Today, I want to talk about the benefits of deep work, a concept that can improve your attention and productivity. Deep work refers to the state of focused concentration and undistracted engagement in cognitively demanding tasks.
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We are constantly inundated with distractions and information overload, so cultivating deep work skills can be a game-changer for achieving your goals.
Deep work is a state of focused and uninterrupted concentration that allows you to harness your cognitive capabilities to their fullest potential. The term was coined by Cal Newport, who wrote a book on it. It is a mental state characterized by immersing yourself in a cognitively demanding task, free from distractions and disruptions. When engaged in deep work, you enter a flow-like state where time seems to pass effortlessly, and your mind becomes fully absorbed in the task at hand.
For many of my ADHDers, this can be like your hyperfocus. The difference, I think, is that deep work is a conscious choice, and you can't always choose your hyperfocus.
First, you need to understand that deep work is different from shallow work and multitasking. Shallow work refers to tasks that are relatively easy, repetitive, and require minimal cognitive effort, such as answering emails or attending meetings (or a lot of the household chores we do).
On the other hand, deep work involves intellectually demanding tasks that necessitate intense focus and deep thinking. These tasks can often be overwhelming for neurodivergent people because the level of concentration takes a lot out of them.
Multitasking, often seen as a productivity booster, is actually the antithesis of deep work. Attempting to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously divides your attention and compromises the quality of your work. Deep work requires a deliberate commitment to single-tasking, eliminating distractions, and directing all your mental resources towards one specific objective.
Deep work requires sustained attention, mental resilience, and the ability to resist temptations for immediate gratification, like checking social media or responding to notifications. However, the rewards of deep work are well worth the effort. When you immerse yourself in deep work, you tap into your brain's full potential, allowing for deeper learning, heightened creativity, and increased productivity. By giving your undivided attention to a task, you enter a state of heightened focus where you can make connections, solve problems, and produce exceptional outcomes.
Often, if you’re hyperfocused, you’ll reap these same benefits. You got a lot accomplished because you’re able to concentrate. Unfortunately, if you can’t control the hyperfocus, the time is spent only on things you enjoy instead of the things that will help you reach your goals.
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Attention is the cornerstone of deep work. When your attention is fully engaged and focused, you can go deeper into tasks, absorb information more effectively, and produce work of exceptional quality. Attention allows you to notice details, make connections, and maintain a clear mental picture of your objectives.
However, attention is also an executive function skill that many people struggle to control. You’re probably reading this and thinking, “Great, Shannyn, I have ADHD. By definition, I have a deficit when it comes to attention. What now?”
Like any other skill, attention can be worked on and improved. You need to practice improving it.
To improve attentional control and minimize distractions during deep work, you need to use effective techniques. Start by creating a conducive work environment, free from clutter and unnecessary stimuli. Designate a specific workspace that signals your brain it's time for focused work.
Mindfulness and meditation can also help to improve your ability to sustain attention. Mindfulness exercises train your mind to stay present and cultivate a non-judgmental awareness of distractions that arise. You learn to notice when your mind isn’t where it should be.
Another helpful technique is time blocking, where you allocate dedicated periods for deep work without any interruptions. This structured approach allows you to train your brain to concentrate during specific time slots and build a habit of focused work.
Managing both external and internal interruptions is vital for maintaining deep work sessions. External interruptions can include phone notifications, emails, or colleagues (or kids) seeking your attention. Minimize these disruptions by silencing notifications, setting clear boundaries with others, and utilizing tools that block digital distractions.
Internal interruptions, such as wandering thoughts or urges to check social media, can also hinder deep work. Combat these internal distractions by practicing self-awareness and implementing techniques like the Pomodoro Technique, where you work in focused bursts with short breaks in between. During breaks, allow yourself to engage in mind-wandering or relaxation activities, which can help replenish your cognitive resources.
Time blocking and scheduling deep work sessions in advance is a powerful strategy to prioritize and protect your dedicated focus time. Identify specific blocks of time in your schedule that align with your peak cognitive abilities and energy levels.
