Optimizing my work environment was never something I gave much thought to until 2020. Since then, a lot of things have changed for me and for the rest of the world. Particularly for me, the pandemic made me learn about how I work and showed me why I needed to change things up. Now, I try to optimize my work flow for focus and not time.
I want to preface this post by saying I’m very aware that spending more attention over time on work is a privilege and one that not every one can afford to practice. I’m also really aware that not everyone has the means or accessibility to means to do this. I’m very lucky and very grateful to be in a position to be able to do so.
A while back, I read a book by Cal Newport called Deep Work. I had of course heard of Cal Newport’s writing and the book sat on my “to be read” pile for a while until I saw Tara Brabazon, Dean of Graduate Research and Professor of Cultural Studies at Flinders University recommend it in one of her YouTube vlogs. (Another huge source of valuable research specific content if you’re interested).
In his book, Newport defines “deep work” as
“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
In the past, I used to think that what I needed was to “concentrate”. Times when I needed to work on assignments or prep for an exam are really the only times I would feel the need to “concentrate”. What I was actually doing was trying to optimize my workflow. Since 2020, the need for me to do just that, has intensified.
In 2020 I moved from undergrad studies into postgraduate research. I moved from a classroom or a “group learning” environment into an independent learning environment. I’ve always leaned more towards independent learning anyway so I thought it would be a breeze.
One thing I figured out quite early on was that hearing my classmates talk about going to the library or forming study-groups was something that motivated me to get work done. Seeing someone working in the library while I scrolled my email or Twitter feed would always snap me back into work with a belt of panic & guilt. That was gone now.
So I found new ways of cultivating “deep work” and after almost a year of figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t, I thought I’d share them with you.
The era of toxic productivity is another thing I want to highlight before we go any further. Your value as a person is not based on your productivity rate. I think it’s really important for people to check-in with themselves on why you want to “boost” your productivity before you take it on.
Rather than looking for ways to keep me productive all the time, I’m looking for ways to keep me productive at work time. I’m using these techniques not to make myself work more hours but actually to make myself work less hours. My thinking is, do focused work and boost productivity now so that I have more time to spend on things I enjoy later. I don’t want to be chained to my computer for hours upon hours everyday, jumping from task to task aimlessly.
While Deep Work is a wonderful book and I got enormous value from it, I would say that sticking to the concept of deep work rather than copying all of the ways other find it is a better approach. Here’s what I have found helps, feel free to take you need and leave the rest.
Make a Plan
Before you even sit down, know what it is you need to get done. Use a note-taking or task focused program to organize your thoughts and tasks. I like Notion and it’s free for personal use. I write down what I need to get done and organize from most difficult/most urgent task first and work my way down along.
This will give you a nice little framework to start from and it will give you balance. There’s nothing worse than having a mind that’s jumping from this to that every 20 seconds, you won’t have room to actually think and work if your mind is loud.
Put answering emails last on the list. That’s surface work and you don’t need your big “focus” energy to do that – email can wait.
You don’t have to use Notion, you can use whatever works for you. One Note, Word, Sticky Notes App or even the good ole’ fashioned pen & paper. This is all about finding what works for you.
Timing is Everything
Most people would say that scheduling a specific time every day to do deep work is the best approach. For me, I found that scheduling specific blocks of time worked better. So, instead of saying I’m going to work on this project from 9am to 12pm, I would say to myself – OK, I’m giving 3 hours today to that project.
I found quickly that if I missed a 9am start goal even by 5 minutes, my brain would say – “OK Kayla, you missed that, might as well wait until 10am” and so on and so forth. A faulty feedback loop.
Blocks of time work better, at least for me.
For me, vibe is important. You should optimize your work space as best you can and tailor it to your preferences. I need low lighting so I’ll use a lamp rather than “the big light”. I need a clear work-space. If my desk is messy, I’ll keep distracting myself thinking about how messy it is, how I should clean it, what does that old sticky-note say? Clear your desk.
