Deep Work Habits
I found after reading the book Deep Work by Cal Newport that my successful completion of projects stemmed from my Deep Work habits. I had never labeled my ability to complete projects because of deep work habits before reading Newport’s book. As I’ve been on a journey to pursue an avenue of thought leadership, it’s not a normal path many take. My path is to create content that is new, innovative and even creative. Since my journey has always been to create content with multiple albums (over 2 dozen! Listen Here), musicals and books, putting a label on my journey has really helped me plan my next ten years.
Deep work, in contrast to shallow work, is a concentrated effort. I have always broken up projects into little chunks and call it chunking. This principle works extremely well for many creatives and I’ve even set my timer to keep track of time and progress. In this article I’ll be focusing on five takeaway principles that will help you with your deep work. One: Set aside time for concentrated work. Two: Put together a routine Three: Regulate social media and email. Four: Define and delegate rote work. Five: Work with the end in mind.
Principle One: Set Aside Time for Concentrated Work
Find out what time of day works best for you to focus on a challenging project. Do it in chunks. Setting your timer and finishing particular sections of a project is extremely effective. It will help you stay on task, away from chasing “squirrels of distraction.” Also, changing your location from time to time helps. Doing so really helps me and this is why I’m a strong proponent of working remotely. When I’m in a place with different surroundings, it’s freeing. Especially if there are pine trees or an ocean present.
However, working remotely is more difficult if we are visiting friends and colleagues. Others rarely understand my commitment to concentrated or deep work. To them, it may feel like I’m a workaholic, which in a way I am when I’m working on a particular project! I have to guard my alone time and concentrated time fiercely. Early morning is a good time for me to get in some deep work with 30 to 45 minutes accomplished before I work out or take my walk. I usually schedule more rote work during that time, as the brain isn’t totally engaged. But if I’m organized, I can get right to a deep work project. It frees me up for later in the day.
Principle Two: Put Together a Routine
Even if it seems like you’re getting in a rut, a healthy rut is a management tool. Just as a routine helps with eating and dieting, it works well for our businesses and life. There are a lot of studies on the value of nutritional timing (Get your free downloads: Goal Setting Worksheets) and that principle works well for your work schedule as well. Your routine may change weekly with varied meetings and appointments, but you can still schedule in blocks of time that are specifically planned for certain projects. Understanding your body and when you do your best rote and creative work is extremely helpful. Also, watch your diet. Even though I absolutely love my dark chocolate, I realize if I have chocolate mid-day I will experience a sugar-drop. This makes me sleepy, wanting to take a nap! There is nothing wrong with a cat-nap, but if it goes longer than expected, I’ve lost valuable time. I do have my chocolate, believe me! But I think about when I’m going to eat it if I’m working on an important project with deadlines. (see: Define Your Dream Job & Schedule)
Principle Three: Regulate Social Media & Email
With instant messages that pop up on phones and devices, this is very difficult for many. However, if you are going to complete projects and pave the way as a thought leader, this needs to be regulated. I don’t agree that we can totally turn social media off. We have to stay connected and most people now really depend on email as well as social media. However, we can minimize the distractions. If you are working remotely, this may even be more difficult as you are now in control of your settings, and not an office that will do so for you. There are many apps that will help you with your settings and I even know some that have a separate phone intended for calls only and no social media. Our phones are called smart phones for a reason. They are small computers.
I have made a point to stay off social media during long blocks of time when I’m working. It’s too distracting and can easily lead me down a rabbit-hole, even intensifying emotions about a certain subject. It’s a time-sucker and gets me nowhere. Even when our country was in times of deep crisis, I made a point of not listening to updates until the end of the day. Otherwise, it became addicting to keep watching for the next event. I soon discovered the news was all about sensationalism and would keep repeating the stories, intensifying them each time to keep me hooked, just like my dark chocolate!
Principle Four: Define & Delegate Rote Work
This is not entirely possible all at once as it’s a process. There is a certain amount of rote work we all have to do. I need to keep track of my finances reconciling bills, follow up on certain emails with clients, and manage my team. It’s O.K. to have a certain amount of rote work as it gives the mind a rest, working automatically. But it does need to be accounted for. When doing a rote project, it seems like my mind is freed up in some areas. I may have been struggling through a particular creative project and suddenly the answer comes to me while working on more of a shallow work project on something completely different.
Some creative endeavors can also be labeled as rote work, as painting, cooking, gardening, etc… If you’re not paving the way on a new and innovative technique, this type of rote work becomes a total diversion and frees up your mind. Working outside in my yard is an activity that does this for me. I am an aggressive pruner and enjoy the satisfaction that trimming back a plant or tree brings. The biggest decisions I have to make is what dead branch, sucker branch or too-long limb to cut next.
Principle Five: Work With the End in Mind
This is a huge, important principle. When you know where you’re going, you will most likely get there, even if you change the approach now and then. Many businesses are doing better than ever when they could no longer meet in person for a full year. But their messaging and focus to help their clients never changed. I have heard story after story about huge jumps in revenue. They will have to reinvent again when events once again change, but the quick adjustments they’ve made have served them well.
With every album or project, I had an end release date in mind. What I worked on in the studio changed weekly with the number of fixes or additions to be made to the tracks. But the principle of layering really has applied well to producing an album. If you are not recording all the instruments live, like in an orchestral session, you start with a basic click track (like the tick of a drum beat) and lay down a scratch track. That basic track was usually a keyboard track in my case. The instrumentation would then be built around that track. The last layer would be the main vocals, and the harmonization. Throughout the production, we could also go in and do small fixes, track by track.
Layering and Deep Work
The layering principle applies to so many different areas but I’m not going to write a full book with this one article! The main principle is to define your end goal and work backwards. With recording sessions, we worked intensely three to four hours at a time. This is a good gauge for planning concentrated, or deep work.
Some like to push the limits on the amount of time they can concentrate, which is a great goal. But make sure you are very targeted in what you’d like to accomplish when doing so. Some principles and applications need a time to percolate. (A principle Mark Malbon, CFO of Roland, & I talk about in my book Stuck is a Four Letter Word) In other words, some ideas have to heat up a bit to become fully realized! So heat up those ideas in your creation of Deep Work habits!
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