How to be Less Busy and More Productive
Table of Contents
- The law of productivity
- Deep work and shallow work
- Shallow work produces mediocre work
- Most of us don’t know how to do deep work
- Shallow work makes us look busy, deep work makes us productive
- How to practice deep work and be more productive
- 1. Decide when, how long, where, and how
- 2. Choose one thing to focus on
- 3. Eliminate distractions
- 4. Have a shutdown ritual
Have you ever felt like you don’t have enough time in a day? Or like you’re not being able to give your best at what you do? I have.
After graduating as a working student, I decided to quit my job and go on vacation. I spent my days relaxing, avoiding cognitively demanding work in an attempt to rest my mind after years of studying. A couple of years later, I decided it was time to challenge my mind again so I started working as a freelance writer. This time, I must produce properly researched, 100% original work.
A few projects later, my clients seem happy. I, however, was struggling. I felt like I didn’t have enough time and even though I was able to deliver all my work before the deadlines, I find myself extremely dissatisfied with the quality of my own work. I wasn’t sure but I felt like I could do so much better. Did I just need more time? But I had a lot of time and the deadlines seem adequate. So what was missing? How do I produce better quality work?
Dr. Cal Newport, the author of the book Deep Work, came across what he called the law of productivity, a formula for producing high-quality work.
High quality work produced=( time spent) x (intensity of focus)
When researching for his book, How to Become a Straight-A Student, he noticed that the best students spent less time studying than those who ranked right below them. By maximizing the intensity of their focus, they increase the quality of their results per unit of time spent studying. The students understood the importance of deep work.
What is deep work? Newport defines this as the activities you concentrate on for long periods of distraction-free time, pushing your cognitive abilities to their limits, and therefore, allowing you to produce original, high-value work that is difficult to replicate. On the other hand, shallow work are non-cognitively demanding, we could do them while distracted, not creating much value, and are easy to replicate.
It turns out, the missing piece was the intensity of my focus. I was having a hard time concentrating. I do seem busy trying to finish my writings but a majority of the time, I was distracted. My days looked like this:
- [30 minutes of concentration] “What should I do for my birthday next month?” “Hey, focus!”
- [Goes back to writing] [Couldn’t focus anymore] “Oh, my brain probably needs a break. I’m gonna go get a snack.”
- [Checks phone] “Oh my gosh, I’ve been scrolling for 2 hours?!”
- [Goes back to writing]
- [Gets stressed out about not being able to concentrate]
This goes on for hours and then it’s 10 pm and I haven’t accomplished much. The same thing happens in the next few days until I have no choice but to force myself to finish the project because I have a deadline. Sound familiar? That’s how to produce mediocre work.
I wasn’t productive at all and I say this because I knew I could finish my work in so much less time if only I was able to truly concentrate. But I am not alone on this. With the rise of technologies, social media, the world is now brimming with distractions.
We are constantly being bombarded with attention-grabbing, mind-numbing content that being distracted has become normalized. Most people couldn’t even go a few minutes without checking their phones. Our minds don’t have to work for answers anymore because everything could be solved with one Google search. Most jobs are structured for shallow work and employees are being praised for their abilities to multi-task. We could even see this written as a skill requirement now in job postings.
We don’t notice how much we have diminished our abilities to focus and it isn’t that easy to bring it back. Like any other skill, it requires practice. But with every tool emerging to automate everything, people don’t really see the need to practice this skill anymore. That’s why being able to work deeply has now become a rare commodity.
Back when I was studying, I was really good at working deeply but because I went through a long period of only doing shallow work, I forgot how to do it. If I wanted my writing to get better, if I wanted to be able to produce high-value work, I have to re-train my mind to focus. I have to practice deep work.
We think that busyness is equivalent to being productive. We give our attention to too many things at the same time, preventing us from creating depth. We think that the more work we do, the more productive we are but the more we try to do, the less we actually accomplish.
Busy people try to accomplish too many things at once and they never seem to have enough time. Productive people know which tasks are important, get things done, and have time to savor their meals.
Nowadays, I could produce twice more work in a week than before, I have time for leisure, and I am happy with the quality of each of my work. How was I able to do this?
As I said earlier, deep work requires practice. We have to re-train our brains to focus intensely for long hours. To do this, we have to incorporate deep work sessions into our lives and make it a habit. Here are some tips to help you make deep work a habit:
Every morning, for 3 hours, in my living room, I would practice writing without any distractions. This is my deep work schedule. Find a routine that works for you. It could be for a certain time window in a day like what I did, every 1-2 days a week, or even months in isolation like what author JK Rowling did to finish the last Harry Potter book.
What’s important is that in these sessions, your focus is on practicing your concentration for long hours. It will be hard at first. Maybe at the start, you’d only be able to focus for 30 minutes to an hour but with practice and depending on your goals, maybe you’d become so badass that you’ll be able to focus for 4 hours without any breaks.
Studies in Neuroscience show that every skill fires brain circuits in your brain. When you focus intensely on a specific skill, your brain fires those relevant circuits repeatedly until they form a thick layer of myelin. The more they fire together, the thicker the myelin gets. When this myelin is thick enough, it cements those circuits, making the skill effortless to you. To master a skill is to be well myelinated. This will be difficult to do when you’re distracted as too many circuits are firing at the same time.
So, figure out what skill or task you want to master and focus your deep work sessions on it. Maybe you want to get better at researching, coding, designing logos. Whatever it is, give your
100% concentration on it. Let those brain circuits fire repeatedly until the myelin gets thick enough and producing quality work becomes effortless to you.
Research has shown that when your attention switches to another task, a residue of your attention remains on the task beforehand, resulting in poor performance. The thicker this residue, the lower our performance.
Let’s say you’re concentrating on one task and your phone buzzes. You take a quick peek and your attention goes to your phone. As you go back to the original task, you already have diminished your capacity to produce at your maximum effectiveness.
Make your deep work sessions 100% distraction-free. Put your phones away or put them in airplane mode, lock yourself in a quiet room, put headphones on, put a do not disturb sign on your door, have an automatic responder to your email saying you’re busy, whatever works for you. Set yourself up for success.
Busy people always complain about not having enough time, productive people are efficient with their time. Busy people work harder, productive people work smarter. Finish all your work at a fixed time every day and then forget about everything work-related until the next day.
Go for a walk, have dinner with your family, watch the sunset, and let your mind be fully present in that moment. This allows your mind to recharge so you are able to perform better on your deep work sessions.
Newport argues that the number of people who are able to work deeply is rare and that’s why they are also becoming increasingly valuable. It’s especially challenging nowadays because the world is more distracted than ever. If you want to be deemed valuable in the knowledge economy and be a superstar in your field, you have to practice deep work.
In time, working deeply would be second nature to you and you will get better and faster at what you do. So, what is it that you want to be so good at that people will find you so valuable and difficult to replace? Figure that out and start your journey towards a less busy and more productive life.-
1. Newport, C. (2021). Deep Work. Platkus Books.
2. Leroy, S. (2009). Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109(2), 168–181. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2009.04.002
3. Newport, C. (2006). How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less (32047th ed.). Crown.