Work & Career

Deep Work: How I Learned to Focus in the Age of Distraction

How I Learned to Focus in the Age of Distraction
Written by Jennifer Nini

You’d think that in my working relationship with my fiance and business partner Ben, the business issue we’d argue most about would have something to do with managing business finances or implementing sustainable workplace practices.

But it’s not.

What has caused the biggest problems in our business relationship is how we approach our work and organise our day in order to achieve our goals and maximise output. More specifically, the main issue is my extreme dislike of distraction and Ben’s constant interruptions.

Let me explain…

I am what people call a “knowledge worker”. Aside from this growing green lifestyle platform, my actual profession is as a digital strategist and writer. The value I offer to clients is my ability to analyse the online environment, conduct research, stay on top of market trends, create business strategy and craft clever words. To do my work well requires mental energy and extreme focus. It requires academic-like concentration.

Ben is almost the exact opposite in the way he approaches work. His jovial personality and skills in business development is well suited to the noisy, high-energy and fast-paced nature of sales, where every phone call and email represents a potential lead and opportunity to close a sale.

My fiance and business partner Ben McGuire filming for our YouTube vlog

My fiance and business partner Ben McGuire filming for our YouTube channel.

Writing and sales are two extremely differently professional skill sets; polar opposites on the job competencies scale. Can you see how it can cause problems?

Similar values, different working styles

Having intimate knowledge and respecting Ben’s preferred working style is one thing, but being able to work side-by-side with him is quite another. It can be distracting, especially when you earn a living through writing and consulting.

Ben thrives best in a buzzing environment where phones are ringing, people are chatting and the atmosphere is electric. A work environment where responding to emails and social comments represents competitive advantage, celebrating ‘wins’ loudly is the norm, being highly accessible to clients is crucial and networking on business platforms such as LinkedIn is a must.

This is not the environment I thrive best in. It’s not conducive to thoughtful work. It’s why when renting our last office space, I would regularly work in the other room away from the sales mayhem. I couldn’t concentrate with the constant interruptions. 

Eco Warrior Princess HQ and team

Eco Warrior Princess HQ. This pic was taken before we gave up the office to move operations back home.

Even with melodic lyric-free music streaming through my earphones and clearly articulating my need for zero distractions, Ben would still interrupt me. There was always an email he needed me to review, work to edit, or something ‘urgent’ or ‘important’ that meant my work would have to be put on the back burner.

These interruptions would drive me crazy and I would not hold back on expressing my anger. Only a writer can understand the frustration of having a stream of thought broken. Only a person with an ENTJ Myers-Briggs profile can understand the pain of inefficiency and not accomplishing work goals.

Shallow work versus deep work

I’m not knocking an office environment full of conversation and joke-telling; where people genuinely enjoy the work they’re doing and get along well with colleagues. This is important for workplace happiness. But when it comes to completing intellectually demanding work, a distraction-free environment is crucial.

As author and computer science professor Cal Newport points out in his book “Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World”, humans are programmed for about three to five hours of high-quality work a day as this type of work is cognitively demanding and requires lots of brain energy. But he says if you schedule time for deep work, you will reap rewards in the marketplace. “One of the most valuable skills in our economy is becoming increasingly rare. If you master this skill [deep work], you’ll achieve extraordinary results” he writes in Deep Work.

Deep Work- Rules for Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

If deep work is intellectually gruelling, shallow work on the other hand is not. Shallow work requires minimum mental input. To put it into context of a business, shallow work includes any of the following activities: answering phone calls, posting on social media, liking and responding to comments on social platforms and replying to emails. Shallow work may keep you busy, but it shouldn’t be compared with truly meaningful and productive work.

Digital distraction

Distraction is everywhere. And nowhere is it more prevalent than with our smartphones.

“There is a multi-billion dollar attention economy behind making those things as distracting as possible,” explains Cal Newport on The James Altucher Show. “There are some very smart people working to make sure that as soon as you get anywhere near that smartphone that you’re not going to turn your attention away any time soon. Which to me as someone who uses my brain for a living, is as scary as cigarettes should be if you made your living as an endurance athlete.”

