7 Ways to Bring Deep Work Into Your Work from Home Routine

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Deep work is the skill of the decade. And as we progress further into the 21st century, it’s becoming increasingly crucial. The reason is simple.

More and more jobs need people to use their brains and not their bodies. With advancements in technology, we need mental labor to produce creative insights. However, the same technology that is causing this shift is also responsible for chronic distraction.

The paradox is apparent — we need to be super-focused to be valuable in the economy but our enemies — digital distractions — are increasing exponentially.

What’s needed is an ability to focus for long periods of time without getting distracted. This is what will produce valuable work, and therefore, help us excel in any field we want.

The concept of deep work is game-changing — perhaps one of the favorite ones of productivity pundits. Yet, it’s often thought to be reserved to creatives, artists, freelancers, and the like.

The common excuse-trap— that I too fell into — was shrugging my shoulders and saying — “I can’t do deep work in a normal office setting.” And this opinion only got stronger with the advent of work-from-home.

With an infinite number of distractions and the need to be always “on,” it was hard to find focused periods of time when and where I wanted.

Cal Newport, who wrote Deep Work, argues that we might be losing out on our lifetime’s greatest thinkers, innovators and artists because of workplace distractions.

These distractions cause people to work against their brains’ nature. When we work on cognitively challenging tasks, myelin (a fatty insulator) develops around our neurons that help them to fire faster and cleaner.

The learning process is nothing but making these neuro-circuits stronger and firing them repeatedly. Every time you focus single-pointedly on something, you fire relevant neurons in the brain. The more you fire them, the stronger the circuit becomes. And the stronger the circuit the better your performance.

It all seems too nice. So nice that the average office worker can only dream of attaining such states of mastery and total absorption. While it may seem like a pipe dream of productivity, it is possible. You just have to manage your time and team dynamics.

Start with The Basics

The primary requirement for deep work is to work without any distractions for a long enough stretch of time. This is only possible if you block time in advance.

Turn off your phone or put it on silent, sign out of email, and remove any potential distraction. In a physical office, you can put on headphones and ensure that everyone gets what that means.

The best way to do this is to take small steps. Find one hour during which you’re the most productive. Block that hour three days a week. As you get used to deep work, start working in longer stretches.

Get Your Team to Cooperate

When people on your team are working deeply, they’re making the best use of their time. Get your team to understand this. It’s easy to block time on your calendar as “DND” when people know that it’s for the good of the team.

Encourage others to do the same and work when they’re the most energetic. Try to hold meetings when there are no such deep work sessions. Everyone will be happier, finish their work faster, and get more time for things they love doing after work.

Block Time to Be Disturbed

Cal suggests we can also try to reverse the time-blocking method. Basically, instead of blocking time for not being disturbed, you decide the times where you can be disturbed.

He said, “I think more offices should reverse this strategy and require employees to specify when they can be disturbed. Imagine, for example, that each employee has a 30-minute “office hour” every two hours during the workday. During these hours they are fully accessible. Outside these hours they cannot be reached and instead they spend that time producing valuable results.”

The aim is to make deep work your default strategy and then be available at certain times if someone needs to meet you.

Start No-Meeting Days

Asana wrote on their blog about a little experiment called No-Meting-Wednesdays (NMW). Just as it sounds, there are no meetings — just a whole day for people to make progress on their work without having to fit in work between meetings.

They found that it’s one of the happiest days for employees for two reasons:

  1. When people focus on a single task for a long period of time, they tend to enter into a flow state. And flow states make us happy.
  2. When people make progress on their goals, it’s rewarding in itself — “I was productive today!” That’s not something we get to say to ourselves every day, do we?

Keep Your Calendars Updated with Boundaries

Instead of trying to steal time from work for family or personal hobbies, put it on the calendar for everyone to see. You may need to discuss this with your team if this isn’t how things work at your place.

