Deep Work Habits

At any given time, I have a list of ambitious goals I’m looking to accomplish.  As a knowledge worker in IT, most of my professional goals are related to new skill attainment or deeper understanding of a specific technology. Up until recently, I took a haphazard approach to fitting in time to work toward these goals.  I’ve used different tools and approaches over the years, but the end result was still the same: inconsistency.  I would have spurts of great productivity, increased focus, and tangible outcomes, but I would also have periods of inactivity that would often derail the efforts of the focused periods of time.  I recently surrendered to the fact that I needed to restructure my habits in such a way to provide the consistent time to meet these goals.

Earlier this year, I read James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, which clearly highlights the need for systems – or habitual routines – to work toward goals.  We should place just as much focus – if not more – on the consistent behaviors needed to reach the end goal.  I then followed this with Cal Newport’s, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which champions the craftsman mindset – employing the mindset and approach of artists, athletes, or performers who work deliberately and consistently, to hone their craft.  Both of those books provided solid principles for gaining an edge with consistent action.  They also provided an excellent foundation for the book I’m reading now, Cal Newport’s follow up book, Deep Work.  This book asserts that in order to learn and master hard things quickly and thrive in today’s economy, one must focus intensely without distraction, and do this consistently.  The strategies laid out in the book have done more to help me formalize a structure to most effectively focus and maximize my time and energy to work toward my goals.

As mentioned, my previous strategy for working on personal goals was haphazard, but it typically involved staying up late at night.  I cherished the time I had after the family went to bed as this was uninterrupted “me” time.  The problem with this approach was simple: fatigue.  I was tired from the day, so I was not giving my best energy to these goals.  And that fatigue often led to giving in to the temptation of downtime by way of Netflix and YouTube.  We all know the staggering amount of time that can be squandered by clicking one video after the next.  I knew this approach wasn’t working, but it wasn’t until a good ol’ accountability challenge helped make the change.  That challenge was offered during a conversation with none other than Kat Troyer and Liz Bronson, hosts of the Real Job Talk podcast.  We were discussing blocks of time for studying and working on projects, and I admitted that I’m more effective in the morning, but I too often fall prey to my own lack of discipline, and end up staying up too late when I’m not effective.  They challenged me to a week of getting up early and report back.  Since then it has been 38 straight days of getting up at 5:00.

Following concepts outlined in the book, Deep Work, I’ve adapted the “Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work”.  This approach simply involves creating a time and place where one can clear out all distractions and focus on a project for a set period of time.  This seems to be a common approach for most busy professionals since the majority of our days are filled with nothing but distractions.  My time for focus is in the early morning hours when the rest of the family is still asleep.  I get up at 5:00 each day to start the day and knock out good laser focused time until 7:15 when the rest of the family wakes up to get ready for their day.  At that point, demands on my time and energy are then scattered and I fall into the normal routines of the hectic day.  But during those first two+ hours so much gets accomplished as my mental energy is at its peak and my concentration and focus are unchallenged.

One major outcome is that this has become a habit.  I’ve been doing this consistently now for almost 40 days.  My routine is straightforward, as I’m up at 5:00, feed the cat, practice mindfulness for 10 minutes, read, and then by 5:30, I’m tackling the project I’ve identified for the day.  No additional energy is expended deciding when to start working, and I’ve streamlined the routine by setting out the necessary items the night before.  I have my coffee and breakfast ready to go, my laptop and earbuds are ready on my desk, and yes, even my clothes are laid out.  I actually go through a routine the night before to make sure everything is prepared so I can hit the ground running when I get up.  This strategy requires some intentionality and is no different than the strategies that make morning workout routines successful.

A fantastic side benefit of this approach is that I’m more present during the day.  By doing my personal work at the beginning of the day, I’m no longer trying to figure out when to squeeze in some good study time.  This goal for the day has been met.  Thus, I can give my attention and energy to other demands as they come up.  I’m able to give my complete focus to work responsibilities, and more importantly, I can be present with my family in the evenings.  It’s amazing how uplifting the day becomes when the biggest personal goals are knocked out early to allow other meaningful time to occur later.  And from a health standpoint, my sleep is more consistent since I have to be in bed early enough in order to make the 5:00 wake up time.  My only real challenge is fighting the temptation each night to get started on something and instead, delay my eagerness for the morning.

So the results of all this?  The first week of leveraging this approach, I managed to knock out three blog posts, which allowed me to complete the #Blogtobertech challenge of writing five posts in one month.  That alone was astonishing to me and made me a quick believer in the effectiveness of this approach.  Over the last month, I’ve used this time to rewrite my resume, get up to speed on VMware Cloud on AWS, and complete an Ansible project.  As I wrote in my previous post, project-based learning can be an exceptional learning tool. I was able to get much deeper into Ansible with the unhindered focused time working on this project.  In fact, I hope to share some Ansible posts in the weeks ahead.

So my main challenge now is identifying what to work on next.  My list of ambitions seems to be endless, and I have two hours each day to chip away at it.  But those hours are golden, and the consistency will continue to reap amazing rewards.  In my next post, I hope to outline the four disciplines of execution, which is another concept from Newport’s, Deep Work, that resonated with me.  Until then, I’ll wrap this one up.  I hope my experience can be an encouragement to someone else who like me has been struggling to find the time to work on ambitious goals.

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