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Graham D Brown - author of the guide
- 1 WHAT IS THIS?
- 2 DEEP WORK: HOW TO GET MORE DONE IN LESS TIME
- 3 NO… YOU CAN’T SLEEP LESS!
- 4 THE DAILY HABIT OF RITUAL AND ROUTINE
- 5 THE DAILY HABIT OF WORKING WHEN YOU’RE WORKING (AND NOT WHEN YOU’RE NOT)
- 6 THE DAILY HABIT OF SETTING RULES
- 7 THE DAILY HABIT OF PLANNING AND REVIEW
- 8 THE DAILY HABIT OF DOING THE MINIMUM
- 9 THE DAILY HABIT OF SAYING “NO”
- 10 GUIDE CONTENTS: CHAPTERS 1-12
- 11 GET THE GUIDE EBOOK
WHAT IS THIS?
HOW TO GET MORE DONE IN LESS TIME
In this section of The Guide, I’m going to share with you my thoughts, habits and experiences on achieving Deep Work work.
A lot of this is good old fashioned habits.
Some of it may appear familiar through the works of authors like Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), Gary Keller (The One Thing), Tim Ferriss (The 4 Hour Workweek) and Greg McKeown (Essentialism). In fact, it goes all the way back to the classics, with Aristotle first reminding us that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Whether Aristotle actually said that, or what he said, remains an unsolved mystery, but the point is for thousands of years, we have struggled to master our habits.
Deep Work, the term coined by Cal Newport, is nothing new. But, as with all these things, it takes somebody to give it a name for us to understand it better.
Deep Work really means being able to work productively without distraction.
Deep Work is a refreshing change from the world of hacking everything from sleep to speed reading to speed-consuming media, the ugly children of our culture of “more”. You are always only one click away from a website article that reads, “How to do get ripped for summer by doing just 1 sit-up just 3 weeks after giving birth” (which is then followed by “Why sit-ups are killing you/making you fat/making you depressed”).
Deep Work, more than anything, is internal work. It’s that constant daily self-improvement that tries to weed out the bad habits and improve the good. A lot of people don’t like it because it’s like exercise. You can’t train for a marathon in a weekend, and 10 workouts in the gym won’t set you up for life. You got to keep doing it.
Here’s what you need to make Deep Work work:
- Detox Junk Media: You need to recognize the negative influences in your life (media, people etc) turn the off or tune them down
- Rituals and Routines: You need to remove the overhead of thinking and get yourself into productive rituals throughout the day, especially at the beginning and the end of the day
- Work When You’re Working: You need to give yourself completely to your work when you’re working and turn off when you’re not. The best way to achieve this is build your day around creative hours and blocks of time
- Set Rules: Get everybody on board. Make life easier on yourself by setting out some clear ground rules for work and play
- Plan and Review: Train yourself to “see” what your day looks like before it happens and review your progress after it has
- Do the minimum: Focus on results not activity. Get okay with the fact you could be doing very little. Don’t waste your time wasting time.
- Say NO: Guard your time fiercely and filter out the noise that can distract from your Deep Work.
- Double Down: Find what works and forget the rest.
That also means that it’s work in progress. While the core of my Deep Work remains unchanged, I’m open to new ways to achieve it and I’m always experimenting with new tools. That’s why this section is going to change and evolve over time, and you should too.
So let’s get to work…
NO… YOU CAN’T SLEEP LESS!
For the longest time, I felt guilty about sleeping 8 hours a day. I remember somebody telling me at a startup event that I should aim for 5-6 hours because “I wasn’t a baby anymore!” It’s hard to doubt yourself when you face a constant barrage of media narratives and office bragging about how successful people only sleep 3 hours a day.
“Mrs Thatcher only slept 3 hours a day!”
But I don’t want to be Mrs Thatcher!
If you’re Googling “how can I sleep less?” so that you can have more hours in the day to squeeze your work in, you’re asking the wrong question.
The answer to being more productive doesn’t lie in having more hours to produce, but in getting focused in the time that you do have.
