Life of Focus: Focused Work Update (Month One)

Last month, Cal Newport and I released a new course, Life of Focus. The course covers three months dedicated to cultivating focus in three areas: work, life and mind.

One thing that makes a course like this different is that it centers on month-long challenges. Thus even if you’re already relatively focused, you can use the course as a tool to train yourself to go even deeper.

It was in that spirit that I decided I wanted to participate in the course alongside the other students for the first session. I also wanted to share some of my insights from each phase of the course to give you some tips (even if you weren’t able to join us for the first session).

Image for post
Image for post

Focus: Then and Now

I’ve always been pretty good at staying concentrated while working. During the MIT Challenge, 8+ hours with only relatively brief breaks were common for me. Focus was such an important part of my projects, that I devoted an entire chapter to it in my book.

However, my life has changed in a couple ways that have introduced new challenges to focus.

First, as my business has grown, shallow work obligations have grown with it. One of the ironies of launching this course is that the success of the course led to a ton of shallow work. Suddenly there were hundreds of course comments from students that I wanted to assist. While this burst was unusually large, it’s not unusual for me to get hundreds of emails per day.

Second, becoming a father has made working at home more challenging. I’m no longer alone at home for most of the day, and the global pandemic situation has made me reluctant to work in public spaces like cafes.

Thus, I’m happy I got the chance to focus on focus for this month, as some of my working rhythms and routines had slipped from the ideal as my life had changed.

Focused Work Successes and Progress

My first step was to start logging my deep work hours meticulously. In the past, I had done more comprehensive timelogs, but I found them too tedious to sustain. Keeping a deep work tally is a lot easier, however, and makes the amount of focused work you’re doing more clear.

The first observation I made was that it was challenging to reach my target. In my work, a good ratio seemed to be about 50% deep work and 50% shallow work. But in my first few weeks, I came up a little short. Adding to that, I took some time off when I had family visiting, so I had some gaps with no deep work at all.

Despite some challenges, I think the awareness allowed me to get much more deep work in than I would have otherwise. Normally, after a major course launch, I wouldn’t have worried too much about doing deep work beyond what was necessary to run the blog. However, the challenge allowed me to push myself. Thus, despite the extra shallow work obligations, I still managed to put in about two dozen hours towards a new Complete Guide. This was a project I dragged my feet on for several months as I was always “too busy.”

How I’ve Improved My Focus in My Routines

The challenge also exposed some of the flaws of my current working setup and allowed me to make improvements.

Some of these were relatively simple. Now, I do almost all my deep work while listening to rain sounds over my headphones. This mutes the environment somewhat and makes it a little easier for me to focus, especially when working from home.

Simply tracking my deep work hours has made a big difference as I’m much more conscious of when I choose to look at messages, email or my phone. Since self-initiated interruptions end your deep work chunk, I’ve pushed through a lot of smaller temptations that would have slowed down work on my major projects.

The biggest change, however, came from talking about focused work with my wife, Zorica. While silent work is easy enough to do in the house, I’ve increasingly had to take calls or record podcasts. This is likely to continue, and will only get harder to do from home as my son gets older.

Therefore, we decided to rent office space nearby. This not only provides a location I can record things, but also can fulfill the role I used to save for cafes prior to the pandemic.

It’s a bit odd that at the same moment everybody has started working from home is my first time ever working in an office. However, the current situation has also made office space quite cheap.

How I Plan to Continue and Deepen My Focus

One benefit I’ve gotten from this month-long focus on focus has been an increased awareness of some of my routines. I used to have a more spontaneous schedule with many of my major working habits. However, this has been less and less reliable as my business and family have grown. It will also not be an option once my wife’s maternity leave is up and we have to work harder to coordinate childcare.

Clearer tracking and scheduling has made it a lot easier to see what further improvements I can make. I’m also hoping that as the shallow work commitments from the course launch have diminished considerably, I’ll be able to pour even more time into focused work — completing deeper and more serious projects that are meaningful to me.

The next month of Life of Focus is centered around focus outside of work. This is also an area I’ve spent considerable time optimizing, but I’m excited to go further. If the past month with focused work is any indication, I might be surprised by how much room for improvement is still left over.

If you’re interested in joining a future session of Life of Focus, to go through the three challenges (as well as get access to dozens of lessons, guides and community support), you can sign-up here to be notified when the next session is available.

Written by

Author of WSJ best selling book: Ultralearning | Twitter: @scotthyoung

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store