In this piece, I share with you how to prepare yourself well to do real deep work - work that you dive into, finding flow, able to tackle hard things, and do them well.
People often think they can easily do deep work. (You just sit down, put on your headphones and focus, right?) In practice, most of us realize it’s not as easy as it sounds, and ‘just focusing’ on something is not the same as deep work.
What exactly is ‘deep work’? Think of it as a mode of working that allows you to use the superpowers of your massively connected brain and the uniqueness of your knowledge and experience to create value that only you can bring.
This is arguably one of the most important skills you could cultivate, especially as AI infiltrates the world, and as a differentiator in an ‘always-on’ world where most live in a state of constant distraction.
Talk about having an edge. Most people don’t use these techniques, so if you’re able to master them, you’ll likely be in the top 1% of people who are working to master the techniques that will let them thrive in the new economy.
Before you can prepare well to do deep work, you will need to have created the time and space to do it. We dive into this in a lot more detail in the MakeTimeFlow Program, but here are two key techniques that I use to help me to do this:
- TimeBlocking - plan your week, and then plan each day the day before. Block out 1-2 hours a day (whenever possible). Guard these blocks fiercely and do not give them away to the first person who asks for help; instead, offer to help in some other way or at another time.
- Set communication barriers / expectations / channels - turn off your notifications and apps because constant interruptions will make deep work impossible. Set an auto-response if needed to tell people when you’ll be available. Tell people to call you if it’s urgent. Put your phone out of sight (even seeing it can cause our brains to ruminate).
Now that you’ve made the time and space for deep work (and have hopefully got a good plan about what you are going to tackle), let’s talk about 2 techniques that have the power to boost the strength of your deep work.
Technique 1: Prepare yourself to do deep work the day before
I do most of my deep work blocks in the morning when I feel freshest. The first technique is to prepare yourself to do deep work the day before. Sounds obvious but from my own experience and my coaching I can tell you most people don’t do it. And since they don’t prepare, they often start their deep work session having to dive into some very distracting environments - usually email, Twitter, news or web browsing. To avoid these sand traps, try this instead:
- At the end of each workday, as you do your shutdown ritual, spend 5 minutes to prepare any materials you think you might need in a folder on your desktop. Drag attachments, copies of emails, documents, articles you might need to read and reference into that folder. If you can “pre-start it” (i.e. open a draft document or slides or …). This will help jump-start you into your deep work session.
It takes less time than you think, and the benefits are impressive. Why?
You start with just the elements you need (yes, complicated as they are) without needing to open your email, slack, other web pages or documents.
Your chances of being derailed will be drastically reduced; you’ll retain your attention and ability to focus, and most importantly, you won’t unintentionally lose your entire deep work block to the maelstrom of distracting technology.
The second technique is also obvious but also very powerful. And again most people don’t use it. If you are able to master both of these techniques, you would very likely be in the top 1% of people whom we help to do deep work.
Mentally prepare yourself prior to your deep work session
We know from research done with high performance athletes, that visualization before activities can help improve the ability to perform that activity. You also want to work at an elite level, so prepare for it!
- Relax, let your mind be clear, let your pre-frontal cortex rest and it will do some super power integrating for you. For you to achieve this, I’m going to recommend something many people might find outrageous - prepare your mind for focus by not listening to music or podcasts, or worst of all, news all the way to work. Yes; enjoy the silence for a moment. This will let the deep processing and integrating of your pre-frontal cortex work and insights can bubble up and be heard/accessed by you.
- Visualize yourself starting your deep work:
- Being relaxed (not tense or anxious)
- Confident in your ability to tackle this
- Looking forward to using this emerging strength you are developing in doing deep work.
- See yourself quickly getting settled, being focused, tackling the work.
- What are you going to do first?
If you don’t believe this is possible, why not? Have you always been distracted before? Does it take you too long to settle? Do you have routines that you enjoy but that you know are distracting - always opening your email first, or checking slack, or browsing the news? Identifying the reason will help you experiment with solutions.
The above techniques are simple, but not easy. They require you to be intentional and to be disciplined. They require you to be aware of your own habits and to be willing to change them. Try it for one day, and see how it feels and what you learn.
It’s hard to create and use new practices consistently, especially in the beginning. When you fail, just “begin again”. That said, I think you’ll quickly see results, especially how differently it feels, and how much stronger your deep work becomes. Once you have a few successful deep work sessions under your belt, the practice will become easier because you’ll truly appreciate the value of it.
There are 2 simple techniques (that most people don’t use), that can really strengthen your ability to do deep work and perform creatively and intellectually at an elite level.
Prepare everything you need to start your deep work block the day before,
Mentally prepare yourself by visualizing all you will do to start your deep work session, relaxed, confident and ready to find flow.
Hope this helps! See you in flow,