How to make time for Deep Work (without being busy)

We all know that kind of person that is always busy and on the move.

Three screens, two phones, 24/7. Multitasking. Hustle-mode on.

It’s the exact behavior that tends to be honored in modern society. It seems like busyness is the currency we have to earn in order “to make it”.

The more busyness-coins we can accumulate, the more recognition we get. The more screen time we collect, the better.

I don’t think the world works this way. Especially not for knowledge workers.

99% of us don’t get any meaningful stuff done while being busy in meetings all day & answering emails and slack messages.

Multiple studies showed that multitasking decreases productivity on deep work. We don’t need busyness & multitasking, what we need is focus.

Let’s see how to get it.

Audit your time

First things first. Probably,  your calendar is filled up to the roof, and in the evening, you wonder how fast the day went by.

An excellent start to get more focus is to audit your time.

Go through your last week in the calendar and identify how you’ve spent your time with these categories:

  1. communication (email, slack)
  2. meetings (face to face, zoom)
  3. undistracted deep work (working on a concept, coding, writing a strategy, or any other important task)

If you feel like you didn’t achieve anything in a week, chances are  you’ve spent too much time in the first two categories.

Depending on your job, you should aim for at least 30% of uninterrupted time to get the most important things done.

This is more a rule of thumb than an exact science. Start with what percentage feels right and doable and go from there.

Planning deep work sessions

“If you don’t plan your time, someone else will help you waste it” -Zig Ziglar

Good intentions are not enough.

If you don’t plan your weeks, someone else will, and you don’t get your most important tasks (MITs) done.

The problem primarily occurs if your MITs are important but NOT urgent. Those to-dos are the ones that regularly get pushed from week to week by someone else’s urgent (but not so important) tasks.

Rule of thumb: Try to always value importance higher than urgency.

To avoid this pitfall, you have to plan when you work on your MITs and block time for that.

A good idea is to plan at least one week in advance. I do my weekly planning on Saturday mornings and block time in my calendar app for my MITs.

Does this technique always ensure that I get everything done? Absolutely not. But it reduces the risk of being busy all week working on urgent but not important tasks.

It is crucial to create an uninterrupted environment to stay focused. Therefore, you should mute all notifications like email, slack, or phone calls for this time.

Pomodoro Method

A famous method to structure work sessions is called Pomodoro. A session consists of  25-minute sessions with a 5-minute break afterward.

This technique ensures that you take breaks and stay focused even on long deep work sessions.

Here’s a good Pomodoro app I use on my Mac.

Batching communication

Since we don’t get along without communication, a good way to do shallow work like reading and writing emails is to batch them.

Example: Plan 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening to answer emails and messages. This prevents you from checking emails or slack messages every few minutes and get distracted.

Prioritize your Work

We talked about shallow work like writing emails and making time for deep work sessions to work on MITs.

Let’s see how we can identify which of all tasks, to-dos, and chores are the ones that will really make a difference and therefore be the MITs.

Eisenhower Matrix

With the Eisenhower Matrix, we ask two questions for each task:

  1. Is it important?
  2. Is it urgent?

There are four possible outcomes out of these questions.

A) Important & urgentB) Important & not urgentC) Urgent & not importantD) Not urgent & not important

From here, it is straightforward. A-tasks have the highest priority, followed by B and C. D-tasks are neither urgent nor important and should not be prioritized.

Whenever we more tasks than time, plotting everything on the Eisenhower Matrix is an excellent way to clarify what to do first.

The Pareto Principle

Another well-known time management method is called Pareto Principle.

The key finding of Pareto was that we get most of the results done with low effort.  However, if we want to have 100% of the result, the effort rises exponentially.

20% effort creates 80% outcome. To get the remaining 20% outcome, we have to put in 80% effort.

That’s why the principle is also called the 80/20 rule. The key takeaway here is to ask yourself how perfect the result needs to be or if 80% are already OK because perfectionism is a time killer.

Choose your environment: Where to do deep work

I remember how guilty I felt the first time I went out to walk during the working hours.

“You’re supposed to work, not to walk!” I said to myself. But I quickly found that I had the best ideas when I am NOT at my desk.

And what matters is the result, not what we feel we’re supposed to do.

So whenever I have to do a brainstorm session or think deeply and feel stuck, I go out for a walk, armed with my phone to capture and structure my thoughts.

For me, it is the motion and fresh air that gets my brain going. For others, it is music, coffee, reading an article or sitting in a library. Whatever it is, finding out how to get deep work done is crucial.

Break the busy habit

It is easy to fall into the trap of busyness. We all do. It feels good.

But we should never mix up being busy doing shallow work with real progress.

Let’s break this habit and don’t blindly follow the cult of busyness. It seems counter-intuitive at first but will reward you with meaningful results.

“Having no time means something else is more important”