Quiet. This isn’t achievable for everyone, especially when working from home. Our families have lives too and have things they need to get done too. If you can afford to, I would say buy some “over-ear” headphones. Mine were relatively cheap and completely changed things for me. I’ll leave a link section below and include them there.
Put your phone away. I hate when people suggest putting your phone in another room because that just isn’t doable for everyone. I have people in my life that have family members dependent on them, I have friends who have kids at school & creche or at the babysitters – they need their phones in case of an emergency.
Instead, what I do is, I let my battery power go kinda low before I know I’m doing some work, turn off my social notifications and I plug my phone into charge at the other end of the room – away from my desk. That way I’m not tempted to scroll but I’m also available if someone needs me.
A door sign or other signal. Let the people you live with know, if the door sign is up or if the door is closed or if there’s a shoe outside the door (whatever works) you’re working and only to disturb you if they really need to.
I love music and I’ve always listened to music while working or studying. Where I used to go wrong was choosing my best playlists. I was having a full set world tour while working and it was very distracting. I’m a huge lover of Lo-Fi and have found that Lo-Fi is exactly the right music for me to get work done. Interestingly, many many many more people have found Lo-Fi to be extremely helpful when working or focusing. I’ll link some of my favorite Lo-Fi playlists below too.
For those of you who don’t feel the Lo-Fi vibes (how dare you) I would urge you to try any lyric-less music. I’m not the biggest Harry Potter head but I found, to my surprise that the Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone soundtrack pulled me through a 3 hour work block and kept me zoned in. I’ll also link that.
Videos from Nomadic Ambience are also amazing. Just high quality videos looking out windows in cities New York with rain or city sounds or 4K videos of other nature sounds. I’ll link my favorites.
Pomodoro technique. This is a study or work technique that encourages a block of time dedicated to focused work, then a small break and then begins again. Usually a timer is used and you can be flexible with it. Don’t chain yourself to the 45min work and 10 min break. Find what works for you. I like 30 minutes work, 5 minute break.
Another absolute gamechanger for me was using “TNT”. I picked this up from a workshop run by Hugh Kearns called Turbocharge Your Writing. I never leave my desk for a break without writing in big chunky letters “TNT”. i can’t count how many times I’ve left my desk to take a phone call or to get a coffee and when I come back I’m completely lost and out of my “flow”. TNT stands for “The Next Thing”. So I write TNT and highlight it in yellow followed by the next thing I was planning to write before I got up. I’ve been using this genius tip since attending the workshop and it has saved my ass on countless occasions.
Gamechanger. Earlier I spoke about how being in the library would always drive me to do work just by being in the presence of others who were doing work? During my undergrad when I needed to focus at home, I would open a “study with me” video on YouTube. Jamie (The Strive) videos were always my favorite. This is literally a pre-recorded video of someone studying. I would leave this on and any time I l got distracted and looked up at my screen there was someone on there working, which reminded me to work. I know it sounds odd but try it. Some of these videos also incorporate the Pomodoro technique and will alert you when you need to take a break.
There are also virtual co-working groups (sometimes called writing retreats or similar) that happen on Zoom or Teams. Many people on the one call, mics off and cameras on, all working on their own stuff. It’s great for accountability and focus. Some groups have different styles and different features. If you can’t find one, start your own and list it online. These are really helpful and definitely worth checking out.
Chill Lo-Fi Study Beats (Spotify)
Bernie Sanders Lo-Fi (Youtube) or Bernie Sanders Lo-Fi (Spotify)
The Strive – Study with Me (with music) or The Strive – Study with Me (no music) + Pomodoro
Nomadic Ambience (Manhattan sounds open window, rain)
Nomadic Ambience (Boston, USA city sounds)
Nomadic Ambience (Cafe on a rainy day with Lo-Fi)
Nomadic Ambience (Morning Ocean Waves, San Francisco)
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