Back on track: How to produce better work, more often, to achieve worthwhile goals and to live a meaningful life – in spite of the pandemic

As a speech pathologist, my job is to help clients achieve their goals. Most worthwhile goals demand intense, focused work over time. But, during lockdown, many people – including me – have been distracted and less productive than usual. Understandable, perhaps. But frustrating, too. 

Over the weekend, I’ve reflected on the last 10 weeks, recommitted to my professional, client, and personal goals for 2021, and set up some systems to get moving and to stay accountable. To spur myself into action, I’ve embraced the idea of “Deep Work”, a term coined by Professor Cal Newport in his popular book of the same name.  

Learning how to do Deep Work consistently – and how to filter out the noise and distractions of the news cycle, social media, email, and the busy workday – can radically improve the quality of your professional life and your creative output. 

Here are seven actionable ideas and tips I took away from the book:

  1. Many of us spend too much time on shallow work: non-demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. Shallow work includes most emails and messaging, administration tasks, and social media scrolling.
  2. To thrive professionally, you need to:
    • master hard things quickly; and
    • produce good quality work regularly, sometimes at speed.
  3. Both abilities require deep work: professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to the limit, create new value, and improve your skills.  
  4. Deep Work is:
    • a process of getting into a state of flow: when your body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile (Csikszentmihalyi);
    • about focusing on what matters most to you: Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on. We should live a focused life, because it is the best kind there is (Gallagher); and
    • about craftsmanship: finding a source of meaning outside yourself by cultivating a skill of finding meaning in what is already there. Seeing your work – whatever it is – as a craft encourages you to hone and apply your skills with respect and care: “We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals” (Dreyfus & Kelly).
  5. Good intentions and willpower aren’t enough
    • Most of us can’t work like monks, and have to attend to shallow busywork at some point. But switching quickly between deep and shallow work doesn’t work
    • Create a habit, establish a deep workspace – somewhere you won’t be interrupted – devise work rituals, track streaks, and measure your hours of deep work. 
    • Time-block deep work into your calendar, e.g. a whole season, a couple of days a week, or even just a couple of hours a day. Build in additional blocks for when you are on a roll or if you are interrupted.
    • Follow a shutdown ritual at the end of each workday to combat the Zeigarnik effect – the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention.
    • Become harder to reach. Use sender filters on your email that lower expectations for a reply, establish written FAQs, and require sender confirmations that they have checked the FAQs before emailing you.
    • Restore your attention, by taking breaks to walk outside in nature, talk with colleagues, friends and family, or to meditate. 
    • Increase your ability to focus for longer with memory training tasks, e.g. by memorising a pack of cards.
    • Put more thought into your leisure time. Replace mindless Internet surfing or social media scrolling with a challenging but engrossing hobby. Research and enjoy great books, movies, music and art. Exercise towards a specific goal like a half-marathon.
  6. Impose constraints on your work day to increase focus and intensity:
    • Think like an artist but work like an accountant (Brooks). 
    • Keep to a fixed work schedule, e.g. by finishing work at 5.30pm every day or a maximum number of hours per week. 
    • Add “Roosevelt dashes” into your day: ambitious deadlines for discrete tasks that force you to focus and work at maximum intensity.
    • Embrace boredom: Take breaks from focus, not distraction.
    • Block social media and email during deep work time: These tools can be professionally useful, but are designed to distract and to hold your attention, taking you away from deep work. Try a thirty day social media diet and see if it makes your life better, the same, or worse.  
  7. Execute: During deep work, focus on the ‘wildly important’. Track hours spent in deep work and important results. Keep a scorecard and review it weekly to hold yourself to account (Grove). High quality work produced = (Time spent) x (Intensity of Focus).

Over the next quarter, starting today, I’ll implement these ideas. I’ll be quieter on social media. I’ll turn down opportunities that aren’t related to goals for my staff, clients, practice or business. And, when I resurface, I hope to show you some nifty projects I’ve planned and – more importantly – executed for the benefit of my wonderful profession and our clients. 

If you’re intrigued by the idea of Deep Work, check out the book. If you decide to have a go at it, please let us know!

Principal source: Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Piatkus, Little, Brown Book Group, London, UK. 

Further resources:

Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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