interrupt” sign on your office door or your desk in this ultra-sensitive era. It will likely not be received favorably by your colleagues.
Most of us are just too much of a crowd-pleaser to become conveniently reclusive and risk getting rebuked for it.
Often, our inability to set boundaries results from our fear of offending those around us. But frankly, you have little to no obligation beyond your own guilt to be immediately available to everyone all the time.
2. Prioritize Your Emails
Depending on which company you work for and your specific role, there’s a strong possibility you’ll receive a steady stream of company emails daily.
Emails are one of the most inescapable aspects of work life. We’re currently sending approximately 200 billion emails per day.
Newport argues that emails take up mind space and attention that could be devoted to deep work. He believes that email is the:
“Quintessential shallow activity is particularly insidious in its grip on most knowledge workers’ attention.”
Those little virtual envelopes sparks such feelings of curiosity and excitement, it’s quite difficult to loosen its powerful grip on our attention.
Newport recommends several strategies:
Guard Your Email Address
- Don’t list your email address publicly or have it on your website if you’re a business owner.
- Have different emails or separate contact forms for different queries.
- Have a process-centric approach. Reduce some of the back-and-forths of emails by sending more thorough and complete correspondence. This will close the loop on a conversation more quickly.
- Prioritize the emails you receive. Understand that not every email you receive requires a response.
The Inbox Zero Method
Another email strategy you could apply is the polarizing Inbox Zero method.
Originally coined by Merlin Mann, owner of 43 Folders, Inbox Zero will help you to dedicate specific chunks of time to reading and answering emails so that they don’t take over your day.
Here are some tenants of Mann’s original view of Inbox Zero:
- Keep your email application closed for the majority of the day.
- When processing emails follow the principle of Delete, Delegate, Respond, Defer or Do.
- Respond immediately to messages which can be answered in two minutes or less.
3. Eliminate Digital Distractions
We mentioned earlier how much of a distracting force digital devices have become.
If you’re like most workers, you don’t spend all of your hours at work doing actual work. Be honest. And even if you do, you’re the envy of many reading this article.
Cyberloafing is so rampant in workplaces that it costs US businesses up to US$85 billion a year, according to a University of Nevada study.
To overcome this, Newport suggests staying away from distracting websites and apps for a predetermined amount of time.
“Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.”
Here are several strategies to help with your digital de-clutter:
- Use site-blocking apps to access the internet at set intervals.
- Develop the willpower to not check your phone every 10 minutes. Get used to select the ‘do not disturb’ mode on your smartphone or keep it face down.
Minimize Your Notifications – Ignore the Noise
Unapologetically screen your phone calls – set boundaries to accept only very important calls during work hours.
4. Methodically Schedule Each Day
Meticulously planning each day is the best way to approach deep work and one of the best strategies on how to stay focused at work. It imposes time limits, creating a healthy ‘pressure of time’.
One of the main reasons why most people lose focus during a workday is because of a lack of a structured plan or schedule.
Newport acknowledges that not every day will go exactly as planned. But recommends that you “schedule every minute of your day” regardless.
The time-blocking (also known as time boxing) approach will hold you accountable by allocating specific periods for specific types of work. Dividing your workday into blocks and assigning activities to each one allows you to prioritize what’s most important.
There are different time-boxing methods such as the previously mentioned Inbox Zero and Day-theming.
Day-theming is dedicating each day of the week to a specific theme instead of switching between different types of work or areas of responsibility throughout the day. This strategy is not about scheduling a perfect day. It’s really about giving structure to your workday by forcing you to be more intentional with your time.
When you schedule each workday you’ll be more control of time because you’ll know exactly what you want to accomplish and when.
The Bottom Line
As Newport highlighted in the book:
“Our ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable.”
Our brains are barely equipped to handle the massive amount of attention triggers that are perpetually trying to disrupt our concentration daily. No wonder learning to become masters of our focus instead of slaves to our ever-increasing distractions is so hard.
Fortunately, there are strategies on how to stay focused presented in Deep Work that if properly and consistently practiced can significantly increase your productivity at work.