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Mastering Deep Work: 5 Strategies to Improve Your Focus

Kristy Esparza

When’s the last time you checked your phone?

If you’re like the average American, chances are you took a peek in the last 10 minutes.

You’re human! And humans have become conditioned to constantly check in. We check in on work. We check in on the news. We check in on “friends” who aren’t friends at all.

But all this checking in doesn’t come for free. It costs us our focus and our productivity—and honestly, it makes us less happy.

It’s easy to blame social media, but your mild addiction to Instagram isn’t the sole culprit. Workplace apps are equally harmful. Communication channels like email, Slack, Teams, and Zoom make it easy to collaborate on the fly—but they’ve also conditioned us to constantly multi-task.

Our brains don’t like that.

When we jump from task to task, we can’t give a single task the complete focus it deserves. We can’t get into that sweet spot of problem solving. Instead, we spend more time doing less work, and often end up feeling unhappy, frustrated, and anxious about it all, explains Cal Newport, author and computer scientist.

All of these tasks—answering client inquiries, overseeing productions, pursuing training opportunities on the latest tech, networking, collaborating—are worthwhile. In fact, they’re all essential. But when we bounce from one to the other, minute by minute, they don’t get the unbroken attention they need and deserve.

So, what’s the solution? Ditching inboxes and chat apps isn’t going to happen (though that would ultimately make e-discovery easier, wouldn’t it?).

Instead, you need to train yourself to deliberately focus on one task at a time, distraction-free. Cal calls this deep work—and it could be the secret to a happier, more productive work life.

5 Strategies for Mastering Deep Work

You don’t fall into deep work. You need to be intentional about it. Luckily, there are a ton of resources and strategies out there to help you become a master of working deep. Here are some to get you started.

1.  Schedule time for deep work.

The first step toward deep work is making time for deep work. This can be tricky, and you might not be able to start tomorrow, depending on how jam-packed your calendar is. Just look ahead and pick a day or week that looks relatively clear. Start there.

Next, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What kind of work do you need to focus on this week? How long do you estimate those tasks will take? This will help you determine how much time to set aside for deep work.
  • When do you do your best thinking? Are you a morning bird or a night-owl?
  • What is your daily routine like? Are there recurrent obligations you need to keep in mind, such as dropping kids off at school or hosting a bi-weekly client call?

Based on your answers, you should be able to determine an ideal schedule for deep work. Maybe you can split each day into two, where you have deep work in the mornings, followed by meetings and “shallow” work in the afternoons. Or perhaps there are a few days per week that you can devote entirely to deep work. It will take some experimentation to figure out what works best for you.

Whatever schedule you decide on, block your calendar. Respect this time and treat it like an obligation that cannot be scheduled over.

2. Disconnect without disconnecting.

Deep work requires zero distractions. That means you must mute all notifications, including email and messaging apps.

I know—it’s scary to shut yourself off from the world, especially in our industry where fire drills are bound to happen. That’s why it’s important to balance your calendar appropriately for tasks that require focused work, and the availability you need to offer. It’s also essential to communicate that schedule to your team and explicitly tell them your notifications will be turned off during deep work windows.

You can communicate this a few ways (both before and during your deep work):

  • Add your deep work schedule to your team’s calendar.
  • Email or ping them with a reminder a few minutes prior to your deep work.
  • Set your status on your chat apps to let people know that you’re in deep work and when you will return.
  • Set an out-of-office reply to your emails, stating that you are not checking email and when you will be available again.

If the nature of your role requires it, include your telephone number in your statuses and out-of-office messages. But be clear: Clients and colleagues should call only in the event of an emergency. Everything else can wait.

3. Prior to deep work, clear your mind with a to-do list.

You’ve blocked your calendar, you’ve blocked all the external distractions—now it’s time to block those internal distractions. A little thing called the Zeigarnik effect could be your downfall.

The Zeigarnik effect is a psychological theory that being interrupted mid-task improves your ability to remember that task later on. It’s a useful mechanism—until all those half-finished tasks from earlier start rattling around in your brain.

Each incomplete tasks eats up a slice of your attention, making it harder to concentrate on the task in front of you.

Luckily, there is an antidote. Researchers have found that creating a plan can free up cognitive resources and counter the Zeigarnik effect.

Try writing a to-do list to get all those started tasks out of your brain and on paper. Make sure your list is detailed and actionable, with large tasks broken down into subtasks. A list full of vague or insurmountable items will not help clear your mind—it could actually have the opposite effect.

4. Try collaborative deep work.

Although deep work is often thought of as an individual activity, it’s a handy tool for improving collaboration, too. Projects that need brainstorming or problem-solving are great candidates for the deep work philosophy.

Involve your colleagues by scheduling a deep work session on a shared project, but make the number one rule clear: No distractions. Everyone turns off notifications and focuses solely on the task at hand.

Focusing your combined attention on a single conversation at one time is much more impactful than “collaborating” sporadically throughout the day (i.e., firing emails back and forth between other tasks).

5. Pitch deep work to your organization.

Making time for deep work every week is admittedly challenging—especially when you have client meetings and many small tasks knocking at your door. Having buy-in and backup from your organization can help reduce some of the noise and encourage greater focus.

For example, consider asking for a “no meeting” time once per week. The marketing team at Relativity, for instance, has something called “Meeting-Free Monday Mornings.” All of our calendars are blocked from 7:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. every Monday, and scheduling meetings over the block is discouraged. It’s a godsend and a great way to get ahead for the week.

A Focused Solution to a Real Problem

It's interesting how the chat apps that have muddled e-discovery over the past few years have also muddled our minds. But just as in e-discovery, where we’re figuring out solutions to these challenges, you as an individual can soften the distractions and create a more peaceful, productive work life.

Just remember: Deep work isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes practice, determination, and a lot of planning. But the reward is worth it.

Artwork for this article was created by Natalie Andrews.

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Kristy Esparza is a member of the marketing team at Relativity, specializing in content creation and copywriting.