When you think back to how productive your day or week has been, you likely measure your productivity by how well you managed your time and how many tasks you checked off your to-do list. But time management and number of tasks completed are just two metrics of the productivity equation; to be truly productive, you need to be efficient and effective. This means that not only are you using your time to produce work that is important to your career and field but also you are producing work of high quality. And this requires focus—focusing on the right activities and applying focus while carrying them out.
Deep Work Requires Focus
In his book, Cal Newport describes “Deep Work” as
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.
As a knowledge professional, focus is one of the most important resources you employ In your work. You produce the most value from the “Deep Work” that you conduct in your day-to-day work – the well-crafted brief for court, the carefully drafted and reviewed contract, and the thoroughly-researched and argued journal article. The value of your deep work is increased by the quality of the work you produce. Newport proposes an equation or high-quality work –
- High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
If you are to produce work that is valuable in your chosen field of work, you need to increase both the time spent on this work and the concentration you give to this work. In other words, you need to focus on only the work that matters and give the work that matters your full attention.
Non-Focused Work Costs us Time and Decreases Productivity
In today’s work environment, we have a lot more to deal with than just the deep work. We have meetings to attend, administrative tasks to take care of and emails to respond to. And to add to this, we are constantly distracted by message notifications, incoming text messages, and our phones alerting us to the latest breaking news. This overload of expected tasks and distractions takes on a toll that can affect our productivity and the overall quality of our work product.
To handle all these distractions, you will likely take to multi-tasking – listening to that webinar while checking emails or reading through a contract while in a zoom status meeting. Even in your personal life, multi-tasking takes over – like when you scroll through social media while watching the news, or flipping through your emails while playing with your kids.
Contrary to what the word “multi-tasking” suggests, you don’t actually work on two different tasks simultaneously. Instead, you “context-switch” – your attention switches from one task to another back-and-forth at a very quick pace. Studies show that for each task or context you switch, your overall productivity reduces by about 20%. So, if you’re “multi-tasking” between email and a webinar, you lose 20% of your productivity, and the remaining 80% is divided between the two tasks. Add in another task – chatting with a co-worker maybe, and you’ve effectively reduced your productive output by 40% and are now only about 20% effective at each task.
Looking at the loss in productivity, the so-called time saved by multi-tasking is an illusion. You will likely have to spend more time to get the same level of productivity as if you had just completed each task sequentially.
Being distracted while focusing on a single task can also be costly. Research shows that if we are interrupted while doing something with intense focus, it takes us, on average, 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the original task. That is a lot of time diverted from the original work that needed your intense attention. On average, people who do most of their work on computers (which is most lawyers these days) get distracted every 10.5 minutes. Not all these distractions are necessarily frivolous, but they do significantly eat into the time we need to be focusing on deep work that is the true value of our contributions. Add to this the attention residue that builds up from switching between your work and distraction reduces the overall attention that you are able to give the task at hand. Allowing yourself to be distracted while concentrating ends up having a big toll on your productivity and the quality of your work-product.
So how do we maximize our focus on what’s really important t? To be able to effectively maximize the focus you have on a given task, you need to
- Work on that task when you are most alert and energized
- Single-task on your work and cut distractions
- Boost your energy levels to
- Take breaks to recharge
Taking advantage of your Biological Prime Time
Your “biological prime time” is the time of day when you have the most energy and when you are the most alert, allowing you to be the most focused on the task you have at hand. While most people can be grouped broadly into morning people or night owls, their natural energy curves vary throughout the day, rising and falling to varying degrees with each hour. For example, below is a chart of Chris Bailey’s energy levels for an average day (he has also mapped out his focus and motivation curves which largely track his energy levels).
Your biological prime time is the key to being your most productive self. You can find your biological prime time by mapping your energy levels throughout the day for a couple of weeks to get an average and mapping it to a curve. Once you have your biological prime time curve, you can use this to map out the best times of day to tackle your most important work. You will be most effective by scheduling your most important, focus-intensive work based on the peaks of your energy curves. Less important work or work requiring less focus can be scheduled when your energy levels are low.
Since your biological prime time is the most valuable time with respect to focus potential, you will also want to eliminate as many distractions during this time to maximize the time you spend on your essential tasks.
Eliminate Distractions and Minimize Context Switching
To maximize the focus and attention on any given task, replace multi-tasking with single-tasking. Pay full attention to the task at hand and perform your to-do list sequentially, rather than try to check off multiple items simultaneously.
Keeping yourself from being distracted is easier said than done. Technology is designed to keep us hooked to their “infinity pools” – those always-on, effectively infinite sources of information and entertainment, such as social media, video streaming applications, and browsers supplying on-demand access to all the information in the world.
While we can try willpower to resist these distractions, willpower eventually runs out. Your best bet is to design a work environment to increase the friction in accessing these distractions. Adding as little as 20 seconds of friction is enough to deter us from automatically resorting to habitual action. If you make it so that accessing your distractions takes at least 20 seconds or more, you’re less likely to automatically be sucked into your infinity pools. Simple things like leaving your phone in another room, logging out of your social media accounts, and making your passwords immediately inaccessible will help reduce distraction to a great degree.