In order to know what your peak times are, I suggest you complete a time audit for at least 3 days. Keep track of how you spend your time ALL day. Everything you do gets recorded. You have to be honest or the data is useless. And there is no judgment (although you might judge yourself, try to refrain). This is simply data gathering.
Once you know when your most productive, high-energy times are, set aside those time slots for deep work and treat them as non-negotiable appointments with yourself. By planning your deep work sessions in advance, you establish a clear structure that helps you stay committed and accountable to your goals.
Determining the optimal duration and frequency of deep work periods is key to maintaining productivity and avoiding burnout. Experiment with different time intervals to find what works best for you.
Some people thrive using the Pomodoro method, which consists of 25-minute time blocks followed by 5-minute breaks. Some people can’t yet do 25 minutes, so they start smaller. Others may thrive in longer periods, such as 90 minutes or more.
It's important to find a balance that allows you to sustain focus without experiencing mental fatigue or diminishing returns. Consider your attention span, energy levels, and the complexity of the task at hand when deciding on the duration and frequency of your deep work sessions. If you push yourself to do deep work when you’re tired or unfocused, the session will be a waste and you’ll risk burning out altogether.
Incorporating breaks within your deep work structure is crucial for sustaining attention and preventing burnout. After each deep work session, allow yourself a brief period of rest or a change in activity to recharge your mental resources. Engage in activities that promote relaxation, such as stretching, going for a walk, or practicing deep breathing exercises.
Avoid mindless scrolling on social media or engaging in activities that can be mentally draining. By incorporating intentional breaks, you give your brain an opportunity to recharge and maintain a high level of productivity throughout your deep work sessions.
Establishing pre-work and post-work rituals can help you get the most out of deep work. Before starting a deep work session, engage in activities that signal your brain it's time to shift into a focused state. This could involve setting specific intentions, reviewing your goals, or engaging in a short mindfulness or visualization exercise. It should be the same activity every time so that your brain equates it with that deep work.
Similarly, after a deep work session, create a ritual that helps you transition back to regular activities. This could include reflecting on your progress, celebrating accomplishments, or engaging in a brief period of relaxation.
Choosing the same time of day or same day each week to dedicate to deep work is one way to establish a routine. Consistency builds momentum and trains your brain to enter a deep work state more readily. Designate a specific location for deep work to further reinforce the routine. Set up your workspace, gather the necessary materials, and create a ritual that signifies the beginning of your deep work practice.
Accountability systems and productivity tools can provide support while you develop and maintain deep work habits. Find an accountability partner or join a productivity group where you can share your goals and progress. This external support and feedback can help you stay motivated and committed to your practice.
Use productivity tools and apps that track your deep work sessions, provide reminders, or block distractions. These tools can help you stay focused, measure your productivity, and provide insights into your deep work habits. Experiment with different tools and find the ones that align with your preferences and needs.
Developing your attention skills to be able to engage in deep work can be difficult. You will run into challenges, so it’s important to be prepared to address these obstacles as they arise.
Some common challenges include external distractions, internal resistance, time constraints, and competing priorities. Awareness and proactive planning can help you navigate these obstacles effectively.
If you are struggling with internal resistance, procrastination, and mental fatigue, start by identifying the root causes. It could be fear of failure, perfectionism, or a lack of clarity about the task at hand.
Break down large tasks into smaller, manageable steps, and set specific goals for each deep work session. Use techniques like the “two-minute rule” to overcome procrastination by committing to working on a task for just two minutes. Often, this small step can help build momentum and alleviate resistance.
Combat mental fatigue by incorporating mindfulness or relaxation exercises during breaks, practicing self-care, and ensuring you get enough restful sleep.
Deep work is a powerful tool that can transform the way neurodivergent people approach their work and achieve their goals. Deep work isn’t just about being busy; it's about channeling your energy and attention toward meaningful and high-quality work outcomes. Through regular practice, you can get a handle on your attentional control and accomplish more in less time.