One of the things that Cal Newport suggests in Deep Work is to create a ritual or routine that you follow when you’re going into “deep work mode.” Over the last 24 hours I’ve been thinking about the sort of ritual I can employ as I attempt to apply the journalistic approach to my practice of deep work.
The purpose behind a deep work ritual is to eliminate distractions and to signal to yourself that it’s time to focus. You’re trying to create circumstances that signal to your own brain “it’s time to stop bouncing from task to task and focus on one thing.”
I get it. Over time, behaviors and practices that you repeat become associated with the routines and locations that serve as the setting for those behaviors and practices. Eventually, following those routines and being in those locations will prompt you to engage in the associated behaviors and practices.
Let me give you an example. Every morning I step up to my standing desk, coffee in hand, open up Slack, and start getting caught up on all of the DMs and mentions that came in over the last 10-12 hours. In my brain, the combination of 7:30 AM, my standing desk, and a cup of coffee are directly linked to opening up Slack and getting caught up.
I need a similar routine for deep work.
Deep Work Ritual v1
Yesterday I talked about how I’m going to start using Google Calendar to actually schedule specific times to do deep work. I did that today and it went okay. There are a few issues I still need to work through. Let’s set that aside for a moment and move on to ritual.
There are a few specific things I did today to signal to myself that it was deep work time, and I plan to continue using these signals going forward.
Signal 1: I snoozed Slack notifications and set a status indicating that I was unavailable.
This is an important first step. Slack can be a really noisy space. So this step was an intentional way of signaling to coworkers and to myself that I was going to actively ignore Slack for a while.
Signal 2: I left my standing desk and found somewhere quiet to sit.
I really love my standing desk, but as I’ve said before, I don’t find a standing desk to be the best environment for focused work. I have two possible environments for sitting and focusing: the couch in my office or a chair on the back porch. I prefer the back porch, but that location is weather-dependent, so the couch is also an option should it be too hot, too wet, or too loud outside.
Signal 3: I turn my phone to Do Not Disturb mode.
While in DnD mode, only texts and phone calls will show as a notification on my phone. That means I’m reachable in case of emergency, but otherwise I’m unavailable.
Signal 4: I identify what I’m going to work on.
Today, I did this by noting the deep work task I was going to focus on in the associated calendar event.
Challenges to Work Through
Things went ok today. I did accomplish some tasks that required focus and that was great. However, I can see a few issues with how things went today that I need to work through.
I need a way to batch tasks more effectively.
Quite often I don’t have just one thing I plan to work on during a deep work session, but rather a to-do list of several things that I want to burn through during one or two focused hours.
So far so good. However, on my to-do list today were two tasks that weren’t particularly helpful in terms of maintaining deep-work focus:
- Resolve all Slack reminders.
- Work towards Inbox zero.
The issue here is that I was trying to be focused while working out of application that are fraught with distraction. I’m sure you can guess how that went. I opened up Slack and started working on Slack reminders when a DM popped up. I didn’t get a notification, but I could see that little red circle and I couldn’t resist. So I jumped into a quick chat. 30 minutes later I got back to the task at hand. The exact same scenario played out when I was trying to clean up my email inbox.
I don’t yet have an answer that I love to this conundrum.
One idea would be to build a detailed to-do list out of Slack and my email inbox and then work through that list with Slack and my email closed. Perhaps that is the right approach, but I have a mental block to that approach as it feels inefficient to start with one list (Slack reminders or emails in an inbox) and create a separate list to work from. I think this is something I should give a try despite my mental resistance to the idea.