I recently had the pleasure of reading Thomas Friedman’s latest book, Thank You for Being Late. It’s a fascinating read about the ever-increasing speed at which the world is changing. Friedman takes readers through a journey of the major forces (technology, globalization, and climate change) that are leading us into a turbulent “Age of Acceleration.”
Consider the evolution of technology. Think of how quickly we’ve come from the printing press (1440), to the telegram (1838), to PCs (1970), to the Internet (1983), to smart phones (1993), to big data (today), and artificial intelligence (the future). It’s been a wild ride for humanity over the past 600 years!
With the way the world is changing so quickly in the Age of Acceleration, it’s important that we protect the most valuable asset we have: our attention and focus. Everyday I’m in a constant battle against my email, the Internet, text messages, social media, etc. to protect my time. In order to make sure that I’m doing the “deep work” necessary to focus on the activities that matter, I created a framework to help me. Here are the three areas that I am working on at the moment:
1. Create Space for Flow
The concept of “flow” was introduced by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi to describe the state of deep focus we experience when we’re completely immersed in a task. It’s a state in which time seems to drop away and we are wholly focused on the work at hand. Athletes, musicians, and artists typically get themselves into a state of flow when they are performing at their peak. But flow is not limited to those we perceive of as having special talents. Individuals working in a team or department can also experience flow when they find themselves immersed in a specific project or task.
This state of flow is incredibly valuable, as it’s where deep work gets done. But it’s also not as easy as turning on a switch or saying “I’m going into flow.” It takes practice and dedicated time to create that space of attention and focus. Here are a few of my recommendations on how to get into this state quicker and longer.
Time block. Getting into flow takes time, so ensuring you have enough time to get into it is critical. Book yourself a minimum 3-hour time block and put it on your calendar so others see that you’re busy. It typically takes me 30 minutes before I even feel like I’m getting into that deeper mental state.
Quiet space. I know this sounds obvious but so many of us live in a constantly stimulating environment. According to research done at University of California, Irvine it takes a typical office worker 25 minutes to return to a task after an interruption. 25 minutes is a massive penalty for a distraction. Turn off your notifications (or just turn your phone all the way off), close your email, shut your office door—take steps to minimize distractions and interruptions. If you feel like you’ll have a hard time, explore services like RescueTime or StayFocusd that will prevent you from accessing distracting sites while you’re trying to get into flow.
2. Plan Priorities and Actions
When we think of getting things done, far too often the focus is on the “doing” part. It is, after all, where the action happens. However, we often forget about the value of thoughtful planning and preparation. Think about professional sports: as fans we get to see a two to three hour game that has all the action. From our perspective as fans, it’s easy to believe that the athletes are only working when we see them on TV. We don’t see the hours and hours of preparation and practice that it takes leading up to the game. If you take an NFL team that practices two hours on the field and two hours in the film room everyday before game day, they’re spending more than 90% of their time preparing and practicing. Less than a tenth of their time is spent on the field.
Plan out your week. Ben Franklin said it best: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Planning is an essential part of success. Spending an hour on Sunday to plan out the week ahead will help you clarify your priorities and organize the limited time that you have. I use the Productivity Planner from Intelligent Change to help me plan out the most important tasks of the week.
Complete your priorities first. As Mark Twain once said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.” We won’t always feel excited to tackle our priority list. In fact, the most important activity for the day will likely be the one you dread the most. Becoming comfortable with tackling the biggest priority will not only help you do more game-changing work, but you’ll feel proud of yourself at the end of the day too.
3. Reflect and Review
I recently went on a trip to Japan with my girlfriend and went completely offline from work. I also reduced my consumption of podcasts and audiobooks, which I usually love to listen to on a daily basis. What happened was amazing. I was able to “hear” silence again and it felt really good. There is a ubiquity of information that makes it really easy to absorb new knowledge every moment of the day. But it also comes with a price of not having enough silence in our lives to process the information that we get. Without silence, our brains have no time to rest and reset, or to connect two seemingly disparate pieces of information together. That’s where the true “ah-ha!” moments happen.
Cultivate more silence in your life. If you find yourself inundated with sounds and stimulation, try to carve out time for silence. Go for a walk out in nature, take a few minutes to sit quietly, eat a meal without a screen in front of you. I like Tim Ferriss’s tactic for cultivating silence: screen free Saturdays.
Meditate on a problem. Before you recoil at another article recommending meditation, I just want to say that meditation can mean a variety of things. You can either meditate on a problem over a walk or a workout, or while sitting on a park bench. The key is quiet time for you to hold your attention and focus and work through a problem. Practicing concentration and giving the problem space can help dredge up some solutions that you hadn’t imagined before.
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, said in a recent interview:
“Shallow work is what prevents you from being fired. Deep work is what gets you promoted.”
I think this is truer than ever in the knowledge economy. Those that are able to get in and stay in deep work, cultivating attention and focus, will be able to provide more value and make a greater impact. Even with more automation and productivity tools, it still comes down to building this skill.
What are some of your strategies to preserve your attention and focus, and get into deep work?