ARTICLE

HOW TO SHARPEN YOUR FOCUS AND DIVE INTO THE DEEP

By Bruno Boksic, Staff Writer for James McPartland

Do you ever feel like there’s just not enough time in the day? Like you only have 24 hours and Elon Musk appears to have at least 30 (without sleep time). It appears that there is just no way you can cram more work into that tight schedule of yours. 

Well, there is a “smaller” celebrity that managed to: 

  • Write 6 bestselling books

  • Earn a computer science Ph.D. from MIT

  • Obtain a tenured professorship at Georgetown

  • Father three kids

Oh, and the biggest thing — He did all of this while shutting down work at 5:30 pm every single day and taking weekends off.

This 35-year-old person is Cal Newport and no, he isn’t a magician. Cal uses a principle called Deep Work to achieve laser-sharp focus and obtain massive results. You may have already heard about this concept, so we won't go into defining what it is or isn't, but let's see how we can apply the approach to our busy schedules.

The first enemy of deep work? Multitasking.

Into the Deep

Because I want to give a shout out, here's a random fact: There is a lake — the largest in Finland called Lake Saimaa. Not many know about it, even though it's the fourth largest lake in Europe. But let's multitask and talk instead about the Mariana Trench — the deepest point in the ocean in which it would be possible for Mount Everest to sit and still be submerged by 3 entire kilometers of water.

When we multitask, the performance level of our thinking and doing is only so-so, or at best good,  instead of what it can be — exceptionally great. Even the word multitasking (which originated in the computer engineering world) is referred to as "the ability to apparently process several tasks simultaneously."

Doing deep work can be compared to the visual of Mount Everest being thrust into the Mariana Trench — it's about submerging ourselves completely, with plenty of space above so we're not anywhere near the surface, in order to become great at one thing. That kind of focused work is where we create amazing results in life and business.

Most of us do shallow work, then wonder why we lack the results we desire. What's worse, is we convince ourselves that being an entrepreneur means working 16 hours a day because we "need more time to do everything" or we "always have to be available."

Deep work cuts through all of that and shows us a clear path that simultaneously leads to more time and superior results. But to get that time back, and achieve the outcomes we really want, we have to adhere to certain rules when it comes to applying this practice in our daily lives.

Remove all distractions

"What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation and I’m not the only one", admitted journalist and author Nicholas Carr.

Carr expanded on this argument in his book, The Shallows, which became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He couldn’t finish the book with all the distractions around him so he moved to a cabin and forced himself to disconnect.

Ninety years ago, Carl Jung did the same thing when he moved to a basic two-story stone house he called The Tower in the village of Bollingen, near St.Gallen to write his books.

Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take, crammed all of his lectures at Wharton for an entire year into a single semester, then dedicated the second semester taking a deep-dive into the work that produced the above-mentioned book.

The first rule when it comes to deep work is:  Remove the distractions! The fewer you have, the better your ability to focus. Willpower is a finite source that gets depleted with use, so don't rely on it for motivation — remove the temptation from your environment completely.

When you receive an email and then don't respond to it right away, one of two things will happen: 

  • The individual who emailed you will get what they need on their own

  • The individual will email you again, or maybe even call — because it was really important

Either way, it's a win-win! You remained rooted in your work and away from the distraction, and the individual who's been trying to get in touch with you just honed one of two vital skills — resourcefulness or perseverance, respectively.

Deep work requires you to be in a state of complete concentration which is not happening when your eyes are shifting to your phone, reading and replying to every new email notification you receive.

So put the phone down and get in the game!  Because once you’re focused, it’s time for practice to begin.

Focus on Deliberate Practice

There is a story told of an athletic trainer who joined the US Olympic Basketball team in Las Vegas as a part of the preparation team for the Olympic Games. He met Kobe Bryant there and the two exchanged numbers. The trainer told Kobe to call him if he ever needed any help with his training.

A few days later, Kobe called and asked the trainer to meet him at the gym at 4:15 am. They met, did a 75-minute long session, after which the trainer left Kobe there doing his free throws.

