Wouldn’t it be great if you knew how to stay focused at work rather than think about your uncle’s birthday? Or whatever happened to that kid from Home Alone? Or is that just me?
Sure, your distracting thoughts might be more interesting than mine, but I bet they’re still an intrusion you can do without. Do you know what could help? Using some deep work methods in your daily grind.
But what is it deep work you say?
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.Cal Newport, ‘Deep Work’
Simply put: deep work makes you better. And, as remote work grows in popularity and the talent pool deepens, who doesn’t need a competitive edge?
But, it is not a plug-n-play tool for increasing your focus, generating more value and stopping robots from taking your job. I mean, you can achieve all of these things using deep work, but it will take a little hard work.
For example, my first attempt at deep work was a failure. It was barely a week before I quit. 🤷♂️
On my second go, it was only two weeks before I noticed something life-changing was happening. It was different because I started with smaller changes and then added more – larger – changes.
For that reason, this article is built around the best actionable tips from deep work that are meant to help you figure out how to stay focused at work. If you start from the top, you will find the building blocks that make deep work work for you. Or you can pull out any one of the tips to improve your focus during the workday.
Let’s zero in:
1. Stop multitasking and organize your day with a deep work philosophy
Multitasking is a killer for your focus. Every time you switch tasks you put pressure on your brain’s executive functions to switch attention and realign goals for each task, which makes big withdrawals from the cognitive energy you have banked up. Working on a single task at a time means you will be able to give it more focused attention. The rewards will be greater, mistakes will be fewer and more will get done.
Newport has four different deep work philosophies which can help you find the perfect daily structure according to your work schedule.
|The philosophy||What is it?||Minimum unit of time||Is it for you?|
|Monastic||Eliminate all shallow efforts and focus on one task that brings tremendous value.||Until the task is complete.||Are you able to remove yourself from your environment for an extended period of time?|
|Bimodal||Divide your time between shallow and deep tasks. Find deep and uninterrupted periods of concentration.||One day.||Do you need shallow tasks to be successful?|
|Rhythmic||Deep work is a habit and part of your everyday routine.||60 to 90-minute blocks.||Do you have deep and shallow tasks that require regular attention?|
|Journalistic||Embarking on deep work when time is available without much notice.||As little as 30 minutes can be enough.||People who have strong will power and can switch focus on and off.|
For me, and probably most office workers, the rhythmic philosophy is the best option. I have many shallow tasks like comment moderation, keyword tracking, and “email stuff,” which can’t be ignored. But even more than this, the rhythmic philosophy also allows you to take a break from focus to replenish your strength while still banking a profitable number of deep work hours each day.
2. Stop waiting for inspiration to strike
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.Stephen King
Make it easy for yourself to get down to work by coupling a good workspace with rules and routines. While “morning routine articles” might suggest you’re only a breakfast burrito away from running a Fortune 500 company, they probably aren’t true. However, there is some data supporting the belief that rituals and routines can help you sharpen focus, remove uncertainty, and increase confidence.
- Have a location for focused work. This is especially true for remote workers, but office workers should also find areas for distraction-free work.
- Set achievable time limits for focused work to keep your mind sharp and motivation high. An open-ended battle throughout the day is demotivating and exhausting.
- Set rules to help you stay focused. Will you ban internet use, ignore Slack, flip your phone face down?
- Give your brain some support. Bring coffee, tea, water, and healthy snacks to your location.
- Have everything you need nearby so you don’t need to move from your spot once you settle in.
- Keep a notepad on your desk. First, jot down any useful ideas as you go. Second, jot down less useful ideas that could tempt you away from work.
3. Quantify your tasks as shallow or deep tasks
The best way to stay focused on a task is to work on tasks that bring the biggest rewards and pleasure. Before you’re ready to dive into the deep work end, you need to know which tasks require the most focus. Fortunately, Newport supplies a simple formula to help us to do this:
How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?Cal Newport, ‘Deep Work’
Obviously, the shorter the time period, then the shallower the task and the lower the rewards. This measure helps you determine which tasks are going to be most rewarding in the long run – focus on those.
