How to Focus: Practice Deep Work
September 13, 2022
Note From Rochelle
Cal Newport coined the term “Deep Work” to talk about the kind of focus people experience when in flow. He wrote,
“To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.”
Today’s tip continues my “how to focus” series. I review the steps we’ve covered so far and then consider how we can practice deep work.
Rochelle, the Write Now! Coach
How to Focus: Practicing Deep Work
by Rochelle Melander
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit. —Aristotle
We are busy. So many tasks to do.
Because of technology, we’ve taken on many of the roles that used to be done by others, such as making travel arrangements. We live in a culture where people expect an immediate response to their phone calls, texts, and emails. (Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain by Daniel J. Levitin)
With information and shouts for our attention flying at us like balls from a tennis ball machine, we might feel like we do little more than react.
That’s why it’s essential to schedule time for deep work. What’s that? According to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, it is:
“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
If you’re a writer, then it’s your planning, plotting, and writing.
The “How to Focus” series has been about how to do deep work. Here are the steps (links below):
- Schedule time for deep work, preferably during your genius time.
- Block out time for tasks like email, texts, meetings, phone calls, etc.
- Dump Distractions. Silence the Internet, your phone, and any other potential distraction. Don’t rely on willpower—shut that stuff off, hide your phone, do whatever it takes to create the environment that helps you focus.
- Choose a small task to work on.
- Work on a single task at a time.
You’re ready to do deep work.
But your brain might not be. Because we spend so much time online, rapidly switching between tasks, we’re used to regular dopamine hits. We’ve become addicted. Psychologist Dr. Anna Lembke calls the smart phone “the modern-day hypodermic needle.” According to Jamie Waters, “we turn to it for quick hits, seeking attention, validation and distraction with each swipe, like and tweet.”
Dopamine is an interesting hormone: we get a dopamine hit when we anticipate doing something pleasurable as well as when we do it. But as soon as it’s over, our dopamine level decreases, and we want more. (Ooh, I’d love a piece of chocolate. Yum, that chocolate tastes amazing. Oh no, it’s gone. I need more chocolate.)
Back to writing. So there you are, sitting in front of your computer, ready to do deep work. But your brain wants that dopamine hit. What do you do?
+Create a lifestyle that’s naturally rich in dopamine. That may make it easier for you to focus. You can do this by sleeping well, exercising regularly, eating protein, meditating, and more. (https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-increase-dopamine#The-bottom-line)
+Before deep work, take a walk or do yoga. Exercise increases our dopamine levels. It also brings oxygen to our brains, making it easier to focus.
+During deep work, especially at first, your brain is going to shout: I NEED A HIT! LET’S GO ONLINE. Actually, it will be more like, “Don’t you think you need to check on …” Instead of jumping online:
- Write down the worry, task, or need.
- Go back to work.
Repeat as necessary.
As I have said before, just like in meditation, each time you ditch distraction and turn back to your work, you are building strength and increasing your ability to focus.
You got this.
The How to Focus Series
How to Focus: Discover and Preserve Your Genius Time