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Deep work: it’s hard (and I didn’t even do very much of it)

Nov 16, 2019

karen reyburn sketchnotes go deep

When I buy a book, I do this very odd thing where for a good few months (or even a year or more) I talk about the concept as if I know what I’m talking about….before I read the book.

I’m not sure why I do that. Maybe it’s preparing my mind to read. No matter how hard I try to change it, my decision to actually open and read a book is greatly influenced by how I feel at the time, what seems important, and my energy levels or brain power levels. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes I wonder if other people simply pick up a book and read it regardless of how they feel. I suppose the only book I truly do that with is the Bible, a small portion of which I read every morning whether I want to or not. And I’m always blessed by it.) 

So the one I’ve bought and which is sitting quietly on my shelf right now is called Deep Work. The ability to “focus without distraction”.

This is definitely not an ability I have right now.

I am hugely distracted on a continual basis. 

Despite turning off all notifications on my phone and all computers and devices, it’s still shocking how I jump around from thing to thing. I’ll be halfway through an email and remember there’s a website page to fix, so I open that up. It opens to another page which also needs fixed so I edit that one, and then I check slack and see a message from one of the team which reminds me to do something I left behind yesterday… and it could be an hour or a day before I finish the email.

Part of it is the culture created around phones and notifications and apps and devices. 

Part of it is some sort of odd inner pride about my multitasking skills (which I’m starting to realise may not serve me as well as I imagined). 

But I think most of it is that distraction prevents us from going deep.

And going deep is hard.

It takes thought. Effort. Striving. Sometimes it takes courage (which involves vulnerability). 

Stopping to think and be quiet is part of that, and when I’m quiet I suddenly realise how incredibly tired I am. Or that I’m not quite sure what I need to do. Or it’s out of my comfort zone and requires extra effort.

This past week I had originally blocked out two days in my diary for Xerocon London. I knew when I booked it there was a solid chance I might not go: I would be returning from three weeks of travel and four major events (two of which were brand new ones we were running), as well as endless small networking and dinner events and meetings. With a week in the middle to quickly see my family in Arizona, with all its emotions and family relationships. So I let myself have the freedom to decide later.

I considered it and discussed it with the team (some of the UK team were going), and when I got back from America decided for a variety of reasons not to go. The primary one was to help our clients and those who know us to build relationships with the team, rather than simply default to me, but the secondary one was Deep Work. Particularly an app we’re developing that is close to launch. 

Taking everything into consideration I thought, if I take those two days and focus on Deep Work – without distraction, and with purpose – I’ll get more achieved for the future of the company. 

So (without reading the book yet) I set aside the days, reviewed everything on my significant to do list, identified a few core categories critical to the business, and made a list of actions related those those three categories. 

The categories were: 

Tech: finalising the PF dashboard app we’ve been custom building for our clients (and marketing related to this)

Hiring: content and marketing related to the current open positions we need to fill at PF 

Prospects: structure and process (including content) for taking our prospects from enquiry through to sale 

It was an ambitious list, and even I knew it was unlikely I would get to all three. I was hoping for about 1.5 of the 3, if I was honest, and as many actions as I could.

Here’s what I completed:

  • Full review of PF dashboard and final changes for beta testing and launch 
  • Email & other content for beta testing process 
  • Waiting list page and form (with automated campaign) for once beta testing is complete 
  • Sketch of key areas critical to prospects, and identification of what content we have and don’t have, and what needs to be adapted or created 

Those were the “deep work” items. And those were only completed when I turned off email and slack, and put my phone on airplane mode. 

I did a lot of other little things too, and I had one meeting each day (one wasn’t moveable, one I chose to take because of timing issues). 

But deep work I found very hard. 

I could only handle it for about an hour at a time. Sometimes only a half hour. 

I realised I’m in a bad pattern of reaching for my phone when I get stuck even in the smallest way. Or when something is taking too long to load, and I’m impatient. 

Or if I’m confused and not sure what to do next, I’ll switch to something I do know how to do, like checking slack or email for quick questions.

But even in spite of all that, I still got an incredible amount of work done in relation to broader and more strategic areas of the business. 

“Imagine what I would have achieved if I didn’t faff about so much,” I thought, and then I decided to be a little easier on myself. After all this is the first time in years I’ve tried something like this, and I was so unused to the quiet.

So I think taking everything into consideration I did very well. My lessons for next time are:

  • A full day is VERY hard to stay so focused for so long. Half day (or three quarters of a day) is probably more realistic.
  • Identifying the big areas, and then the small actions, was the only reason I achieved anything. I did a good bit of prep so I could sail right in on day one. If I hadn’t done that, I would have lost an hour or two on little details before I could get started. 
  • Starting early would make a big difference. It’s winter, and I was catching up on lost sleep thanks to lots of travel, so I didn’t even properly start until close to 10am both days 
  • Timing is critical. It helped immensely that half my team and many of our UK clients were all away at this conference. Late December or early January would also be a good time for this kind of work 
  • Setting guidelines and breaks would be helpful. Something like staying focused for 40-45 minutes and then taking a 15 min break to do easy small stuff

And finally… reading the book might help. As soon as I finish “Dare to Lead” by Brene Brown which I’m currently in the middle of, Deep Work is next.

What I’d love to hear from you is….

What categories or areas would you focus on if you had some Deep Work time? Why?

 

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