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).

Comments

  1. As a man who’s been in the workforce one way or another for over 35 years I have witnessed so many ‘self help’ strategies that I could write a book just naming them all.
    What I’ve come to realise is common sense is the foundation for productivity.
    ‘Deep work’ is what I would call work. A job needs to be done then do it. There are always distractions in life and the workplace is no exception. (I define ‘workplace’ as any location or time where a current ‘job’ needs addressing)
    I find the difficulty with self regulated work is self discipline. Running my own business for 11 years as a picture framer and gallery owner taught me the skills of self discipline, but didn’t reach me how to retain them 🙂
    It’s a constant battle with myself.
    Although there are numerous self help strategies to aid productivity I certainly don’t dismiss them: any tool to help focus the mind on the task in hand is welcome. However, self discipline is also important here too. One can use a large portion of their time ploughing through these various books, courses and seminars without ever understanding that self discipline is key.

    • Alex Roddie says:

      Sure, I agree with that. I’d say these techniques are how I implement (and reinforce, to an extent) my own self-discipline, but you’re absolutely right – without the right mindset nothing will do.

      I’m not sure I explained deep work well in this piece. The idea (as defined by Cal Newport) is that it’s highly creative work that must be done in a flow state, which leverages your unique expertise, and is distinct from shallow work – that is, stuff that might still be essential, and which probably still pays, but which isn’t the foundation of your career. Most professions contain a mix of both. In an average month I’d say the blend is about 50/50 for me. For example, performing a developmental edit on a novel is 100% deep work, while republishing archive TGO features on the website is shallow work – I’m still paid for it, but it isn’t the end of the world if I multitask and am thinking about other stuff on the sidelines. By contrast, attempting to multitask while tackling a developmental edit is a recipe for disaster…

      Deep/shallow work certainly isn’t a perfect analogy, but I think it fits a lot of creative jobs quite well. It’s certainly helped me figure out how to apply my efforts. Ultimately it does come down to discipline and priorities, though, as you say!

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