Many of us believe that in order to succeed we must put in more hours. While this is true at the very low end of the scale, the marginal returns of each extra hour you put in diminishes rapidly (three years of Economics finally paid off guys!). The first part of this article will focus on your deep work ritual. In layman terms this is the section where I discuss your approach before you have even picked up a pen or powered up your macbook.
Where you’ll work and for how long
Create a space for focus and work. This means that when you enter this area, your brain is already assimilating the process of embarking upon an intense session of concentration. Ensure that this is a place free from distractions, quiet or even better silent and with little movement or hysteria. Moreover, it helps if the environment is pleasant, has good air flow and is comfortable (not too much though).
Next, give yourself a specific time frame. I never used to do this and instead I would say that I would study as long as possible until I couldn’t take in any more information. Abysmal strategy. Set a time limit so you can see each day as a challenge but instead of aiming for a ridiculous target, start off with something very easy and work up, not down. The reason I suggest up, is because when I first started this new schedule, I recognised that my focus was disgraceful. I would be 10 minutes in and then my attention would creep off into a corner of my mind where pertinent questions such as ‘Bro, tell me which Quakers Oats’ porridge is better, the apple and sultana or the blueberry and cranberry, we just need to know!”. Then, 40 minutes later, my attention returns back to the work that I was supposed to be doing and the cycle repeats itself (apple and sultana is better, trust me). Now I schedule four, 50-minute blocks for study each day, with a 10 minute break in-between and one of those breaks is lunch which is a whole 50 minutes.
How you’ll work once you start to work
If we are to use my example, then in those 50 minutes social media use and any sort of distraction other than the work at hand is strictly banned. My phone is usually off in my bag away from reach in that time. If you are now panicking, wondering how that is possible, here are a few assurances: most things on your phone are not so critical that they need to be attended to straight away. You can always address these in the 10 minutes break. To keep concentration honed, it is preferable to have a goal for that 50 minute period. This could be, for example, dissecting a section of an academic paper or solving a short proof. If you are not able to, don’t panic just know what the target is. In that 50 minutes, it should be you and your work.
How you’ll support your work
Once your brain begins to work deeply, it needs support in order to fuel its intense energy expenditure. This means integrating an appropriate food and exercise regime into your routine. Formula One cars run on a better quality petrol than standard cars used for going to the shops – remember that. Support can also include environmental factors too. Organise materials the night before when you are less fresh to minimise energy-dissipating friction the next day.
So now that you are ready for a session of deep work, how do you execute to the best of your abilities?
Focus on the wildly important
Most things you set out to do usually take about 50% longer than intended. Have you ever said “writing this essay will take 2 days” and 5 days later you just about finish typing the title (Dissertation anyone?). For every task you set out to do, you must prioritise the critical component. The 80-20 rule helps to visualise this. What is the key 20% that will lead to 80% of the results. Then focus exclusively on that 20%.
“The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish”
The 4 Disciplines of Execution
Act on lead measures
There are two types of measures: lag measures and lead measures. Lag measures describe the thing you are trying to improve. The problem is that they come too late. For example, by the time you receive feedback from that first essay or test, you have already completed two more. A lead measure would be the amount of time you spend in deep work because this is something you directly control. Once you are given a bad mark, you are stuck with it and there are multiple reasons why it may have not gone your way. Lead measures put you in control, rather than external entities. You can track deep work hours daily. Test scores or essay marks will be much less frequent so you have limited data points (Economics students scream in agony at the peril).
You want to be recording your progress for multiple reasons. Firstly, it’s great to witness improvement and this should invigorate you. Secondly, you can analyse weak points as well as areas of strength to better tailor your deep work routine. Finally, you can set out appropriate rewards for achieving goals. The final point may seem trivial and I undermined this in the past but rewards are critical to a positive feedback loop enabling us to establish good habits.
The last points I would like to share with you covers something that may be surprising in an article about focus and work. I certainly neglected it in the past. It’s downtime.
Your conscious mind is what is activated while you read this article. It’s like an Iphone. You can run carefully written programs that return correct answers to limited problems. For example, you might use a dictionary app to define a complex word that you found in a book. Your unconscious mind, is more like Google’s colossal data centres, in which complex algorithms sort through terabytes of unstructured information, retrieving useful solutions to difficult questions.
To solve the most difficult problems, your unconscious mind has a phenomenally higher chance of success than your conscious mind. Practice shutting down so that you can allow your unconscious mind to work over problems. Sleep is prime time for your unconscious mind (see sleep article for more information on this). Downtime is also a chance to recharge and work on other less intensive projects but ideally keep it as relaxed as possible.
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