We're all busy, running around multitasking, while Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are in a quiet place, doing deep work and getting ahead. Single-tasking, according to the book Deep Work by Cal Newport, is their secret to success.

Newport claims that the people who get ahead are the ones who understand that the deepest, most productive work is achieved when you eliminate all distractions and find extended, quiet time to think.

Bill Gates takes a full week, twice per year, to read and think. Warren Buffett schedules at most three or four meetings on his calendar per month. That's right. I said month, not week.

This is all well and good, but you and I are not Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.

Eliminating Distractions -- One Step at a Time

For us mere mortals, deep work likely seems unachievable. Having days on end to think is just never going to happen. Heck, even getting one full day to think seems out of reach.

That's what I used to think. I'm an entrepreneur, mother, and wife. If I can wrangle 30 minutes to myself in any given week, that's a win. But then I heard Newport speak at a conference last year, and he really made deep work sound achievable, even for me.

So I started small. I cleared one day in my calendar. It was a Friday. I woke up at my normal time and did my normal morning routine: kids off to school, check email, gym, shower. 

And then ...

I didn't go into the office. I sat at my kitchen table. I turned off my email and my phone. I had zero distractions.  

I asked myself, "What's the most important, big-picture, strategic issue or opportunity facing my business today?" 

I spent some time just thinking through this question, brainstorming, writing notes.  After about half an hour, I had a prioritized list of high-priority, strategic issues. 

I then spent the next two hours working through the first issue. When I found myself mentally tired, I took a five-minute break to grab some water, stretch, or just close my eyes. I didn't check emails or dive into other work-related tasks. And after the five minutes were up, I went back to deep thinking and working.

At the end of the two hours, I had made enough progress that I was ready to share my thoughts with my team and seek feedback. 

After another five-minute break, I tackled my second highest priority issue for the next two hours.

At the end of the day, I had made solid progress on my top two priority issues. The remaining issues went into a backlog, a list that I now look at every time I do deep work. A list that I often add to and rearrange as new issues arise.

I'd love to tell you that I do this routine every Friday, but I'd be lying to you. In truth, even on the Fridays when I do deep work, I don't even always get a full day. Sometimes, I can get four hours. Sometimes, I can get only two hours.

In my experience, any amount of quiet, single-tasking, deep thinking is better than none. I encourage you to try it. All you need is a few hours of uninterrupted time. Try it once. And if it's valuable to you, repeat.

Published on: Mar 5, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.