April 28, 2020

Rama Bandlapally

This happens with everyone - You start out the day with great intentions to get a business report done only to find that it’s 3 p.m. and you’ve barely scratched the surface. Every time you sat down to concentrate on the report, a ping, a call or a meeting stops you in your tracks.

Today, in the world of work, sometimes the very tools that help us improve our efficiency - phones and emails, apps, etc. - become our biggest distractors when we want to focus. While turning off these devices may seem like a simple solution, we know that it would be far from practical. Our attraction to digital devices has created a permanent fracturing of our attention, affecting our ability to maintain focus and be present. It has become an almost unconscious habit to switch between different stimuli. What can we do to break this pattern? How do we achieve focus and bring out our maximum output?

Calvin C. Newport, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and the author of six self-improvement books, sheds some light on this thorough his book ‘Deep Work’. He refers to certain behavioral changes aimed at a conscious reduction of internal and external distractions which induces a state of focus called ‘deep work’. A state of ‘Deep work’ enables people to selectively channel and narrow their focus to the most critical tasks while keeping a space for constant ideation.

This translates to a person being able to work more efficiently and produce much better results. It sounds like we should deploy it right away, right? However, it is not that simple to achieve. Engaging in deep work requires a lot of training of the brain and un-learning of distractive habits, which is a rigorous process, just like an athlete training his body to achieve the maximum output.

Though difficult, it is not impossible; here are some of the pointers from the book on how to achieve a state of ‘deep work’.

Productive Meditation: The first step would be to identify how your brain gets distracted. Pick up a mundane task such as going for a walk and while you do that think of a single problem that you would like to solve in your mind in that set period. Just as in mindful meditation, watch out for when and how your mind wanders from the problem, notice it and bring your mind back to the problem that you’re working on. Keep note of these distractions and the strategies you deployed to overcome it.

Preparing for deep work: Adopt some good habits to prepare yourself for deep work such as:

  • Cleaning and organizing your desk for the task
  • Closing your eyes or using a white board while ideating
  • Wearing noise cancellation headphones when appropriate
  • Putting your phone on silent when required

Even something as simple as asking people politely not to disturb you tells your brain that its time to shut-off the rest of the world and focus on the task at hand

Block out time
: If you are engaging in some intellectual/cognitively demanding task, it is recommended that you put aside at least 90 minutes for it. Once in your calendar, treat this time like an important meeting or appointment and ensure no other activity/meeting disrupts it.

20 percent less rule: Whatever deadline you set for yourself, cut it by 20 percent. By doing this you are adding a sense of urgency to the task and it forces you to work just a little bit harder. It also gives you time to review your work, thereby reducing anxiety of the quality of the deliverable from distracting your focus.

Know the outcome: Having a fixed outcome from the task lets your brain know what it’s supposed to be working on and pool its resources accordingly. You can break complex assignments into smaller ones to let your mind keep stock of progress as well as giving a feel of piecemeal achievement

Embrace boredom: Many of us fall into the habit of checking our phones every time we feel a little bit bored. Your brain loses its tolerance for boredom, another word for a lack of stimuli. Actually, periods of low stimuli can be used to help the brain process information, ideate and plan, which in turn improves our focus. When involved in high stress and complex deliverables it is a good practice to cut-off all or few sources of stimuli for a few minutes at regular intervals.

It can’t be stressed enough that for the state of ‘deep work’ to truly be achieved, these are habits that need to be inculcated and constantly followed. One cannot achieve a ‘deep state’ overnight, it will be a constant uphill struggle with varying degrees of success, but once we realize its potential it can completely change the way we work.

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