Sleeping less is a sure fire way to an early grave. Cutting back on your sleeping hours is a false economy and a sure sign that you need to deal with the causes of your busyness rather first before you compound them.
Today there is a whole bunch of articles and research being published telling us that now… wait for it… sleep is good for us! Slap my head. Well perhaps we need to hear the other side of the argument because the sleephackers have had their way for too long.
It’s not just sleephacking but a whole culture of hacking time to become more efficient that I find counterproductive.
There is an article on Lifehacker here which gives you tips on “how to binge watch all the television that matters”. For me, none of it matters… so that would be an easy task. I don’t watch TV (more on that later).
Walk through any bookstore and go to the languages section. You’ll find a whole host of books titled “Japanese for busy people in 30 minutes a day” or something similar. These books sell, but the irony is that nobody’s learning anything from them. The physicist Richard Feynman said, “you are the easiest person to fool”… it’s easy to fool ourselves that we are achieving more by cramming in more.
Speed reading is a good example of this. You might be able to read one book a day every day for a year, but people forget reading can be a pleasure, and what’s the pleasure in turning pages fast? We even have speed listening. There is a software called FasterAudio that promises to “cut your audio learning time in half” by speeding up the track!
Don’t fall into this trap of trying to constantly cram more in. Rather than cram in more, focus more on what matters. Charles Darwin famously was slow and thought deeply… Some said he was a “slacker”. Darwin did Epic Shit. If that’s what it takes, that’s what you need to do.
THE DAILY HABIT OF RITUAL AND ROUTINE
There’s a good reason for this. They’re not lazy. Scientists call it decision fatigue, and it’s the reason why we get worn down and run out of willpower half way through the day.
Every decision you make uses up a little energy in your system, no matter how small it may be. These small amounts add up.
Think of those first few moments when you start your day. You probably open your laptop and check your emails. Then there’s that client request. Now your first cup of coffee. Now you have to deal with getting your daughter to school. Few more emails. Somehow you ended up on Facebook looking at cats. It’s 11am.
Where did the day go?
No wonder Eighty percent of U.S. workers say they are stressed at work.
We get stressed because we lose control. From the seemingly innocent act of checking email you set the precedent. Rather than acting on your goals, you are now reacting to the world around you. As Jocelyn K. Glei writes in Manage Your Day-to-Day, “..the trouble with this approach is it means spending the best part of the day on other people’s priorities.”
Let’s change things.
You’re not going to work harder, you’re just going to be more structured.
A successful daily routine will help you achieve laser-like focus from the moment you wake up in the morning. Successful people have successful rituals and maybe that’s enough to give them the single digit % advantage on a daily basis to get them ahead.
Tony Robbins has a morning routine that includes several breathing exercises and visualization techniques that get him to a state of clarity and focus. He starts every morning by jumping into a tepid swimming pool just to break him out of his “state”. Some people drink coffee, others go for a walk.
I always prepare my clothes for tomorrow the night before and lay them out ready for me. When I’m ready for bed, it doesn’t matter because I don’t need to make any more decisions that day. What’s left in the tank is a bonus. And tomorrow? That’s one less decision I need to make.
Whatever it is, find a routine that works and stick with it.
Your morning ritual needs to be something you own, not a copy of what others do.
Experiment, pick what flies and drop what doesn’t. Don’t get hung up on meditation if that’s not working. Whatever you try, remember it’s work in progress. Also remember this… Good rituals put you in control. Rituals make you happier (research shows they are one of the most powerful happiness boosters.)
Start with a START UP RITUAL
One way to use habits to fight procrastination is to develop a habitualized response to starting. When people talk about procrastination, what they’re usually actually talking about is the first step. In general, if people can habitualize that first step, it makes it a lot easier. – Charles Duhigg, bestselling author of The Power of Habit
Without strong daily habits, distraction becomes the rule. “Stuff” takes over, dominating the to-do list of tasks for the day. Every day ends feeling unfulfilled or frustrated that you couldn’t get to do what you really wanted.
