In today’s busy world, it can be difficult to decide which of the things on your to-do list (which somehow all feel urgent) to get done first. This leads many of us to try to do more than one thing at a time, which tends to result in feeling overwhelmed, scattered, and burnt out.
If you can relate to these frazzled feelings and want to learn how to avoid them while still getting tasks done, perhaps deep work is for you.
What is deep work?
Deep work requires you to be fully present and immersed in whatever task you’re doing. Sometimes, people who practice deep work refer to it as being “in the zone” or a “flow state.”
There are various studies and research reviews that demonstrate the positive relationship between reaching a flow state and performance, artistic creativity, and scientific creativity.
For instance, a 2012 study involving 188 junior tennis players showed that the winning athletes of the group rated their perceived level of flow state during their matches at a higher rate in all but one of nine flow dimensions.
Why multitasking doesn’t work
According to Thatcher Wine, author of “The Twelve Monotasks: Do One Thing at a Time to Do Everything Better,” only two percent of the global population are “supertaskers,” or people who can “actually do two cognitive tasks at the same time.”
“When we try to multitask, what we are really doing is task switching,” explains Wine. A 2019 research review shows evidence that the human brain doesn’t have the cognitive and neural building blocks to perform more than one task at once, which supports Wine’s statement.
What we perceive as multitasking is actually just competing for streams of focus and information, which results in more disruptions in performance as well as more errors committed.
Constantly jumping from one task to another makes it more difficult for us to focus deeply, which often leads to feelings of stress and even burnout.
Instead of giving in to the temptation to multitask (or task switch), try monotasking: giving our full concentration to one task at a time.
Monotasking encourages us to be present at the moment and is the first step to reaching a state of deep work.
How to practice deep work
It’s a lot easier for your attention to be pulled away by distraction if sources of distraction are constantly accessible.
Make it harder for your focus to be swayed by closing your email window so that you can’t see when a new message pops up. You can also put your phone on airplane mode or keep it in a place where you can’t see it.
Communicate to others around you that you’re trying to concentrate on a specific task and ask them (nicely) to not disturb you.
Go for a walk
If you’re all set up for work but can’t seem to find the inspiration or creativity to actually get things done, your body might need to get moving.
Wine says that mindfully moving our bodies is a good way to jumpstart the flow state. To get the most out of your walk, consider walking without any podcasts or music and leaving your phone behind, or keeping it hidden in your pocket.
Try binaural beats
Studies show that certain frequencies of binaural beats (two tones that are of different frequencies) may help boost concentration.
If you’re struggling to get into the zone, search for binaural beat tracks on your preferred streaming platform, throw on some headphones, and listen. Though more research is needed to solidify the link between binaural beats and concentration, at the very least, binaural beats can help eliminate outside distractions.
It always helps to stay organized when trying to cross off several tasks from your to-do list.
To get started, try writing everything you need to do on that day in one go, without any organization. Then, create a secondary list that ranks all the tasks you’ve written down from highest to lowest priority. Lastly, look at your schedule and block out time for each task.
Having a visual representation of your day can help you realize that there truly is enough time to get everything done while permitting yourself to focus on one thing at a time.
Make monotasking a habit
“Almost everything in our world today is designed to fragment our attention,” says Wine. “We see more and more ads, shorter and shorter videos, and are tricked into thinking we can multitask by our devices and technology.”
This can make it difficult to take control of our attention. However, the more monotasking you practice, the easier this will be. To build up your monotasking habit, Wine suggests reading for a short and manageable block of time, like 20 minutes.
Other activities that you can do to help build your focus include:
Find flow in every activity
Deep work doesn’t always have to be about work or accomplishing a creative endeavor. You can “lose yourself” in any activity you do. Something as simple and ordinary as having a conversation can become a mindful activity that pulls you into the present moment.
To help you get into this habit, the next time you’re listening to someone while in conversation, be mindful of eliminating distractions and listening intently.