Fighting the mind frazzle: techniques for deep work in a busy month
In less than two weeks, I’m dropping off grid for a while. The race is on to complete several major projects before I disappear. Here’s how I’ve been managing.
Never let it be said that being a self-employed writer and editor is easy. This week I have been juggling multiple projects for multiple clients, and at least 75 per cent of it has required ‘deep work’ – skilled, time-consuming work that requires absolute concentration, and can’t be done while distracted.
To have a fighting chance of getting all this done without dissolving into a wobbly heap on the floor, I’ve made use of a few time-proven strategies that always work for me:
- Task lists on paper. Tasks may come in via email, originate in Trello or Slack, or live in big text files on my computer, but when something needs to get today I write it down on paper. My system involves a simple A4-sized diary. I make use of task lists colour-coded by client. The notation looks a bit like a simpler version of the ‘bullet journal’ system, which I’ve used for several years. This is the only way I can juggle complicated projects in my head; electronic productivity apps don’t work for me.
- Time blocking. This really helps when things get busy. On the left-hand side of each page in my diary, I draw an hourly timeline for the day, and assign tasks to time blocks. These plans rarely survive contact with the enemy, but the intention is important – and it helps me learn to make realistic time estimates for the things I have to do.
- Do the deep work first. Shallow work – email, social media, workplace communication, admin, publishing stuff to the web – always comes after deep work. Deep work is what pays the bills and takes up the most of my mental energy. Put another way, shallow tasks have a way of breeding like rabbits and taking up your entire day if you don’t keep tabs on them.
- SelfControl.app. This free Mac app can be configured to block distracting websites. When stressed and pulled in multiple directions I find it difficult to avoid digital distraction, but this tool really helps.
That’s about it. I’d love to say these techniques make me a productivity god, but that’d be a lie – I’m getting the work done, and the quality is where it needs to be, but I’m also feeling the pressure and I’ll be glad when I can take things down a notch. On the plus side, I feel I have judged my capacity for this month quite well. I am fully occupied without feeling crazily overwhelmed (which has happened a few times over the last couple of years).