In the book “Eat That Frog!” author Brian Tracy recommends dealing with your biggest baddest task first before you move on to the more motivating stuff. I see the logic in the argument (you end up continually putting off what really counts). On the other hand, I see why this wouldn’t work too (and I’ve tried it). By constantly confronting yourself with a huge mountain to climb first thing, it may work for a few days but when your motivation runs out, so does your ability to get things done.
That’s why I’m a fan of quick wins. Quick wins build momentum throughout the day.
Tim Ferris recommends making your bed as your first goal of the day. (According to psychological research, people who make their bed in the morning are happier and more successful than those who don’t.) It seems innocuous but daily habits cascade from each other. If you start out with a win, it’s much easier to continue that momentum throughout the day than it is to be backtracking as in the above Facebook cats example, and that makes us feel in control… and happier.
I use the Loop Habits Tracker app to help me create these winning routines. It’s free and it works. What you do is write down all the daily / weekly habits that you want to achieve in one list. On my phone I’ve created a blank page containing all the widgets for my daily habits. On another page I’ve created a similar spread for all the weekly or multi-day habits.
So, let’s say as in my case I have a set of activities I want to achieve in the morning like:
- Drink water
- Take my nutrition
- Eat 30g of protein (Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Body, and Donald Layman, nutrition professor at University of Illinois, recommends consuming at least 30 grams of protein after waking up)
- Drink green juice
- Clean office space
- Review daily goals
When I complete each habit I simply press the button on the widget and it logs as done for the day. It works well for stuff that occupies your mind but seems unimportant too like “organize my work drawers”. I assign that as a once in every 60 days habit. It’s good housekeeping not just because now it gets done but also it frees up the space in my head to think about it.
A key part of my Start Up Ritual is a form of visualization (I talk more about this in the 60-30 Habit). I review the 3 objectives I want to achieve today. I’ll then open the Google Calendar tab showing today only on my browser, so it’s always there in the background.
End with an SHUT DOWN RITUAL
Workday is over. But your mind is still going and going and going. You gotta get your brain out of “work mode” to relax. A shut down ritual can be as simple as closing the lid of your laptop. I tidy my office space and write down the 3 goals I want to achieve tomorrow. It’s a behavior that signals to my brain, time to change gears. These nudges are small, but they are effective.
“Establish a closing ritual. Know when to stop working. Try to end each work day the same way, too. Straighten up your desk. Back up your computer. Make a list of what you need to do tomorrow.” – Dan Pink (bestelling author)
I suggest using this kind of system to get you into the right space when starting and ending your day. It works for the tasks that you need to do automatically, and aren’t necessarily the ones you enjoy. I wouldn’t recommend this for activities that you look forward to or are enjoyable (e.g. exercise, time with family, the cool stuff at work) because habitizing them can become demotivating.
THE DAILY HABIT OF WORKING WHEN YOU’RE WORKING (AND NOT WHEN YOU’RE NOT)
Organize your day so you can achieve Deep Work, focusing on the core goals of the day during that time and nothing else.
Avoid breaking your day up into lots of micro-tasks. The more you can get into the Deep Work zone and stay there, the more productive you will be. But, don’t overstretch. Deep Work has its limits. Like any activity you need a break and you need to regroup. Make sure that when you’re working, you’re working and when you’re not you’re not. Sounds simple, but it’s a lot easier and messier to blur everything together and work start to finish unproductively.
Firstly, your day does not have to be packed end to end to be successful.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, based on a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers argue that “busyness” is an actual way people signal their importance. Sounds like “be strong” to me… or in other words, bullshit.
95% of people surveyed by Time Off claimed that using their paid time off was very important. And yet for the first time in recorded history, more than half of Americans (55%) left vacation days unused, which equates to 658 million unused vacation days. Why? Because we’re either too God-damned scared to take time off for fear of losing our jobs or we’re dumbass stupid thinking it makes us look important.
The world of advertising has caught on to our insecurities. There’s this Cadillac ad from 2014 starring actor Neal McDonough that parades images American achievement and hard work. McDonough finishes with the line… “as for all the stuff, that’s the upside of only taking two weeks off in August.”