When the trainer came back at 11 am to meet Kobe along with the rest of the team and see the scrimmage, he was also met with surprise:

"Hey Kobe.  Nice workout this morning."
"Thanks Rob, I appreciate it."
"What time did you finish?"
"Finish what?" 
"Your free throws?"
"Oh, just now. I set myself to do 800 so yeah, just now."

Kobe didn't set out to be the best basketball player ever by just playing basketball. He chunked out the necessary skills needed to become the best basketball player into a smaller subset of skills.

And one of those skills was "become great at doing free throws."

For Kobe, even that was still vague so he took it a step further and challenged himself to hone the skill of "shooting 800 free throws. Stopping at every 50 to adjust my throws for accuracy."

Whatever skill you take into account, you can always break it down into a smaller subset of skills to master. Work rigorously on each incremental skill maintaining the goal of mastering every one with deliberate focus, rather than mindlessly repeating.

Deliberate practice is notoriously hard and boring at the same time. I like to add that mastery is simultaneously fulfilling and frustrating. Nevertheless, James McPartland, executive coach to CEOs says, "practice your way to mastery" and there are different ways you can make yourself literally addicted to it.

Follow 6 Steps to Elevate Performance

Author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Andres Ericsson writes: "I believe that the dramatic improvements we have seen in those few fields [sports, music, and chess] over the past hundred years are achievable in pretty much every field if we apply the lessons that can be learned from studying the principles of effective practice."

As we work to develop our skills and elevate performance, let's take a look at the six components, based on Ericsson's research, that we can tap into to make the best use of our time and meet our goals.

6 steps of deliberate practice

1) Get motivated: Initial growth in skills can come fast, but after a while obstacles and challenges will present themselves, and improvement inevitably stalls. When this happens our tendency is to give up. You need the motivation to push yourself through those periods of difficulty and slow progress.

2) Set specific and realistic goals: Deliberate practice relies on small, achievable, and well-defined steps that help you work your way toward meaningful development. As Ericsson states, "The key thing is to take that general goal — get better and turn it into something specific that you can work on with a realistic expectation of improvement."

3) Break out of your comfort zone: The fundamental truth about any practice is that if you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never grow. This isn't about trying harder, but about trying differently, and it's a continuous process.

4) Be consistent and persistent: Maintain momentum by keeping up with your practice regimen on a regular basis. Through consistency and persistence, results will come. A single grain of sand is not a heap and if you add one more, it still isn't a heap. But at a certain moment, when you add enough grains of sand, it becomes a heap. So keep at it.

5) Get feedback: This is crucial for identifying where you need to improve, and can be gained from self-observation (using a camera/recorder is a good one) or from someone else (like a mentor or coach). The first option is beneficial because you can learn and adapt on the spot.

Once we've done our "training" for the day, it’s time to take the sixth step — relax and recover. We may think we already know how to do this, but more often than not we fail (especially those who are in high-end positions).

Properly Rest

Since deliberate practice requires complete focused attention and total engagement, it can only be sustained for a short period of time.

Laboratory studies of extended practice have capped the optimal time at one hour per day, three to five days a week, and real-life studies have seen reduced benefits when sessions exceed two hours.

So when you work, you focus on work 100 percent. But when you rest, you must also rest 100 percent.

When was the last time you shut down your phone after 6 pm? Or the time you ignored email and Slack notifications over the weekend?

When we're in this perpetual "ON-mode", in which we don’t properly rest, it's impossible to get our energy back in order to concentrate fully. Doing deep work is cognitively straining, which is why you need time to recover. Mindlessly surfing the web or incessantly checking your Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram isn’t going to cut it.

It’s like trying to build muscles at the gym. You need a short stretch of intense training and a qualitative recovery period afterward.

Putting Deep Work to the Test

Adopting this method of working and doing it consistently certainly takes discipline. But if you put in the time and effort to learn and apply these proven principles, you'll be well on your way toward enhanced capabilities and exceptional performance. Like Cal Newport and Kobe Bryant, you too are capable of achieving extraordinary results!

So keep that laser-sharp focus and make diving into the deep a regular reality. Remove the distractions, follow the steps of deliberate practice, and rest properly to replenish your energy and ability to concentrate. Deep work really works the only question left is will you make it work for you?

By: Bruno Boksic

Staff Writer for James McPartland's Team

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