How Do I get Deep Work Done in the Midst of Random Priority Distractions

A reader name Eric reached out to me recently with this question:

I just Instapaper’d a couple of your deep work articles but I had a question: what can you do to get the most deep work possible when a good chunk of your time is taken up by unscheduled, urgent, and energy draining tasks like customer support?

Some background on Eric. He sells plugins and while he’s a great developer and has made them easy to use, clients are clients and they have issues. As he’s sold more plugins, the support issue has continued to get bigger, despite hiring a great person to handle part of support.

Eric needs to keep fixing development things with his plugins and he needs to write marketing copy and work on his marketing funnel.

Those are all deep work1 tasks that need big swaths of time focused on them. Random interruptions break up the creative flow and mean that the work takes epically longer to accomplish.

I’ve got a few suggestions to make this schedule work better which we’ll cover over the next two weeks. Today, we’re going to talk about your two modes of working.

You have two modes

The first thing you need to recognize is that you have two modes of working. You are at times a Maker and at times a Manager2. Makers need large blocks of time to do their creative work. A meeting at 10 am breaks up their morning in to two blocks of time that are almost entirely useless for good work.

A Manager breaks up their day into hours. They have a meeting for an hour. A call. Another meeting. Most of their tasks fit into this discrete block of time and most of those tasks don’t take an hour of deep thought to warm the engine and get going.

Most of you are technical people. You fight the gremlins of the internet. You are Gandalf. Being creative means that you need large blocks of time to do your work.

You are a Maker.

You also run a business and need to answer email. You need to deal with support. You have to have meetings with prospects to see if they might become clients.

You are a Manager.

The problem with Eric isn’t that he has Manager tasks, it’s that he’s letting them invade his Maker time. We’ll talk more tomorrow about how I use The Mullet Productivity Schedule, to make sure that my Manager tasks don’t invade my Maker time.

Eric’s second problem is that as a Maker (artist) he’s grappling with the change in his business. He used to do client work where 80% of his time was coding. That’s Maker mode.

Now he’s got a business where 50% or less of his time is Maker time. He has to do the marketing. He has to handle the more technical support questions.

He has to learn to be okay with that transition, and that will take some time.

What is most important

As I dug in with Eric, he knew that he should decide his most important tasks the day before. In fact, he came up with a list of three tasks that should get done the next day. It only took him 30 seconds to write them down.

Putting aside the fact that he let distractions in3 Eric admitted that the first task was super important. The second task was important. The third task was usually terrible. It was filler so that he had “3 items” to follow what everyone says you should have.

If that’s the case, then cut the third task. If you look at your task list and two of the things you put down as priorities seem terrible, then cut two of them.

One of the big principles of Bullet Journalling, is that paper creates friction and this is a good thing. If it feels like a significant pain to move your tasks forward, then they likely weren’t worth doing anyway. You didn’t get to them the first time, so apparently, they weren’t important.

Just drop them.

Digital task managers make it far too easy to move things forward that we’re never going to do. You push the date forward and make the task a problem for future you. Maybe you take the date off and then continually have to decide during your review if the task is worth doing.

Eric wrote down three things because we’re always told three is the magic number of big tasks in a day.

Three is not the magic number. The question to ask yourself every day is:

If I only got my number one task done, would I consider the rest of my day successful?

If the answer is ‘no’ then it’s not the most important task on your list.

Now that task may not be a single thing to do. When I’m writing a book, my ‘task’ is to spend two uninterrupted hours writing, not finish the book or finish a chapter. Two hours of focused work on the content is pushing me in the right direction. I can’t help it if the material demands 10 hours to do right.

All I can do is put in the time that the content needs. This series is a perfect example. I sat down thinking it was a single post and as I’ve written this first one I have five others to write as well. Maybe it will be more.

My task for the day was to spend two hours writing, with this post being the top priority. If I spent two hours writing, my day was successful.

The Focusing Question Because Shit Hits the Fan Sometimes

Yes, shit hits the fan sometimes. Despite your best-laid plans, kids get sick. As I was launching my 8 Week Business BootCamp, my youngest kid got sick. I was up at 3 am cleaning sheets.

My wife was up with a 1-year-old throwing up in the bathroom.

That left me with scripts to write and a 6-year-old doing math on the bed with a 3-year-old building a tower with blocks and attempting to shove it in my butt while laughing about it.

Writing scripts is Maker work, and I had distractions, so I had to ask myself one question4.

With the distractions I have going on, what is the one thing I can do so that the rest of BootCamp prep will be easier?

At that moment, I couldn’t write, but I could look through all my coaching handouts and break them up into course modules so that when it came time to write the scripts in one shot.

All I needed to do that was a few minutes to read through a chunk of the content and break it out into a section suitable for video. I didn’t have to write; I just had to understand a small piece of content at a time.

The rest of my day didn’t get much better for focus time, and yet I still felt like the day was great because I could look back and know that with my next work block on scripts I was ready to sit down and write. I had no material to gather or sorting to do, only writing.

And I did in one three hour chunk. I edited and wrote 10,000 words.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about my Mullet Deep Work Method and how it can help you be a Maker and a Manager in your business.

Have an awesome day!

Curtis

PS: If you’re struggling with focus, I’d love to talk about your schedule and see if I can help you build a better plan.

photo credit: 64604717@N03 cc


  1. If you’re not familiar with what Deep Work is, read my look at the book of the same name by Cal Newport
  2. Paul Graham coined these terms in 2009 here if you want to dig deeper into them. 
  3. We’ll talk about that in one of the coming posts. 
  4. This question is a variation on the question from The ONE Thing. I reviewed it if you want to know what that book is about

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