4. Use a meaningful measure
We live in an era where measuring performance is easier than ever. While you can find millions of measures for productivity, deep work is best used in conjunction with lead and lag measures.
A lag measure is a great way to measure outcomes. For example, your bounce rate is a good way to measure how long people stay on site. But, it doesn’t really help you keep people on site. For an improved bounce rate, you need lead measures in place. The lead measures are directly related to the lag measure and help predict the outcome. For example, measuring and improving your site speed should decrease your bounce rate.
👉 When learning how to stay focused at work, think about what you’d like an outcome to be and set it as your lag measure. Then, come up with two clear lead measures that will help you achieve it.
For me, I used to focus intently on writing a certain number of articles. However, this led me to batch my work as deadlines drew near. As part of my experiment, I followed Newport’s advice and tracked the number of daily deep work hours. The number steadily increased to a minimum of three hours a day. The impact was a significantly reduced backlog and quicker completion of shallow tasks. This also freed me up to take on more interesting projects.
5. Throw out your to-do list
Use your to-do list for blowing your nose, at least it will be useful that way. Schedule time to complete tasks and you will find it much easier to stay on top of them during the day.
I used to write a to-do list each and every day. By the end of the week, that long list was nagging away at me during every task. However, when I switched to organizing my tasks around the hours I had available, I started getting through them with greater frequency.
First, consider using one of these free project management tools to arrange all of your tasks like we do in Redbooth.
Second, use a calendar, or daily planner, to set up blocks of time devoted to either deep or shallow tasks. The blocks should be no longer than 90 minutes for any deep tasks (your brain can’t handle much more than this). I set up my schedule a week in advance and I tweak it as I go.
Around my deep work hours, I slot in smaller shallow tasks that require less focus. Such as, every day after a deep work session, I check the blog comments, Facebook comments, and reply to emails. Not only will you clear your backlog but you will get a break from intense focus.
6. Set goals and objectives for your focused tasks
For each of my focused blocks, I think about what I want to achieve in each block. This helps create a sense of completion for each block, which helps my brain reorient to a different task because there is a sense of completion each time.
I use this aims and objectives template to help me mentally organize each block and set goals for each part of a big task. It’s kind of like setting mini-deadlines for each task, which adds a sense of urgency to the task without the anxiety of hitting a deadline headfirst. This helps me close out a task at the end of the block, which, in turn, reduces attention residue and helps me focus on the next task.
7. Stick to your schedule!
One of the reasons I like using Google Calendar is the ability to move tasks around and alter their timing. And, you will definitely need to do this from time to time. For example, when I was writing this article, I was pulled away to look at a problem with the banners on our sister site, ThemeIsle. When you’re pulled away from a task, the best thing to do is try to put it off for five or ten minutes and exercise your willpower.
This holds true for any distractions that come from within. Curious about the history of the Red Hot Chili Peppers? Try putting it off for at least five minutes. This helps increase your ability to focus, but can also mean distracting thoughts disappear once you push back against them.
A few other ideas to help you stay focused on your task:
- Set a timer for each block of time.
- Make your blocks smaller units of time, in the beginning, to help manage focus.
- Schedule little breaks in your blocks,
- If practical, disconnect from the internet.
- Close unrelated tabs, especially email.
- Turn your phone screen side down.
- Mute notifications in Slack or any other communicative tool.
8. Write better emails and messages (if you write them at all)
Ignoring your inbox is one of the most common tips for learning how to stay focused at work. However, Cal Newport improved upon it with his blog post about process-centric emails.
Following the process-centric method does mean writing longer emails, but it also reduces the length of each thread. You can adapt his ideas to work for any of your communication tools. How can you do it?
- First, ask yourself what the email’s mission is, and how can you end it most efficiently?
- Offer a limited range of options. For example, I can have a meeting on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday at 3 pm.
- Make it clear what you will do and what you expect from your correspondent. For example, I will finish the design on Friday and send you the link so you can add the copy on Monday.
- Second, don’t respond to vague messages. I learned how to be good at this from our content editor. For example, we get a lot of emails proposing a guest post. If someone doesn’t provide any links to their work, some ideas, and the secret word in their message then it doesn’t get a reply.