People, advertisers, apps and brands are all competing for our undivided attention and they’re increasingly coming up with cleverer ways to get our attention. You’ll notice this on Facebook where the notifications have increased dramatically – in line with the platforms strategy to keep us on it longer in the face of worrying trends that people are becoming bored with its platform.

Avoid social media apps if you want to focus

I’m also noticing more and more cognitive disruptions on social platforms, with brands tagging me on their Instagram pics and sending me direct messages on Instagram and Facebook, hoping to get my attention. It’s ingenious marketing (the industry term for it is influencer marketing) and I can’t fault them, but since I am aware of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, it makes me more determined to steel myself from it.

It’s here I should point out that I also have a firm understanding of what’s happening in the digital space because marketing is the industry I work in. To put it bluntly, I am in the business of trying to capture your attention. Really sorry about that. (In my defence, the ethical and sustainable businesses I work with really do deserve your attention…)

My tips to help you stay focussed

If you’re having trouble concentrating amidst the distractions, I completely understand the intrusion on your mind and how irritating it can be. I’ve been where you’ve been. So here are my tips to help you foster deep work:

1. Focus on completing important work not shallow work first so you feel a deep sense of achievement and get into positive work habits.

2. Delete email app off of your smartphone so you’re not distracted when an email comes through.

3. Delete any useless apps off of your smartphone.

4. Go into your smartphone settings and turn off or edit notification preferences for social media apps such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

5. Turn your smartphone off when working and remove it from your sight if its very presence distracts you from your work.

How I Learned to Focus in the Age of Distraction

6. Turn your answering machine on so if people call your office, you’re not distracted by non-urgent phone calls.

7. Activate an email auto response that explains when an email sender can expect a reply.

8. Use a team calendar and block off time for deep work so your colleagues know when they shouldn’t interrupt you.

9. Play lyric-free calming music in the background to help you get ‘in the zone’ (I recommend Spotify’s Deep Focus playlist).

10. Schedule your work day and give yourself mini deadlines throughout the day so that you’re not spending too much time on meaningless work tasks. I give myself 20 minutes to check and answer emails four times a day (I had to alter this schedule to accommodate international clients): in the morning, at lunch, in the afternoon and in the evening.

11. If working on a document whilst doing research, keep only relevant and useful windows open.

12. Use ad blockers when surfing the internet.

If Cal Newport is right, and deep work is what will separate the winners and losers in the new economy, learning to protect your time and being careful with where you place your attention will pay dividends in the long-run. 

For an in-depth look into this subject matter, I recommend you read Deep Work. It is well-researched, insightful and provides more helpful tips to dealing with mental disruptions so you can fully optimise your work time.

How do you stay focussed in the age of distraction? Share your tips below and let’s help others achieve deep work.

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About the author

Jennifer Nini

Jennifer Nini is a writer, activist and the founding editor of Eco Warrior Princess. In 2010, after studying Fashion Business, she began this blog to explore her interests in fashion, politics, social justice and sustainability. Jennifer is also the founder of The Social Copywriter, a digital agency harnessing the power of copywriting and content marketing to help mindful businesses reach more people. When she's not perfecting a sentence or coaching business clients, you will find her at her certified organic farm reconnecting with nature.

2 Comments

  • This is awesome! I do find it difficult to stay focused, and I like the meaning of DEEP WORK – will definitely check out that book. Your suggestions are helpful, especially turning your phone off – I should definitely do that more often! I set goals for myself and try to treat myself if I complete them, ie. if I finish what I need to do this week then I can have a social night out, otherwise I can’t! That usually helps me stay more focused on what needs to get done. Great article Jen!

    • Oh yay! So glad you got something out of this article! I am asked often how I am able to cover so much ground given all the juggling I do and I really do think the advantage I have is my ability to focus and minimise disruptions – so I thought I’d share my tips with everyone else 🙂 I love your reward system too! I think it’s definitely important to celebrate the wins. Goodness knows we earn it right?? 🙂

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