Well done… dumbass.
In this HBR article, research found that the average vacation does not improve energy levels or reduce stress anyway! Why? Because working like a bastard morning to night in the hope you can recharge when you get those 2 weeks off is a broken strategy.
Secondly, build your day around your most productive hours.
It’s better to assign 2 core hours in your day and set yourself the goal of completing your main task in that time than it is to work 10 hours unproductively and beat yourself up at the end of it. There’s an interesting article here about discovering your best time of day to work.
I’ll work 2 hours, go to the gym for 2 hours, take 2 hours off for lunch and recovery, then I’m back at it for another 2 hour work session. I allow myself time to waste – to surf the internet, to browse Amazon or whatever. I don’t beat myself up and get frustrated because I’m not producing in that time.
Here’s how my day might look…
For me, it’s a busier than usual day because this was leading up to a half-Ironman race in Nagoya, Japan. I had scheduled 3 workouts during the day including a longer cycling session middle of the day. That works well for me, I find that my work outputs usually slumps between 2pm and 4pm, so rather than stare at the screen unproductively, I’m out exercising.
I don’t normally schedule all the way up until the evening, but this was an exception. The key to this day was building it around 2 “Main Goal” blocks in the morning and evening. During this time I dedicate myself to completing my main goals for the day and nothing else. Doesn’t mean I can’t work on these goals at other times throughout the day, it just means that during these power hours, that’s my only focus.
Some people use hacks like the Pomodoro Technique. You can get Pomodoro timer apps for your PC or phone. They basically are a 25 minute work timer with a 5 minute break interval. Many swear by their effectiveness. When I work, I set my work interval to 55 minutes and 5 break which is contrary to most research when it comes to attention span but I guess since I’ve gotten good at Ironman I’ve trained my brain to deal with long periods of repetitive work. To be honest, I’m not convinced about Pomodoro, but you should give it a go. I find that I forget to set it, or just ignore it anyway. I work much better doing 2 x 1 hour batches and then taking an extended break afterwards – as you’ll see in my schedule below.
Here’s how a “normal” day would look below… see, not so busy. Stop telling people about the crazy hours you work. It doesn’t help.
It’s not dissimilar from the kind of schedule shared by Tim Ferriss of the 4 Hour Workweek.
- 10 a.m.: Breakfast
- 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m.: Radio interviews and idea generation
- 12: Work out
- 12:30: Lunch
- 1:00 to 5: Writing (but not for the entire time)
- 5:30: Dinner
- 6:30 to 8.30: Jiu-jitsu training
- 9: Dinner
- 10: Ice bath and shower
- 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.: Relax
The point is that your day is chunked at not a standard end-to-end grind of work.
Lastly, stop saying bullshit like “I’m a night owl”
A night owl is someone who drinks too much coffee or has a distraction problem during the day. This self-talk reinforces the belief that this is who you are, not a symptom of a daily schedule that isn’t working.
THE DAILY HABIT OF SETTING RULES
If you’re working at home and you have family or friends around you make it clear what your hours of work are. I’m fortunate to have a door that separates my work space from the rest of the house, but not everybody is that lucky. If you do, close the door. Make it clear that you are working and don’t want to be disturbed.
Here are a few rules I use to get more done:
- I put my Wifi router on a timer that switches off between midnight and 6 am. I’ve caught myself using the internet late a few nights and the Wifi drops off. My initial reaction is protest, but in most cases, my good nature wins. Getting up out of my seat breaks the habit and I realize it’s better to go to bed than to waste hours surfing late at night.
- I never take work to the bedroom or talk about work there. It’s tempting to bring a laptop to your bed but you’re teaching your brain that your place of rest is also now a place of work. Clear boundaries are going to help you switch off when you need to.