But the freedom of putting “family time” on your calendar and knowing no one will disturb you is great. I too put a couple of “DNDs” and “Meditation Breaks” on my calendar and protect them with all my might.

Others who see my calendar also understand this. And I too reciprocate the same gesture by not putting meetings when a person’s marked “walk” or “exercise.”

It depends a lot on the culture but if you start creating those boundaries yourself, and encourage others to do the same, you’ll be surprised how people follow along. Everyone is happier when they can take time off without making excuses or feeling guilty.

Push Back Against Multitasking

If you’re reading this article, I’m sure you know that multitasking is to be shunned. However, we can’t always avoid it.

There’ll always be someone who needs a quick “2-minute favor” or a “quick reply on an email.” While these things may be urgent, make sure you’re not sitting on top of your messaging apps to cater to every flying request you receive.

When you’re working, close all communication-related tabs. Tackle all emails and messages together in blocks of time throughout the day. From experience, I can tell you that it doesn’t lead to unrepairable damage.

Yes, someone might get a little mad about something but that would be alright if you used that time block to make serious progress on your tasks. They’ll understand.

Have Clear Beginning and Ending Rituals

With the advent of work-from-home, boundaries between work and personal life have vanished. Just because we all have our laptops with us 24/7 we feel the need to be working all the time. Since there aren’t any predetermined boundaries, people are also expected to be available all the time.

The urge to send “just one more email,” “just review a draft” or get some work done while the kids are sleeping, keeps us from truly relaxing.

One of Cal’s core deep work strategies is having a “Shutdown Ritual.” This ritual indicates to the brain that work is now over and you won’t check your laptop, email, or messages till the next day. Having a shutdown ritual also helps us finish our tasks sooner instead of procrastinating and working late into the night.

For most of us, anything we do later in the evening is usually not too productive and can wait till the next day. Since our minds are also exhausted by the end of the day, we’re much better of picking it up the next morning.

Here’s what Cal’s shutdown ritual looks like:

  • Making sure task lists are up to date
  • Review the task list and put it on Google Tasks if needed
  • Review calendar for the next 2 weeks to be aware of urgent deadlines and appointments
  • Review plan for the week and edit as needed
  • Shut down the computer and say the magic phrase: “schedule shutdown, complete.” (Cal says he’s embarrassed about this!)

Cal’s ritual does a good job to convince your brain that everything has been taken care of and that we can safely shut down for the rest of the day. It avoids any kind of stress and anxiety.

All you need is a similar (or different) ritual that takes 5–10 minutes and an agreement to not check work-related things till the next day.

Final Thoughts

Here are all the things you can do to include more deep work in a professional setting:

  1. Start with the basics: Deep work is extremely difficult without time-blocking. Start scheduling blocks of time where you focus only on one task.
  2. Get your team on the same page: Make sure everyone realizes the importance of deep work. Your team’s output will skyrocket and so will their happiness levels.
  3. Block time to be disturbed: Instead of blocking time for deep work, block time to be disturbed — just like office hours. All other times except for office hours are reserved for deep work.
  4. Start no-meeting days: Give yourself and others a whole day to make progress on their goals. You may not achieve a whole day full of meetings. But you can get very close if you try.
  5. Update your calendar with clear boundaries: If you want family time, put it on your calendar. If you want to exercise in the afternoon, put it on your calendar. If you want to think about a problem, put it on your calendar. This makes it clear to others that you’re busy.
  6. Push back against multitasking: Multitasking is the enemy of deep work. Stop it at all costs.
  7. Have a clear start and end time: Just because you can work all the time doesn’t mean you should. Have clear start and end times so you don’t burn out and get high-quality rest.

Don’t think that working in a team limits your autonomy or your freedom to work the way you want to. With small changes, you can find the best of both worlds.

You can get the benefits of deep work no matter what you do. You just needed small steps and creative ways to include it in your life.

Now it’s your turn to do something amazing with all the extra time you block. Go get your sessions in, starting today!

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Written on July 3, 2021