Deep Work in a Distracted World

Published on January 20th, 2021

Imagine a 1-hour task taking 1-week to complete.

It sounds crazy, but it happens all the time. Research from 2016 claims that people are interrupted 50-60 times during an average workday (about once every 7-8 minutes). Worse, distractions tend to lead to more distractions. That "do you have a minute" coworker question becomes a 20-minute discussion about 2-3 other things. And, oh, by the way, one of them is urgent and needs to be done right now. The distraction rabbit hole runs deep.

By the time the workday is done, it's not uncommon to discover half-dozen half-finished tasks scattered about your psyche.

By the workweek is finished, you may look back to that 1-hour task from Monday and find it still incomplete.

The No Flow

Yes, Deep Work (e.g., the ability to push ALL of these distractions aside and focus on a singular task for 1-3 hours) is both a superpower and the solution. However, there are situations in life where these long blocks of time are not possible. Sometimes we can't put the rest of the world on pause. What then? Do we declare defeat and wait until the planets align?

In my experience, there is another way.

No, this alternative is nowhere near as effective as deep work, which is the gold standard. However, there are ways to mimic aspects of this even when we are living in interruption hell.

So what does this approach look like?

Always Using a 2nd Brain.

No, not a literal brain. A digital brain where you: * Always journal your actions in progress. * Make it as easy as possible to rapidly restart where you left off.

Let's use an example. One of my responsibilities at work is Tier 2 and Tier 3 support. This involves solving problems that are beyond a simple standard operating procedure. At times, I may be working on multiple issues simultaneously. By having a simple text file for each one, I jot down what I'm attempting for each as I bounce back and forth. Inevitably, I may have a coworker ping me on Slack, or my wife is sending me a text, or my kiddo is stopping by my home office, or or or (you get the idea).

By having my work on all support tickets stored in a simple text file, I can quickly re-read the last 1-3 entries and jog my memory. This usually brings my mind back to where it was before the distraction. I can also go further back (e.g., to the beginning) if it was a very complex task. In short, I can re-load my mental RAM.

Why This Works (for Me)

I love the crude quip: prior planning prevents piss poor performance. If you know (from experience) that your days can devolve into interruption hell, it's best to be proactive and hit it head-on. Somedays, I can keep my schedule days under control. Often, I cannot.

Yes, continually journaling what I'm actively working on can be tedious. It adds additional time to the task at hand, and it can draw me out of flow state a little. However, the gains far exceed the cost.

Consider a simple cost/benefit calculation. Let's say that journaling-as-I-go adds 10 minutes to an hour-long task. This is not ideal, but it happens. Let's also say that I have the risk of being interrupted every 7-8 minutes (like the study says). Without journaling, it might take me 5 minutes per interruption to get back to where I was. With journaling, it might take me a minute.

Now here is where the math gets insane. If it takes you 5 minutes just to get back to where you were before getting interrupted 2-3 minutes later, you are effectively getting 3 minutes of work done every 8 minutes. So if the task takes 60 minutes of net time, it might take 8/3 times that or two and a half hours! Contrast this to where your journal entry helps you get back up and running in a minute. That 60-minute task is worked on in 7-minute chunks over a total of 70 minutes.

In short, the 10-minutes of overhead journaling-as-I-go might save me an hour and a half of just re-remembering where I was.

This is the power of giving yourself a faster restart place. By making it easier to pick up where you left off, you minimize the damage of each distraction.

Caveats

The better approach is still ruthlessly protecting your schedule and eliminating interruptions at their source. However, sometimes this isn't possible, and interruptions are simply part of your job. If this is where you find yourself, then this 2nd brain approach can do wonders, but only in the short-term. If you make this your default way of working, you will still find it tiring and exhausting. Re-loading your mental RAM this many times a day will eventually give you a headache. It's an imperfect solution to an imperfect situation, but it's better than nothing.

Thank You

This inspiration to write and share this article came from this Tweet from Jack Butcher. This is your opportunity to solve a huge problem.

I hope you try this, and I would love feedback regarding if it worked for you.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CTO of Contact Mapping. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.