- If I want to engage in focused, deep work, I wear headphones (even if I’m not listening to music). Sometimes I listen to Binaural Beats. Hard to describe what these are, except to say that Binaural Beats are soundwaves that are semi-hypnotic sounds that help focus your mind. Much of what’s available out there is noise, including whale sounds and all that nonsense, but there are good ones too. There are also apps for Binaural Waves. For more on Headphones…See below.
- When I close my office door, it means do not disturb. Seems obvious but you have to also say that you’re not running away but you’ll make more time for your family or people in your house when you are out of the office.
- I don’t read my phone in bed. It’s tempting. The easiest way I stopped this was removing the charger cable that made it possible. I do take my smartphone to bed, but only to listen to music.
- I’m not on Twitter. Well I have an automated account but I’m not there. I don’t engage in conversations on Twitter or Facebook. A lot of people do, and maybe it works for some of them. For me, Twitter is a distraction. Sure, it’s good that others use it and tweet about my work, but I’d rather focus on giving them stuff to fill their tweets than be constantly checking for replies to my own.
Rather than lock yourself away for the whole day, batch your day accordingly.
Let’s say you close the office from 8 to 10 in the morning when your partner is getting the kids ready for school and everything’s settled down. At 10 you can emerge for 2 hours, make time for your spouse or your little ones if they’re not at school, or of the furry kind even. You’re not hiding away, you’re being clear that there is a quality separation between your times and you want others to help you observe it too. They’ll get more of you during your off-time this way, then just a part of you when you’re working distracted throughout the day.
If you’re working at a coworking space or in a cafe (or you’re working at home without a clearly definable workspace) you need to make it clear that you’re working. Easiest way to do this is buy a set of headphones and wear them, even if you’re not listening to music. Some people can’t listen to music and work at the same time, it’s a personal preference. Whether you do or not, the point is wearing the headphones makes it clear to other people that they are disturbing you if they interrupt.
THE DAILY HABIT OF PLANNING AND REVIEW
Plan your days, weeks, months and years. This habit works well with many of the other habits e.g. Measurement, Ritual and Visualization.
Plan but don’t get obsessive about the detail. Set out a loose framework but don’t plan down to the minute. If you over-plan you significantly increase the risk of things not working. You can run out of time and the plan can fall apart. Most likely your subconscious will rebel against the plan after a few days. That’s why putting “45 minute workout at the gym at 19:15” in your diary might work first couple of times but you’ll soon start missing them. You have to build in some flexibility.
Fitness guru Ben Greenfield uses a pen and paper to write out how he wants his day to unfold. It’s part visualization, part ritual and part planning.
Chris Guillebeau recommends an annual review which is both a review of the current year and a plan for the next.
THE DAILY HABIT OF DOING THE MINIMUM
You can get a lot more done in the less time if you know what works and what doesn’t.
Tim Ferriss calls it the “Minimum Effective Dose”.
That’s the minimum you need to get the result you want.
Let’s say you’re trying to lose weight. Well, there is a Minimum Effective Dose (MED) for that: do the least necessary to trigger a fat loss cascade of specific hormones.
MED is why you can lose more weight doing one exercise than another, even if the second one burns far more calories and you do it more often. It doesn’t make sense simply counting calories.
Fitness expert Ben Greenfield suggests that many exercisers end up doing “NML” workouts (No Man’s Land workouts). These are a waste of time. This would be for example, the regular 30 minute swim at lunch every day, same pace, or the 2 hour Sunday run. You might think you’re maintaining your fitness, but you’re not. This is the “anti-MED” (the Maximum Ineffective Dose!).
Dan Sullivan, founder of Strategic Coach, says that there are two economies: The Economy of Hard Work and The Economy of Results. In most people’s cases, they are driven by the Economy of Hard Work because they don’t know what the result is right now:
- You have to wait until the next quarter to get your review
- You don’t know if your activity is increasing or decreasing sales
- There are so many variables you don’t know which is causing what
You can apply MED to your work too.. What is the MED to get results The key to making MED work for you is understanding what works, how much effort you need to get there, and doing no more… If you do more you end up in NML, doing No Man’s Land work.
