The ability to Deep Work and Single Task is one of the most important skills for modern knowledge work.
Deep Work is a term popularised by Cal Newport and refers to getting the things done that really matter.
Single Tasking is the opposite of multitasking, or working on one thing and only one thing at a time.
It may seem odd that we have to think about working on the important things or doing only one thing at a time. The problem is that attention-grabbing distractions are everywhere, and many of us have forgotten the art of deep work and single tasking.
Thankfully, the ability to do both is inbuilt into human nature. We just have remind ourselves how.
A Simple System for Deep Work and Single Tasking
There is a very simple way to tap into your inbuilt ability to perform deep work:
- Set up your workspace.
- Set up your inner game (mindset).
1. Setting Up Your Workspace
Here are some specific things you can do to prepare your workspace for a deep work session:
- Remove any unnecessary distractions like your phone, and close all unneeded browser tabs and windows.
- Prepare your favourite things for work. This could be tea or coffee, music, headphones, lighting and so on. Whatever makes it easier for you to work, set that up and have it ready to go.
- Have all your work tools and apps ready.
- Complete any preparation work beforehand. This could be an outline if you are writing something, or reference texts if you are doing a strategic thinking session.
- Prepare a timer. You will need this later. Also decide on the length of your sessions. Popular lengths would be twenty-five minutes, fifty minutes or ninety minutes.
- Block out time in your schedule for your deep work session.
If this seems like a lot of preparation work – it isn’t.
Once you have gone through this set up a couple of times, it will become second nature.1You can also write an SOP for this if you like.
2. Setting Up Your Inner Game / Mindset
The next thing to do is to mentally prepare yourself to single task and deep work.
You can do this by:
- Making clear in your mind exactly what it is you have to do. Be clear that it is worth your time and will produce something of value.
- Mentally block out all external stimuli. Take a breath and bring your attention to your chosen single task.
- Remind yourself that if the world ends during this time… so be it. You will meet your end in deep work, focused on your single task.
Mentally preparing yourself is important to performing deep work and single tasking.
You also get to practice a number of virtues, including self-discipline, focus, clarity and discernment.
3. Executing Deep Work and Single Tasking
Start your timer… and work.
Reviewing Deep Work and Single Tasking
Once your session is done, it may be tempting to immediately review “how it went”.
I would advise against this.
Wait until at least the end of the day, and then ask yourself how it went, and what workspace or mindset adjustments you can make so that your next session is even better.
An example would be your timer length, or discarding the timer completely, and just working until your single task is done.
The Deep Work and Single Tasking Endgame
The endgame for deep work and single tasking is to spend more and more of your time doing work of value, and focusing on one thing at a time.
So how can you do this?
There are a number of things that can help:
- Meditation increases your ability to deep work and single task.2Jha, A.P., Krompinger, J. & Baime, M.J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience 7, 109–119. doi:10.3758/cabn.7.2.109.
- A more flexible work schedule typically allows for more deep work sessions per day.
- “Shallow work” or busy work can be automated or delegated to others.
- Getting in sufficient downtime/disconnection time reduces stress levels and makes it easier to sit down and perform deep work.3Though if you are in the middle of an obsessive work sprint of two-to-three weeks, there is no need for this.
- The more virtues that you practice, the easier deep work becomes.
What To Do Next
Doing deep work is not complicated.
It is, and should be, simple.
Give it a go, and be pleasantly surprised at how much you’re able to get done.
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- You can also write an SOP for this if you like.
- Jha, A.P., Krompinger, J. & Baime, M.J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience 7, 109–119. doi:10.3758/cabn.7.2.109.
- Though if you are in the middle of an obsessive work sprint of two-to-three weeks, there is no need for this.
Photo by Simon Migaj.