Find it hard to focus?
Struggle to sit down and get that large project or report done?
We all procrastinate. Put off the work we know we should be doing and then put ourselves under the pump by cramming at the last minute. The excuses for why we shouldn’t complete the work would fill the report twice over but it doesn’t stop us.
What if one of them was legitimately hindering your opportunity for success?
Where do you set up to do your work? Is your space conducive to getting deep work done?
At home, we have never had a work desk. The kitchen table serves as space where my family eats, where my wife and I plan our lives and where I get my work done. It is the centre of our house and I would imagine that it is for many others as well. The challenge is that it is really hard to concentrate in that space as it is designed as a place for gathering and conversation. It serves too many purposes. I try to concentrate while I am there but I’m drawn into conversations. My capacity to do focused work is really low and this has impacted my ability to get into flow.
Now thanks to a little redecorating we have a dedicated office space outside in a converted garage. When I say office space, it is a table and chair. It is a quiet space, designated for deep work. As a result of this simplicity, I have found my ability to concentrate and focus has gone through the roof. I have the books I need right there. I have my notepads. I have my laptop. I have a designed space to help bring my attention into the now and subsequently, I have had amazing bouts of uninterrupted deep thinking. When I am outside, I read, think and write. When I am inside, I am in conversation, present and social. Each environment supports the required behaviour and is designed to promote success.
I have created at home what is called a Spoke and Hub environment.
MIT Building 20
In Deep Work, Cal Newport explores the design and success of MIT’s famous Building 20 introducing the concept of a Spoke and Hub environment. Built quickly during the Second World War, Building 20 housed a huge range of clever people. The temporary nature of the building allowed walls to be moved and spaces to shift and it led to incredible innovation. Bose speakers, modern linguistics, radar and the world’s first hackerspace all owe their beginnings to Building 20. All up nine Nobel Prize winners worked at some stage in the building. The F shape of the building created hubs where clever people from a wide variety of backgrounds could bump into each other. The hubs provided great opportunity for dialogue and interesting idea intersections. After the great dialogue, staff could then retreat back to their office (Spoke) and elaborate on the idea without distraction. The Spoke (quiet solitude and deep work) and Hub (open dialogue and social) nature of the building coupled with the ability to shift spaces to suit allowed for increased diversity.
How is this different to your school set up?
If you have an office, you have a Spoke environment. You may then head to the staffroom, which can be a Hub environment. The difference lies in the groove of the paths you walk at school. Do you sit with the same people at work? Do you sit in the same space every time? Do you generally walk through the same areas at your school? If you have answered yes to any of those questions, then shake things up a little by having lunch with different people and in different spaces. If you don’t have an office or work in an open plan office, then you need to do a little environmental adjustment to increase your capacity for deep work.
My space at work is still a work in progress (pardon the pun). I am in an open plan office, sitting amongst a team of about twelve people. My team is an incredibly busy one and constant dialogue is the lifeblood that helps us get shit done. Constant dialogue is also then the biggest distraction. To combat this and all for the completion of deep work, I do one of two things. The first one is to escape and find a quieter space to work. Lately, this has been sitting outside getting my daily dose of Vitamin D and promoting Melatonin secretion. This isn’t always feasible so I often move to the second option, which is to transform my desk space into a conduit for deep work.
My setup begins the night before. I map out the Most Important Tasks (MITs) I need to complete and I work from top to bottom. I don’t shift my focus from one task until it is complete. These tasks are arranged on Trello in a Kanban board.
When I arrive at work, it is all about being in the Hub and socialising. Talking to my team and checking in on how they are doing is always how I kick off my day. Once I’m ready to kick into gear for deep work. I get a coffee and take a naturally occurring supplement called L-Theanine. L-Theanine is found in green tea and it helps to take smooth out the coffee jitters but maintain the positive benefits of caffeine, such as improving concentration and focus. This little biohack has really helped sharpen my morning focus.
The morning is designed around getting the most cognitively demanding task done first. For me, this is between 9-10.30am. I don’t plan any meetings for that time and I protect this time ferociously. I turn my phone to airplane mode and this takes me off the grid. All social media and email are turned off.
To combat the noise, I use bucket headphones with Brain.fm on. Brain.fm is AI devised repetitive music for promoting different cognitive states. Choosing the focus state, I get lost in the repetition and it really helps with focus. For those skeptics out there, do a trial and test it out for yourself. Cofftivity or Spotify playlists are two other options I have explored or used.
Staring at a screen all day is also horrible for your eyes. The blue light from computer screens impacts melatonin production which impacts your ability to sleep at night. I have f.lux software installed on my computer to increase the warm light on my computer and I find that this has helped my eyes immensely. I have eye drops on hand as well. Artificial light is intense on our bodies and my little ole eyes struggle when I’m inside all day looking at a screen. When I sit at my desk, I make sure that I have my feet flat on the ground and that I sit forward in my seat. This helps me sit with better posture. Using a monitor riser helps keep my eyes at the right height.
I have written previously about batching tasks and I am a stickler for it. It helps me churn through admin tasks when I need to. It also helps me to know that I have an allocated time to respond to email or complete administrauma.
Another great strategy I have found is notifying my team that I am working on a project that requires deep concentration. This helps to make people around me mindful and I do the same in return. I haven’t quite got to the Seth Godin/Adam Grant level of putting on an Out of Office when I am working on projects but I’m keen to try.
After my deep work time is up, I get up and head to the Hub. I also make sure that I get outside and go and do some active work.
What does your set up look like?
Image source: Unsplash