You need to be able to clearly define and measure your goal:
- Can you easily access the “score” right now or in the next 5 minutes?
- How do you know you’re halfway there?
Having a clearly definable and measurable goal enables you to focus only on results not activities.
Here’s how I apply the MED in my daily routines:
- I have a dashboard of metrics that I’m tracking including sales and website traffic which I can access from a Google Spreadsheet in my browser.
- Instead of working 7 hours back-to-back I organize my day into 2 hour batches to focus on my assigned goals for that day. I’ll work on one goal for two hours and then take 2 hours off to workout or eat lunch.
- I find that if I only have one project to work on, I end up going way beyond the MED on that one project because there is no alternative. By having multiple projects, I can do just what’s necessary, leave it and move on to the next. This allows the results to bed in and for me to get perspective on the effectiveness of my activity.
THE DAILY HABIT OF SAYING “NO”
The late Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, was one the most brilliant minds of twentieth century science. To his colleagues at Cornell, however, he seemed lazy. As Feynman admitted in a 1981 interview: “I’m actively irresponsible; I tell everybody I don’t do anything; if anyone asks me to be on a committee…’no’ I tell them.”
You have to ruthlessly edit out the activities and the people from your life that waste your time so you can be generous with those that don’t.
Let’s start with junk media… turn that off.
News exploits our negativity bias. You wouldn’t know it from reading the media, with all the terrorist attacks on our shores and chaos in the Middle East, but we live in one of the safest times ever. (Human death by warfare of crime is at a historical low). But, happy stories don’t sell advertising space… and it just so happens that we humans have evolved to pay attention to what’s scary and infuriating. That’s why headlines are full of scary, infuriating brown people (note: stereotype not mine) regardless of reality.
A third of people waste three hours a day on stuff like social media.
I think those numbers are being generous, particularly when you consider this is only measured “during work time”.
I have to laugh.
What is the figure if you include all waking hours? You can’t avoid social media. Despite threatening to quit many times, I’m still on Facebook mainly because it’s the only way I can communicate with my relatives in different countries. I’m on Instagram too but it’s a constant struggle to not get sucked into the lives of other people. They say comparison is the thief of joy and if there’s a guaranteed way to make yourself unhappy, it’s to spend an hour scrolling through Instagram feed looking at pictures of improbably sculpted bodies, 20 somethings enjoying amazing lives living on paradise islands or people who get 10,000 likes for posting a picture of a cup of coffee with no caption.
Anyway, I don’t want to waste any more time talking about TV and media… You can’t live without it, but you can certainly choose to not live on it. Let’s move on.
Turning down the volume on media is quite easy.
With people, however, it’s more challenging. To get focused and get more done, you will also need to learn to say “NO” to people more often. “NO” should be your default position While that may appear negative, what you’re actually doing is leaving a little on the table (This will become easier when you start upgrading who you hang around with). Every “NO” is also a big “YES” to what’s burning inside of you.
Does it make your heart beat faster? If not, say “NO”. Your heart doesn’t lie.
Author Derek Sivers (who sold his business CD Baby for $20m) puts it like this… “No more YES. It’s either HELL YEAH! or no.”
Don’t be afraid to quit what doesn’t work, even if it seems like the moniker of success in your field.
Conference speaking is a good example. It’s very seductive because now you’re the big guy, the important one everybody has to listen to but in most cases they are a waste of time (except the conferences that really matter for your brand like TED or the ones that are recorded). Most conference presentations fade into obscurity and all you’ve achieved is satisfying your ego.
Your default answer should always be “NO”.
Neal Stephenson is an in-demand author. On his blog, he gets a lot of media request and speaking engagements. To help him manage this noise, he warns…”I almost never accept these and when I do, I charge a lot of money, I demand expensive travel arrangements, and I perform no prep work—I just show up and wing it.”
Don’t go to meetings, don’t watch TV and do something everyday that makes your heart beat faster. That’s my policy when dealing with distractions in my life. I’d rather build a reputation for being a little difficult but delivers on my promises than for being a YES man who’s also a flaker.