There is a ton of misconceptions floating around the internet about what it really means to have a productive workday. It is often misconstrued as a state of constantly being engaged at work – like a busy bee in a beehive.
Yet, if we were to dive deep into value generation, we come to realize that being busy and being productive are two entirely different ideas.
Put simply: being busy is about brute-forcing your way to task completion while productivity is less hack and slash, and more strategy.
Busy people are intent on getting more things done in a single shift, while productive people simply cut down their to-do list by about fifty percent. Being busy is a state of frenzy while being productive is a state of hyper-focus.
It goes without saying that rare and valuable work requires focused energy instead of just frantically going about the to-do list for the day. Cal Newport, in his book, Deep Work, succinctly describes the two types of work as Shallow Work and Deep Work.
Shallow work is defined as any task that can be completed while one is distracted, almost due to muscle memory. This work requires little cognitive effort and is usually easy to replicate. Examples of shallow work are answering phone calls, looking at blogs, posting on social media, sitting silently in meetings, and running errands. The less attention your work requires, the shallower it is.
Shallow work is easily disrupted by distraction and overstimulation. Little things like emails, pings, and notifications create a series of tiny, meaningless tasks that prevent us from staying focused for long time intervals on work. The value and quality of our work suffer because of fleeting attention spans. Left on its own, shallow work can lead to a vicious cycle of low-value tasks that cause demotivation.
Shallow work is inevitable. There will always be emails that you need to respond to, but the trick is to regulate how much resources are dedicated to it.
Deep work is cognitively more straining and difficult to perform, but it is categorized as valuable and important intellectual work that is usually completed in long uninterrupted periods of time.
It is performed in a state of distraction-free concentration. It is work that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit and creates new value that is not easy to replicate. The greatest breakthroughs in work are often a result of deep concentration on a singular task. Deep Work is about leveraging your conative capabilities. It allows you to reprioritize high-value tasks based on a very controlled schedule.
Bill Gates would often conduct what he calls “Think Weeks” twice a year. During this time, he would isolate himself in a cottage and do nothing but read and think. It was during one of these weeks where he came up with the idea of an “internet tidal wave” which led to the development of the Internet Explorer.
This might sound a little complicated but it’s no rocket science. Here’s a brief four-step guide to help you recreate Bill Gates’ state of “Deep Work”:
Step 1: Schedule your day strategically
Take complete control over your schedule because doing so will allow you to retain attention for longer periods of time. At the start of each day, block off several hours for deep work. Keep count of how many hours you can dedicate to deep work and display it somewhere to stay motivated.
The most important step we haven’t discussed is to train yourself to remove shallow work gradually from your day. This makes it easier to enter a state of deep concentration at will, like the flick of a switch. But the key ingredient is to be disciplined, not give in to distractions, and stick to your routine.
Step 2: Design a distraction-free workspace
You will gravitate towards a state of distraction subconsciously. This is why you must isolate yourself from anything that could create a disturbance in the air. It could be your phone, laptop, coworkers, or kids. You name it. Identify your sources of distraction and isolate yourself from them. No cheating!
One of the main things I did a couple of years ago was turn off the ringer on my phone and disable all my notifications. I do not hear my notifications go off on my phone or on my laptop. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. My stress level almost disappeared overnight.
The only way to achieve this is to create a distraction-free zone that fosters deep work.
Step 3: Recharge
It is important to give your body and brain the necessary time to recuperate and recharge. You won’t be able to maintain deep focus if your energy levels are not high enough. You can schedule ‘relaxation time’ ahead of work, or you could do it at the end of your day to unwind and decompress.
Pro tip: During rest, do not engage with work.
Also, it is very important to get at least 8 hours of sleep so you can recover your energy and start the next day afresh. This will facilitate deeper and clearer thinking.
Step 4: Hold yourself accountable
The entire goal of deep work is to maximize productivity, especially as it relates to valuable goals. If you’re not able to complete your work on time, then there is no point in changing your current working arrangement.
This is where accountability comes in. Start by creating small KPIs and metrics to track your productivity. Measure your state of progress. Another option is to find a business coach who can help draw out your high-value goals and hold you accountable to them.
Focus is a valuable resource and it is constantly under attack by our immediate surroundings. If we can learn to harness deep focus, it will lead to more productive work. The work you do will be elevating, energizing, and rewarding. You will walk away feeling like you have accomplished something of value.