The Rituals of Deep Work

Deep Work, Focus

A lighthouse overlooking the sea

Finding your focus is deeply important for doing your best work and in the modern world of Slack, email, Zoom/Teams/Hangouts, and constant calendar notifications it can be difficult to find the necessary blocks of time to get in the zone. Over the years I’ve found a few techniques that help me to get into that deep work zone as quickly as possible, and I believe the biggest single gain has been to create rituals that, when conducted, get me right into that area of focus.

What is deep work?

Deep work is anything that requires focus and concentration to complete. It’s writing important documents, preparing for a presentation, building a new feature in your app, or learning a new skill. In contrast, shallow work is work that can be done while distracted, such as answering Slack messages or organising your to-do list for the day.

If you’ve not read Deep Work by Cal Newport and you’ve got the time to do so, I highly recommend it. It sets out the advantages of deep work and how to arrange your day to maximise the space you have to focus. Newport does have the advantage of working within academia and can control his calendar across months, a luxury that’s rarely available in the private sector. More often, I find myself with pockets of an hour or two in which I have no distractions.

Find when you work best

Although you may not have much control over the number of meetings you have, you may be able to influence when they fall. I have found that I’m at my most productive in the morning, so I ensure I schedule my most important work for between 09:00 and 12:30. This might be a meeting if that’s the most important thing on my list, more often I try to make sure I’ve got a couple of hours of block time to sit and focus. This means I’m at my best when I’m tackling the biggest challenges I’m facing, and can move the easier tasks to when I’m more fatigued.

Start a routine

I do two things when I know I need to focus on something difficult:

  1. I make a cup of tea/coffee - taking a short break between tasks is a great way of separating the two types of work, making the context switch easier
  2. I put on headphones - closing out background noise and external distractions is a great way of getting in the zone. I have used headphones to concentrate for so long that as soon as I put them on I feel noticeably more focused on the task at hand

Repetition of these two things over a long period has almost conditioned me to focus whenever I do them. Even on days that I’m struggling to find focus, these two things get me in that zone.

Just start

And lastly, often the best way to find focus is to just start the task and focus will come naturally. Obviously, this doesn’t always work but the more you try, the easier this becomes. I’ve often found that I can schedule some time to work in the morning, make my coffee, put on my headphones, and I still find it hard to focus but just getting stuck in has helped me concentrate.

Best of luck in your deep work endeavours, and I hope you find what works for you.

Tom - 2023-05-05