How to do ‘deep work’ when you’re up to your elbows in email

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We pay a small price every day for the constant distractions in our lives and in our work. While it may only take a minute to reply to an email or instant message, these moments add up, and unfortunately, the total value is much greater than the sum of its parts.

As a consequence of our always on, always connected work style in the digital economy, deep work is becoming almost non-existent.

Deep work, which is an extended period of highly-focused work, is essential to reaching our peak performance. Studies show that when people are distracted from cognitively-demanding work, their performance drops once they return to that work, likely because it takes time to re-engage. This so-called “attention residue” inhibits optimal productivity and efficacy.


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According to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, Rules for Focused success in a Distracted World, research shows the most productive people make an effort to regularly cut themselves off from distractions, isolating themselves to allow solitary thinking.

“No one’s ever made a fortune by being really good sending and receiving emails,” he quips.

And yet, far too few of us are following their lead.

In his book, Newport explains just how detrimental even small distractions, like email, are to our focus. “These ‘brief’ checks can have a massive negative impact on cognitive performance. It’s the switch itself that is negative, not the amount of time spent on checking something else,” he explains.

By giving in to the constant back-and-forth, we sacrifice effectiveness for convenience and simplicity. As our economy continues shifting to one that uses more and more brainpower to produce value, this matters.

Even as communications professionals who are expected to transfer information at lightning speed, we must learn to reshape the way we communicate to preserve our cognitive fitness. The brain, after all, is our most powerful resource.

Here are my top recommendations:

Prepare for deep work

Meditate or visualize your day before work. Ask yourself, what are the top items I need to complete for the day or the week? Then organize your time to make these a reality.

Make the time

Work in blocks of time. Turn off your phone, email and any other notifications during this time to minimize your risk of distraction and to maximize deep work. If you tend to get invited to several meetings a day, consider blocking hours or even days far in advance to make sure you save time for yourself.

Change your routine

Try working at a different time or in a different place if you have the flexibility to do so. Deep work often requires us to put structures in place and plan, but having structure in your schedule doesn’t mean you can’t do unstructured, creative thinking. Instead, it protects time for long periods of undistracted time, allowing us to be our most creative selves.

Break bad habits

Stop answering emails immediately. If your client or internal teams grow accustomed to receiving a reply from you within minutes, they’ll have a difficult time adjusting when you set aside time to do deep work.

Take real breaks

Rest your brain, just as athletes rest their bodies. This means turning off your email on vacation and taking time away in the evenings. But just as it needs time to rest, your brain also needs food. That means real physical nourishment. Before important work, feed your brain with healthy foods that will allow you to stay alert and focused.

The brain is not a computer – it needs to be taken care of and coaxed into high-performance. To optimize your success and grow in your career, make sure you’re giving yourself time to engage your brain and find your highest potential every day, rather than becoming human network router blindly processing tasks and requests all day.

Studies show people who focus intensely on high-skill or high-craft targets tend to enjoy work more, which means being engaged in “deep work” type engagements is also critical to our happiness. For all its merits, the digital economy can be mentally exhausting. Deep work just might be the antidote so many people are looking for in their careers.

Abby Trexler is the SVP Client Relations at Hot Paper Lantern.