For many people today, time is an extremely precious commodity.
More work, more practices, longer drive times, it all adds up to a life where are are all very busy.
But are we more productive?
In the book “Deep Work” by Cal Newport, he frames today’s worker as being bombarded with shallow tasks like email, net surfing, low level collaboration and other time-consuming but less productive tasks tha’ts diminishing our ability to produce anything of real substance.
Roughly 60% of typical worker’s day is consumed by network tasks such as email, net surfing and other shallow tasks. And we all know the studies that show how many hours our kids spend on shallow tasks just like these (something like 6+ hours per day on average).
But it is the other, old-fashioned approach to work, what Newport calls deep work, that produces all the skills you really need for success.
Newport’s research is geared towards the working world, but it can just as easily be applicable to academics and athletics too.
How This Applies To Our Jobs, Academics & Athletics
Deep work allows us to create unique, valuable ideas to our professions, and society as a whole. Shallow work is easily replicated and makes us easily replaceable, at work and on the field.
Job security and long-term success is more and more going to those who can quickly master complex new information or complex tasks. And to master them, we need to spend prolonged periods in deep work.
Studies of elite, above average and average students have shown that the elite students actually spend LESS time on schoolwork than everyone else.
How can that be true?
Consider the following simple formula for producing high quality work:
HIGH QUALITY WORK = TIME SPENT X INTENSITY OF FOCUS
In an era where we’re all focused on the first half of the formula (time spent), the multiplier effect (intensity of focus) has become extremely underrated.
Those who master the skill of being able to work deeply can get more from 1 hour of studying than the distracted student who spends 2 or more hours covering the same material.
In this formula, we find the difference between people who are ‘too busy’ to find time for the things that will ultimately lead to greater success, and those who seem to be superhuman in how much they can accomplish in a given week.
The same goes for athletics, where those who take part in focused practice and training get more results for the same amount of time. A focused athlete during practices and in training is rewarded with all of the following:
- Better movement patterns over time due to focus on proper technique. This leads to lower injury risk both in training and in athletics.
- Greater benefit from every session, because the focused athlete always gets more done than the unfocused one.
- Quicker results. The focused mind is dialed in to challenges and does not simply go through the motions while talking to others, checking their phones, etc.
This explains how some athletes make rapid progress from training, while others languish in mediocrity.
Creating Deep Work Habits & A More Productive Day
So how do you go about becoming more productive in work, school and sports? Here are a few suggestions, some from the book and some from personal experience.
1. Create personal routines and habits
Newport suggests carving out both a location and a time of day when distractions are lowest.
This may involve waking up earlier if there are no other blocks in your day, but it doesn’t have to. Ideally the distraction-free, focused block is at least 60 minutes.
The distraction free zone ideally would be somewhere that you do not have access to cell phones, internet, or anything else that may tempt you to pull away from your chosen focused task.
This could pertain to projects you want to accomplish, studying, or some type of physical training. But finding a productive time and space will give you some momentum in getting high level work done in a shorter period of time.
2. Avoid going from one task to the next in rapid fire by batching tasks.
Every time we switch from one task to the next, Newport states, our brains linger on the previous task for awhile while we actively move on to something else. If our day is structured so that we endlessly move from one task to the next it puts our mind in a terrible position to focus deeply on any one task.
Technology is making this much harder than ever before. Alerts on your phone now join the ringing phone and people interrupting you as distractors that pull you away from a deep focus.
Sending emails here and there throughout the day are another little distractor that keeps residual thoughts in your mind while blocking your ability to focus deeply on the key tasks in your day.
The solution? Batching shallow tasks.
Schedule specific time blocks in your day to check emails, check your phone, and allow for social interaction at work or in training.
But when you are scheduled to get to the key tasks (practices, training, schoolwork, job work) then shut off everything that will pull your mind off the task at hand. It will all be there waiting for you later.
3. Practice simple meditation.
For some of us, we have a distraction addition. To find out if you are one of them, try this simple exercise.
Find a quiet, distraction free location. Then, either sitting or lying down, start taking deep, relaxing breaths with a focus on keeping your mind focused only on the breathing process. Count how many breaths you can take before a distracting thought enters your head.
If it is less than 5, you are going to struggle to focus deeply on any task. Ideally you can get to 10 without distraction regularly.
You don’t need to travel to Tibet and study the art of deep meditation to gain any benefit from it. Simply focus deeply on counting breaths and allow your distraction-free mind to build some endurance.
4. When it is time to shut down, shut down completely
Work tasks drift into after work hours, with many of us checking emails or trying to squeeze in a little more work on a key task during our down time.
Sports teams practice or play games 6-7 days a week, often times year-round without giving kids a mental break.
When we never get a chance to shut down mentally from something, we risk not only burnout. We also risk developing an addiction to shallow tasks that are easier to complete, because we simply don’t have the mental energy to focus on the more important, deeper tasks that lead to better production.
When it is time to shut down, shut down completely. Get away from work entirely when it is time to do so. Kids don’t need to be spending every minute of their lives on their sport to keep up with everyone else.
Remember the study of elite students who spent less time on studying but got better results. Shutting down and recharging leads to getting more done when its time to ramp up again.
5. Teams could cut down on practice time a bit, but increase structure and a deep, focused work environment
Depending on where a team is at, this may already be going on or could be a huge lift to your future performance. I know some of our athletes here at Power Source are only practicing 3 times per week but are developing much faster than those in programs that continue to add more practices and games.
Following the formula for top students listed above, consider running less practices each week but ramp up the focus.
Or cut practice times down by 30-60 minutes while making a point to get the same amount of work done. Force yourselves to get more done in less time by developing better structure and deeper focus on the tasks at hand.
The Deep Work Scorecard
Want an easy way to see how productive your days are?
My friend and fellow fitness business owner Trevor Warnke, owner of Game Changing Performance, uses a gamified approach to determining how productive his day is.
He gives himself points for completing a task, but assigns more or less points to each task based on how important they are to his success.
Here’s a sample of how you could create your own Deep Work Scorecard
0 points/hour – For any shallow task that does not lead to you achieving your career, life, academic or athletic goals (social media, TV, driving, etc)
5 points/hour – Necessary but shallow tasks (email for work, etc)
20 points/hour – Mandatory tasks that are related to your long-term goals (going to class for academics, practices/games for athletics, basic job tasks)
100 pts/hour – Time spent in deep work (undistracted studying, focused workouts, projects, development of something new and unique).
Aim for 350 points per day.
Keep in mind you only have the capacity for 4 hours per day of real deep work even when you are good at it. The novice has closer to a 1 hour per day capacity. So it is unrealistic to think you’ll hit a 10 hour per day deep work level and score over 1,000 points. 350 is challenging but doable of if you spend some time in a deep work mode.
‘The idle mind is the devil’s workshop.’
A lack of focus tends to drift us towards more negative and fearful thoughts. Developing a mind that continues to focus on deep tasks tends to lead to happier AND more productive lives
Being busy and being productive are not necessarily the same thing. If you are not satisfied with how quickly you’re reaching your goals right now, look to find ways to dig deeper into the activities that will get you there faster.