Ironically, I started this blog a year ago this month but never got around to posting it. Or maybe that’s not ironic at all. Once again, it’s the start of a new year and I’m thinking about how awesome I’m going to be this year, if I can just manage to spend less time on social media and more time building my skills or business.
Azeria-Labs has a great site dedicated to learning hacking that I highly recommend. (Link at the bottom). But one of the real gems of their site is a 3-part blog post on Self Improvement. This is where I first learned the term “Deep Work.” Originally coined by Cal Newport in his self-same titled book, Deep Work is the ability to focus on a task. Really get into it. Block out everything else, and just do the thing.
If you want to learn or create something really complex, you need to get into this state. You’re not going to get anywhere if you approach a complex task with the same casual interest you approach watching tick toc videos, or doing your dishes. You have to put aside everything else – your daily distractions, your physical needs, your constant anxieties – you have to take them off like a heavy coat and put them aside for at least an hour and focus on nothing but the thing. You have to quash every stray thought that floats into the periphery of your attention. You have to wrangle your self doubts, and tamp down the panic that sets in when you read something complex and don’t immediately understand it, so that you can focus, wholly and completely, on the thing.
And the very thought of how impossible that is makes getting started completely overwhelming. So you procrastinate. Procrastination is just how we marshal our forces to tackle this overwhelming emotional mountain that stands between us and success.
But, think of where you’d be in life if you could just enter Deep Work whenever you wanted! You could learn anything – do anything!
So how do you get there?
First of all – you need to be create an environment that doesn’t fight for your attention. Some of us are lucky enough to just put on headphones and tune out the world. But some of us have responsibilities that can’t be ignored – so we need to schedule time where we can truly be alone.
Second – you need to be comfortable. The goal is to avoid distraction, and being thirsty, or cold, or having a backache makes that nearly impossible.
Of course, “being comfortable” is easier said than done at my age. For a good portion of the year, that meant popping a couple tylenol and turning on turning on an electric blanket. But eventually I realized that to be comfortable, relaxed, and stress free when I want to knuckle down and work, means actively working on improving my health and lifestyle while I’m not working. To be comfortable in your computer chair – you have to get out of it. Often.
Third – One of the main reasons we procrastinate is Anxiety. Let go of your anxieties by facing them head on. Figure out what you’re afraid of, and make your peace with it. Are you afraid of failure? Get over it – people fail all the time. What is the worst that can happen? Maybe you find out you’re not as smart as you thought. Maybe you can understand but can’t retain anything. Can you survive it? Then stop worrying.
Fourth – headphones. Sometimes music or ambient noise helps me concentrate. Sometimes, I just have my headphones on, but don’t play anything through them at all. There’s a part of your attention system that is always on and quickly respons to external stimuli. Music keeps that part from reacting to every stray sound or thought that floats past. And over time, I’ve trained my brain that the act of putting the headphones on is a ritual that brings all my attention to focus and buffers out the rest of the world.
Fifth – eliminate distraction. Lets face it – the work you’re facing is probably not fun or comfortable. (If it was, you’d be rushing to do it!) Some part of your brain is going to be desperately searching for something better to do. Maybe your phone buzzes, or an email notification pops up. Maybe you just feel your mind starting to wander and tab over to reddit to see if anything new and exciting is happening in the world. Eliminating distractions is the hardest change to make because even with the best intentions, we’re usually hopelessly addicted to devices and services that keep us checking and scrolling.
What I find works for me is blocking out time. Instead of telling myself “I’m not going to look at my phone right now” I tell myself “I’m not going to look at my phone for the next 2 hours.” Having that finality to my work schedule gives my addicted inner-child the sense of a closed-ended time frame to have to wait, which takes less self discipline.
Ultimately, eliminating Procrastination leads to more Deep Work, which is a skill and like any other it gets easier with practice. If you can master it, you will be unstoppable.
I highly recommend these posts by Azeria on learning and focus: