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How to do deep work when you’re always busy

Last updated on
September 4, 2021

In our hyper-connected digital world, most of us feel like we’re just too busy to get everything done. And ever since COVID-19 hit and the barriers between work and home were further eroded, this feeling became even more prevalent. Parents have it especially tough, trying to juggle work commitments with caring for children – but even if you don’t have kids, finding the time to schedule uninterrupted work time and also try to prioritize your personal life can seem impossible.

Pre-pandemic, we might have been able to head into the office to enjoy some dedicated work time, safe in the knowledge that when we clocked off, we could turn our attention to our personal lives. Currently, however, being able to prioritize large chunks of time for deep work can still feel unattainable. Yet, there are still ways to make the most of the time we have, in spite of our other responsibilities. Here’s a six-point guide for doing deep work when you’re always busy.

1. Identify your pockets of focused time in the day

The first thing you should do is try to identify when you have small chunks of time in the day to do deep work. If your initial reaction is to say: “There are none”, try to shift your expectations of what your working day will look like. You might not be able to sit at a desk for three hours in the morning and work silently right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still be productive.

For example, if you’re currently at home all day with young children, getting any deep work done while simultaneously trying to parent may not work—but what about when the kids nap? You might have always used your evenings to do chores, but why not make it your deep work time instead, and do chores in the day while keeping an eye on your kids? This might look different from a “traditional” working day, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You have to seize pockets of distraction-free time whenever you can find them.

👇 Using an automatic activity tracker can help

2. Safeguard your most uninterrupted periods for complex work

Once you’ve identified all the periods of time when deep work is possible, figure out which are the most distraction-free—then, guard those stretches of time and use them for your most complex problem solving. Not all aspects of a task require the same state of focus, so by figuring out when you’re able to work best, you can ensure you protect that time for challenging work.

It’s important to try to ensure your deep work time isn’t only early in the morning or late at night though, as this can be unsustainable and lead to burnout. Plus, constantly working “fringe hours” can create the mindset that there’s only one opening for deep work in the day, when that’s rarely the case.

3. Plan ahead for your deep work periods

Once you have a schedule for when you’ll do deep work, it’s important to plan for it. Having a concrete plan for deep work doesn’t only ensure that you protect that space, it also helps you be intentional about what you want to get out of that time – so try to ensure that each deep work session has a specific purpose and goal, and you know exactly what you want to achieve. It’s also helpful to set a time limit on your deep work sessions, as these can help you concentrate and keep you from burning out.

4. Use the “ready to resume” approach to deal with interruptions

No matter how well we plan our deep work sessions and try to protect them, interruption is sometimes unavoidable. Whether it’s a coworker calling you or a situation at home that needs your attention, disruptions come at a cost; we feel anxious about leaving the task we’re working on, so we can’t give the new task our full attention—and then, when we return to work on our original task, the momentum has gone and we’re out of our flow state.

To counteract this problem, try using the ready-to-resume plan”, a simple yet effective way for dealing with interruptions. All you have to do is write down where you were on your task when you were interrupted, and what you need to do when you get back to it. Just writing down these two points helps you feel comfortable moving onto something else, allowing you to focus fully on the new task, and then return to the old one ready to jump straight back in.

5. Cut out low-value tasks that keep you needlessly busy

A lot of the things that keep us busy don’t deserve to. You can find more time to do productive deep work by automating all the low-value, time-consuming tasks that eating up your day. Have a think about the shallow tasks that tend to use up your time—like email management, meeting scheduling, time tracking and updating reports. We might not be able to avoid doing these tasks, but we can use automation to cut down on the amount of time we spend on them.

Being more productive doesn't mean finding more time to work—it just means spending more time on the work that actually mattersm, and the easiest way to do this is to automate unproductive tasks. Many tools allow you to build custom workflows for repetitive tasks; Zapier in particular lets you create entire workflows with more than 500 integrations, from file sharing to project management, and Integrify and Apple’s Automator app help you to build workflows using simple drag-and-drop.

6. Use smart tech to help you reclaim your daily calendar

Finally, it’s super important to actively protect the time you have for deep work. In the past, having to break a flow state because you had a meeting scheduled, or because a colleague asked you a question, might have been unavoidable—but today we can use smart tech to work on our own terms, instead of making our week a free-for-all.

Smart calendar tools like Dewo can automatically schedule new meetings to maximize the time you and meeting attendees have available for deep work throughout the week. It even handles the whole scheduling back-and-forth for you, cutting out a notorious shallow task. Better yet, it can also automatically mute distracting notifications on your devices when you need to focus, helping you manage expectations around your availability and protect your headspace.

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