How can you work undistracted as a designer?
But your role is to communicate, collaborate and work with people — all the time.
Now more than ever it’s hard to focus, and do focused work — you know to be in that flow state which we all strive for but only a few achieve.
Let’s get it all out on the table — I design, teach, coach, mentor and run my business remotely I know the need to communicate often. That’s exactly how I realised the importance of delivering high-quality work.
You might say well “duh” yes I’m productive — I work 8 hours if not longer sometimes evenings and weekends. Let me clarify being busy doesn’t necessarily mean you are being productive. Also, I would argue that your brain can’t actually focus for long periods at a time and most likely you will get distracted.
As designers, we are knowledge workers and we are measured on the value we produce but ironically we get little time to do so. The type of value I’m talking about is the real quality sh*t. Not the type of design work you squeeze in between checking email and meetings.
So, how do you then do deep thinking or creative work?
Be in the flow instead of going with the flow
Tomorrow’s chaotic, unorganised day is the gift you left today. It starts with small actions today.
- At the end of your workday plan at least ONE IMPORTANT task that needs your full concentration — major deep thinking kind of work
- If you have more than 2 things that are important you better go igloo hunting or settle for “good enough”. Also, I’m not talking about your admin tasks these are not deep thinking or creative work.
You can not let email, slack or Toby determine what you work on today. Remember everyone wants a piece of you, yes because you are valuable but mostly because they want to get their work done but so do you.
As the popular saying goes — A lack of planning on their side does not add up to an emergency on your side — plus they are full-grown adults.
Start with 1 deep thinking task a day—the more you train your brain the stronger it gets at concentrating.
1,2,3 Block yourself out
This one is important — this is a meeting with yourself to do your deep focused work.
- Your calendar isn’t just there for other people to control your time. Block out 2–4 hours on your calendar (This is a non-negotiable no one should book meetings during this time!)
- Schedule this time when you know you can concentrate and won’t be distracted.
Right, so you know what you are going to work on and when now it’s time to commit.
Don’t space out, set up a suitable space
Yes, we are not done yet. we can do all the planning and scheduling yet if our workspace is not conducive to do focused work — I’m sorry to tell you it ain’t happening.
I’m here to tell you that you don’t need a setup that looks like you can be in the Apple Tech Awards magazine for the most loyal customer or the front cover or IKEA.
Instead what you need is a space:
- Where NO ONE CAN distract you during your deep thinking or creative session.
- NO COMMUNICATION actually just leave your mobile in another room please — just knowing it’s there fires up neurons — and you start to think of who might be messaging you or liking your posts.
- Only have OPEN WHAT YOU NEED for your deep thinking or creative work — not 100 tabs for later or slack app — close them all down! (Copy Figma artboard to private and once you completed copy back to the original file for feedback)
- Noise-cancelling HEADPHONES or music. You can choose your poison — dead quiet, brain sounds, you do you. As long as it doesn’t flare up other thoughts that are not related to the task.
When it comes to decorations, fresh air, natural light, ergonomically setup whatever works for you do it before you need to start your session.
A note on communication it’s important to not communicate during your session but oh please tell your co-workers this in advance.
Be wary of that pesky leftover distractions
Our brains are very complex and clever but once you feed information to your brain 🧠 it’s firing neurons and activates parts of the brain.
Remember when people boasted about how well they are at multi-tasking it comes at a price. When you frequently switch tasks the neurons are still firing in those areas even if you working on something else and that influence the quality of what you work on next.
Ever worked on something new and still thinking about what you read in that email and what you should respond?
Your brain isn’t an on and off switch as much as we’d like to think.
- The easiest way to avoid this is to not start a task you cannot commit to at the time. If you do admin make sure you have the time and ability to do so.
- Take a brain-break after your non-thinking type of work before you start on work you need to concentrate on.
- If there’s idea’s or to do’s floating around — note it down, better yet schedule them into your calendar. This creates a sense of relief that you won’t forget about it and scheduled time for it but you are not going to tend to it now.
Deep thinking and creativity requires you to clear your brain of all the things that are not valuable to the problem you are trying to solve or innovation to create.
When the mind starts to wander
This happens and it’s very normal especially because we trained our brains to be reactive. We are always feeding it a bunch of information most often unrelated to each other.
- When you ultimately cannot focus any more there is no need to force yourself. Stand up, go for a walk.
- Measure how long you concentrated and schedule in a more realistic duration to concentrate. (Tip: use the Pomodoro technique if the duration is too long)
- If time runs out and you feel you can still concentrate scheduled it for a bit longer.
It’s our responsibility to re-train our brains to focus on one thing at a time. Until we stop feeding it useless information it won’t change. Like any other muscle, you have to exercise it daily to become stronger at focusing and concentrating.
The deeper you go the deeper the work
I personally embrace this time I set out for myself to challenge myself and see the real potential and value I can add when I set my mind to it.
Clever people write books about this type of thing all the time, one of my all-time favourites is Deep work from Cal Newport.