9. Use noise-canceling headphones
Noise-canceling headphones are the bacon of office accessories; everyone loves them. This is because they filter out the distracting hum of the office. You will find it easier to concentrate at the office when you don’t get startled by doors slamming or the gentle sound of a pen getting sucked into the vacuum.
Taking it a step further, listening to music can improve your productivity and quality of work. However, everyone has their own tastes and not all music is created equal, so here are some tips to help you find the best music for you and your task:
- Most importantly, listen to the music you enjoy.
- With this in mind, lyrics can be distracting, so when learning a new task, or performing deep work aim for instrumental music.
- However, complicated musical structures can also be distracting, so go for something simple like nature sounds or ambient tracks.
- Listening to music can help bring pleasure to repetitive tasks; if you listen to something upbeat your attention won’t burn out or fade away.
- Listening to one song on repeat can be a great way to stay focused. Interestingly, this is backed by Matt Mullenweg who you may be familiar with.
- Don’t listen to anything. Use the noise-canceling headphones to create a dome of silence and start working.
Here are three playlists that I rotate on a daily basis:
10. Have a clear end to your day
Want to know how to stay focused at work? Don’t think about it all the time.
Your end of day ritual doesn’t require a sacrifice to capitalism or a nifty dance, necessarily, but a good end of day ritual helps your brain slide into the idle time that is essential to rebuilding your focus and willpower.
Basically, I start my ritual every day at 5:30 PM, another deep work rule, and it takes around 15 minutes. As a result of this, I am able to avoid email, Slack, and work-related websites after I leave the building.
- Review the incomplete tasks and look at where they can fit in my schedule with a plan for moving forward, or completing them.
- Perform one final email, Slack, Trello, Redbooth check and make sure there is nothing outstanding.
- Make new cards for any tasks that were assigned during the day.
- Review and alter the upcoming days’ schedules to make sure everything is prepared and goals are set.
- Clean and organize my desk (within reason).
- Shut down for the day and acknowledge mentally that my day is done.
11. Develop out-of-work habits that help you stay on task in the office
Initially, I dived into deep work and found myself struggling and losing confidence in my ability to go deep. I even gave up most of my efforts. But not all of them.
I kept some of them such as the out-of-office strategies around emails. And this is what helped me succeed at the second attempt.
This is because the out-of-office strategies helped to build up my focus muscle. If you plan to start deep working, or you just want to know how to stay focused at work, then I recommend starting outside of work first:
- Give your brain a rest from work. Not only will this help you focus at work but you will also enjoy more productive insights. I stopped checking my emails, Slack messages, and Facebook messages from our users (sorry, guys).
- Allow yourself to get bored and let your mind wander. Your brain is wired to have a balance between focused and unfocused thinking. If you want to improve your focus at the office, you need to give the brain periods of unfocused thinking.
- Cal Newport suggests giving yourself some time to Meditate Productively. All this involves is thinking deeply about a problem while engaged in a low-key activity, like commuting, walking the dog, or in the shower.
- Pick up a new hobby that requires focused concentration (but not work-related) to strengthen your focus muscle.
12. Take advantage of tools and apps designed to help you stay focused at work
When you are learning how to stay focused at work, a few tools can help you along the way. I have tried a few inbox snoozers, music apps, and time tracking apps, and these are the ones that helped the most:
- We use Time Doctor at the office, but if you’re looking for a simple, free option then I recommend Toggl.
- Google Calendar was a great way to build my weekly schedule.
- Redbooth and Trello are our project management tools of choice. Our content editor would heartily recommend Trello.
- If you’re looking for distraction-free tunes then Brain.fm is the best, paid, solution.
- Sounds, on the other hand, are covered extensively by the free site, myNoise with over 200 sound generators to choose from.
- I also used Inbox When Ready to close my inbox on a schedule.
Conclusion on how to stay focused at work
Deep work offers a great chance to improve your workplace focus. You’ll improve your productivity, generate more valuable insights, and reap great rewards.
Yet, diving into deep work is hard. I would encourage you to take these tips and start building your day around periods of focus. You will find that your focus muscle gets more powerful with each exercise.
How do you stay focused at work? Anything we missed? Feel free to share your ideas in the comments below.
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