Switch off all email and instant messaging notifications, so the pop-ups don’t distract you. If possible, consider using two computers – one for non-deep work like answering email, instant messaging, and surfing the net. The second computer should have just the software necessary to do your deep work. This keeps the distracting notifications out of your view and makes it more difficult to access your communication devices when you should be engrossed in your deep work.
Train yourself to close all non-related applications and web tabs. Having only one tab open cuts the clutter of non-related information that could distract you from the task at hand. Work off-line when possible so that you’re not distracted by the internet. If you need to be online for your work, use website blockers to block your biggest attention hijackers.
Also, try using full-screen mode (so only the application you’re working on takes up the entire screen) when working on the computer. Without the taskbar, time, or other tabs being visible, you will be less distracted by them, and it will reduce the urge to switch to another tab while you’re focusing.
Boost Your Energy
There’s a reason we start our days with a coffee or a cup of tea. Caffeine, in moderate quantities, can boost your energy and increase alertness. It arouses the central nervous system by stimulating the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters and by blocking the absorption of sleep-inducing adenosine. A coffee, tea, or a bit of dark chocolate before your start an intensive task will help increase your focus.
Regular exercise is not only good for your body but also for your brain. Exercise boosts the production of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels, all of which increase focus and attention. An exercise routine in the morning before heading into work will boost your energy for your focus time first thing of your workday. A lunch-time walk or gym session will increase your focus to counter the mid-afternoon slump. Taking a break for light exercise can boost your focus when you start to feel your attention lag.
Standing desks can also help boost productivity and focus. Standing during the day improves blood flow to the brain and circulation through the body and makes the brain more active and engaged. If you can’t afford a standing desk, laptop risers are an economical way of raising your workstation, allowing you to stand while you work.
Take Regular Breaks
You are likely familiar with circadian rhythms – your body’s physical and behavioral changes, such as sleeping, over the 24-hour cycle. There is another rhythm that affects our energy levels, the ultradian rhythm that affects our attention. Researchers have found that our minds cycle through sessions of 90 to 120 minutes (about 2 hours) of alertness before attention starts flagging and we need a break.
While you can’t keep your energy high and be able to focus intensely for overly long periods of time, you can increase your overall time spent on these activities over the day by taking short breaks regularly to recharge. These breaks can be used to take a quick walk, get a cup of coffee, indulge in one of your distractions, or maybe just meditate to help you reset your ability to concentrate.
You don’t need long breaks either. Microbreaks can give you a quick hit of energy to instantly increase your focus. Using tools like the Pomodoro technique where you intersperse short breaks within prolonged bouts of intense mental activity will help restore some of the mental energy for your work. If you work at a computer screen all day, the 20-20-20 exercise (Take a break every 20 minutes to stare at an object 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds) is also an excellent technique to not only reduce eye strain but also to give yourself a microbreak.
Putting it into Practice – Timeblocking
If you are new to these concepts and wondering how best to incorporate them into your daily life, timeblocking is a valuable tool to help you get started. Timeblocking is the process of dividing your day into large blocks of time devoted to certain types of tasks and activities. The goal of timeblocking is to create a schedule that allows you sustained time for performing your focus work while minimizing context switching. An ideal timeblocked day would have large chunks of focused time for more demanding projects, realistic time set aside for less intense work like emails, meetings, and administrative to-dos and breaks to recharge. The added bonus of a timeblocked day is that it removes the in-the-moment decision of what to work on, helping reduce decision fatigue.
Once you’ve figured out what your biological prime time is and the periods of the day where you have the most energy and focus, block out that time in your calendar and designate it for your most intensive tasks – like writing a brief, reviewing a very dense contract, researching and writing that journal article. Then designate blocks of time for tasks that are not as intense but need to get done – emails, billing, meetings, and other administrative tasks. Block time for regular breaks, including lunch breaks and short exercise breaks. You can also go ahead and schedule a “distraction break” so you can check up on social media, your news sites, or just idly surf the internet.
When you review your daily to-do list, use your timeblocked calendar as a guide to schedule your individual tasks. A new contract that you need to review would be scheduled into your intensive focus time block, catching up on your emails can be scheduled into your less intensive focus time, and that catch-up call with your friend could be dropped into break time. I use the term guide because, let’s face it, unless you work for yourself, you, unfortunately, can’t completely control your schedule. There will be meetings scheduled into your intensive focus time, and you may have an urgent matter drop on your desk that forces you to work through your break time. But the high-level timeblocked calendar will help you be more intentional in picking the right time of day to tackle your most important tasks. Also, scheduled breaks will allow you the flexibility to take the time to recharge.
While I’ve been scheduling my tasks into my calendar for a while now, I’ve only started recently started paying attention to scheduling tasks within the most appropriate blocks, and I find that I get through my intensive tasks quicker when they are scheduled around my biological prime time. Following these principles can help you produce some of your best quality deep work, adding greater value to your clients and yourself.
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