Gini Dietrich

Build Deep Work Into Your Day, Every Day

By: Gini Dietrich | August 17, 2016 | 

Deep WorkThere is a new book out that is getting lots of attention, particularly from executives around the globe.

It’s called Deep Work and it’s authored by Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown University.

Deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail, social media, and meetings, not even realizing there’s a better way.

This description probably sounds very familiar to you.

You get to work, you check your email and social media. You go to a meeting. You check your email to make sure nothing has blown up. You go to a meeting. You check social media to have a brain break. You go to a meeting.

And so it goes all day, every day.

By Friday, you’re exhausted and completely stressed out because you’ve accomplished nothing.

What you really wish for is more time…if just someone would invent the 26-hour work day and I were the only one who had access to it.

Well, guess what?

Deep work does work, if you can take control of your day.

Six Tips to Build Deep Work Into Your Day

What works for one person may not work for others, but there are some tried and true time management tips that work for everyone.

  1. Schedule all of your meetings in blocks of time. For instance, I do all of my meetings each day before noon, except on Mondays (I do all of my internal and client meetings on Mondays). It’s extremely rare I will take a meeting after 1:00 during the rest of the week. For me, the afternoons are for deep work, which I know I can’t do if I’m interrupted several times with meetings.
  2. Have no more than three items on your task list each day. It is impossible to get more than three big things finished each day. By having a to-do list that carries over day after day, you’re adding undue pressure on yourself and creating feelings of being overwhelmed. Have a daily task list with no more than three items on it…and get all three things finished that day.
  3. Schedule time for email and social media. Close your email (or take it offline, which is what I do) and keep your social networks closed for most of the day. Check both first thing in the morning, around lunchtime, and again before you shut down for the day. I’ll check my email from my phone, to be certain there isn’t anything from a client or an employee that is urgent, but it’s rare I will answer them except during my allotted time.
  4. Empty your inbox every day. This one may not work for everyone because I know lots of people who use their inbox as their filing system. That would drive me to drink copious amounts of alcohol. Before I finish for the day, I go through my inbox. I add stuff to my to-do list (in Wunderlist), file, respond, and delete. I also am a HUGE fan of SaneBox because it’s made this task much more realistic. For instance, this morning I had only 10 emails in my inbox. SaneBox had filed everything else for me.
  5. Write your task list the night before. Before you end your day, figure out what tasks you have remaining for the week, review what’s come in that takes priority, and assign the three most important things for the next day. That way, when you begin your day, you’re already ready to roll.
  6. Use one day for nothing but thinking and doing. This day for me is Tuesdays. I rarely take meetings on Tuesdays because that is my day to get things done that have been sitting there for a week (and because Mondays are typically full of meetings from 8-5 so I need the following day to follow-up on things I promised). Right now, that time is spent on follow-up, on working on Spin Sucks projects (online course forthcoming!), on scheduling guest blog posts, and working on business tasks (process creation, new products, new ideas).

Manage Your Time; Find Work/Life Balance

I know it’s easy for me to sit here and extol this wisdom.

After all, I own the business so I can pretty much determine what works and what doesn’t work.

I can set my own schedule.

Sort of.

There is only one person who can be sure you can do the deep work that will allow you to be productive: You.

You’ll get some pushback in the beginning, “What do you mean you can’t meet at 5:30 on Friday night?”, but people will begin to get used to the schedule you’ve set and will accommodate.

Of course, there are jobs where this won’t work and there will be times you have to be flexible, but for the most part, these tips will help you manage your time, be more productive, do deep work, and meet that elusive work/life balance.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Sounds an interesting book. Though, as you mention at the end, I think it has a limited audience (self-starter and entrepreneurs).

    While it’d be nice to try and implement the bullet points covered here, it’s unrealistic for a lot of people, unfortunately. Especially when it comes to certain industries.

    Look forward to checking out the book, though.

  • Corina Manea

    Another book for my reading list. Thank you!

  • Turning off email used to be really hard. Everyone used it as an IM tool and if you didn’t answer in under an hour, someone would be at your desk asking where you’ve been. Slack is a great alternative.

    These are good tips, but in many situations they will only work for management. Employees can control tips four and five; the others are more dependent on the higher ups. I think how/when meetings are scheduled or turning off email or simplifying your task list is worth a conversation (or several) with your boss. Maybe they’re looking for ways to add more deep work time in their schedule as well.

    • I BET YOUR PARDON?!?! If you didn’t work HERE, I’d agree with you, but do you think this really only works for management here? If you do, we have an issue we need to work through, as a team.

      • Ah! No, no, no! I didn’t mean here! I was referring to past experiences.

  • It can be far too easy to let your work life become ruled by your email inbox. Love your tips for how you keep that from happening.

    • I also love that SaneBox and Slack have helped in this regard. I feel free from my inbox for the first time ever!

  • Another book for my reading list. As Danny Brown pointed, it’s great for those of use who are self employed/freelance, however the big challenge is, try and implement this in a large organization (corporate/non-profit/global agency/Gov’t), all I’m going to say is, good luck.

    • As someone who’s in a managerial role at a Government org with over 18,000 employees…. yeah, good luck with implementing this… 🙂

      • Do yo not have any control over your schedule? Say, for instance, declining a meeting where it’s just an FYI or blocking time off on your calendar so it can’t be taken?

        • Have you worked in government before? 😉

          In all seriousness, with about 12-15 stakeholder approvals needed, etc, you take meetings when they’re booked, as you never know when you’ll get another chance.

          • And chalk one more thing in the pro column for owning your own business.

        • When I worked in a corporate setting, my time was only my time if it didn’t interfere with a team, physician or vendor meeting. The expectation was always to be a team player, regardless of the workload. So, if I blocked off Wednesday afternoons from 3 – 5 for me and a project manager could only meet during those times, my time block was trumped.

          I also worked between 50-60ish hours a week during that time of my life because of that mentality. I didn’t know any better, and management priorities were more important.

          I do think this way of thinking is possible, if the bar is set at the management level.

          • When I worked at the big agency, it was the same for me…and they didn’t care if you couldn’t get your work done during normal work hours. I suppose that’s why it’s so important to me to make sure our culture here isn’t like that.

    • For this to work you need buy in at the top at senior executive level to set an example and penalize any mid level manager who lapses into bad habits. Like I said, hope spring’s eternal in the organizational environment. Now for the self employed/freelancer deep work is much easier to implement.

      • It is a lot easier for me to implement. I get that. But I also think there are ways to make it work, no matter who the crappy boss happens to be.

  • I love turning off my phone and my email in the mornings, as of late. It seems I get the most done and can get to my deep work items.

    I need to be more diligent about the list of three. I struggle with listing all the things. In reality, it makes my day look so friggin’ exhausting.

    • You know what I do to overcome this? I have a BIG list in my notebook that is fluid and moves week-by-week. Each evening, I go through it and choose the three big things that need to be done the next day, cross them off that list, and add them to my next day’s list. It allows me to have a list of all the things and still focus.

      • That’s a really good method. Stealing it. 🙂

      • I do start each day with a list of three priorities, but then I keep adding to it as things pop up. I like the idea of one massive list to store all those “urgent” tasks that appear during the day that end up derailing my planned priorities.

        • I love my massive list. I don’t go anywhere without it!

  • Deep work FTW!! I love this – so helpful to hear how other people who work online stay focused.

    • I know some people can dip in and out of social media all day and still be productive, but I am not one of those people. I need to really focus for a few hours so I shut it all down.