The following is the third and final lesson from Cal Newport for Focus Week. Click to read the first and second lessons.
On Monday, Cal and I will be opening our new course, Life of Focus. We’ll send registration information then.
In the meantime, I’ll leave it to Cal for the lesson…
In the first lesson of our Focus Week series, I suggested that you unplug to give your brain and emotions a breather in our current moment of constant, agitating distraction. In the second lesson, I suggested that you implement a daily deep reading habit to retrain your neural networks to sustain and find satisfaction in unbroken concentration. In this third and final lesson, I want to talk about how to leverage this newly reclaimed clarity to focus your life.
At the heart of my advice is a simple recommendation: take control of your time. To be more concrete, when thinking about your work day, I suggest that you give every minute a job.
I call this technique “time blocking,” and I’ve been talking about it here since at least 2013. I also popularized it in my book, Deep Work, discuss it often on my podcast, Deep Questions, and am even releasing a planner dedicated to the method in November. Which is all to say: I’m a fan of this strategy.
Here’s the basic idea…
- Most people tackle their work day using what I call the list/reactive method. This casual approach has you fill the time between scheduled meetings and calls reacting to emails and occasionally, when the mood hits you, trying to make progress on items plucked from an unwieldy task list.
- The time blocking method, by contrast, has you partition your days into blocks of time and assign specific work to these blocks. Maybe, for example, you’re working on a strategy memo from 9:00 to 10:00, then after a 10:00 to 10:30 meeting you put aside thirty minutes for checking email, followed by ninety-minutes, from 11:00 to 12:30, when you’ll try to complete a project report that’s due soon, and so on. Every minute gets a job. (What if you get knocked off your schedule by an unexpected crisis or task that takes longer than expected? Not a problem. You just build an updated time block schedule for the remainder of the day the next time you get a chance. The key is maintaining intention about your time, not perfection in your planning.)
There are two problems with the list/reactive method. First, because you’re letting other peoples’ needs drive your activities, the balance between the urgent and the important becomes skewed. You feel busy and exhausted, but you’re not really moving the needle on the things that matter.
Second, because you have no plan beyond just “trying to get things done,” it’s easy for your mind to keep deciding it needs ad hoc internet “breaks,” which have a way of transforming into time-devouring rabbit holes. This decreases the total amount of work you’re able to accomplish.
Time blocking, by contrast, gives you fine-grained control over the balance between the urgent and the important. In addition, because you know what you’re supposed to be doing at any given moment, you’re much less likely to take unplanned breaks. Time blockers, in other words, don’t web surf.
This scheduling commitment also provides you hard evidence on how much time you really have available, and how long things really take. This reality check can be bracing at first, but ultimately it’s crucial. It leads to a more vigorous essentialism (e.g., as I recently discussed on Greg McKeown’s podcast), and more conservatism on how early you start projects.
A word of warning, however, is that this strategy is cognitively demanding. Part of the reason time blockers get so much more done is because their average intensity of focus is quite high compared to their semi-distracted peers. Such concentration, however, takes a toll. So you do not want to extend this blocking discipline to your time outside of work, as this excessive rigidity will eventually lead to burn out.
Escaping from the noise of a distracted world and becoming reacquainted with the pleasures of presence and concentration are crucial preconditions to a focused life. To achieve this state in full, however, ultimately requires that you take the final step of actually focusing your attention with intention and purpose.
Time block planning will move you in this direction. It’s important to note that it’s not enough by itself. A life of focus also needs, for example, regular time to reflect about what to focus on in your work, and a more serious commitment to directing your free time toward higher quality and more rewarding activities. Beyond these concerns, solitude is important, as is aggressive community engagement and cultivating high quality leisure.
But time blocking will set the needed tone; a signal to yourself that you take seriously how you direct your newly empowered attention.
On Monday, Cal and I will be providing registration information for those who wish to join Life of Focus for the first session.
The goal of Life of Focus is to take students on a three-month, guided training:
- In the first month, we’ll train your ability to work deeply. You will make more meaningful accomplishments professionally and work with less stress.
- In month two, we’ll work on focus in your personal life. You will constructing new habits and environments to deliberately reorient your attention back onto what matters to you.
- In the third month we’ll go deeper and use your reclaimed time and attention onto making or mastering something new.
I’m especially excited because I plan to go through the three month-long efforts alongside the students for this session. Regardless of whether life feels chaotic or you want to go to the next level, participating in a course like this is a good way to reaffirm the kind of life you want to lead.
I hope to see you in the course!