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10 Ways to Implement “Deep Work” as a Physician

One of the better books that I have read recently is Deep Work by Cal Newport. Both my wife, Selenid, and I have read it. As a concept, “deep work” refers to the ability to concentrate without distraction on a cognitively challenging task. As you can imagine, the advantages of deep work for anyone, let alone a physician, are humongous! So, this post is all about implementing deep work as a physician.

A quick history of my “work mode”

I’ve always been someone who has been able to juggle a lot of balls at once.

And a key to being able to do this for me has been to lend great focus to the tasks I put at hand as well as working in the margins of my time.

In fact, I can even remember in grade school when my friends would say that I went into “work mode” when we had something to do. Basically I could not be bothered. I was so intensely focused on the work at hand.

I would say that my “work mode” continues throughout my life. This obviously led to some issues, including burnout.

However, a big issue with burnout was that I was taking all each and every project and trying to juggle it. I wasn’t differentiating what I actually wanted to do.

A lot of coaching (self-coaching and otherwise) has gone into adjusting my mindset to focus on projects that I am passionate about. I have had to learn to say “no.” And to realize that saying “no” is okay.

But, this is not to say that I already had deep work figured out

A big problem was that I slipped wayyyy too easily into my work mode. And I went into work mode indiscriminately. For small (some may argue necessary) tasks to the big projects that really required deep work.

When we first started dating in medical school, it drive Selenid absolutely nuts. And if I’m being honest, it is still probably one of her bigger pet peeves.

But now, since reading and implanting deep work principles, my productivity has become much more effective and efficient. And I want to share my observations and experiences with you all!

These strategies for deep work as a physician are applicable to any task regardless of its nature. Want to get more up to date on clinical practices in your specialty? Want to start a physician side gig? Or, want to get your finances in order? Anything else? It’s all golden!

10 Ways to Implement “Deep Work” as a Physician

deep work physician

1. Batch

This is not a direct recommendation from the book. But to me it represents the amalgamation of pretty much everything in the book. As a busy physician, this is a major key in achieving a deep work state.

I’ve only recently started doing this but have noticed HUGE results.

Batching is the concept that instead of completing a bunch of similar tasks a little bit over a long time (like a week), you batch them together to complete in a short period of time (like a day). This allows you to focus completely and deeply on these similar tasks. You are also more likely to achieve a flow state if you are working on similar task items for an extended period versus broken up over many days.

I now batch writing my blog posts, scheduling and creating social media posts, writing my newsletters, preparing for OR cases, and even financial planning.

2. Schedule your work

This is something that I was actually very good at prior to reading the book. But I have only improved since.

A big issues for us over-achiever physicians is that there is always something that needs to be done. And it usually it rattling around our head until we actually get it done. And by the time we get it done, some other task takes its place.

Schedule your work ahead of time. And plan to do it well enough ahead of any due dates (self-imposed or otherwise). Now that you scheduled this work to be done, you can just file it away until then. No need to worry about it. You have a plan. So relax and enjoy the present for now.

3. Work in the margins of your life

I’ve written a lot about investing in the margins of your life. But I also want you to work in the margins of your life.

Life is full of margins. Margins are wasted time. And no, relaxation or “down” time is not wasted time. I’m talking about your commute where you zone out for 30 minutes. I’m talking about the hour that you watch episodes of The Office that you’ve already seen 30 times (*guilty*).

Use this time to do some mental exercises. Think about a tough problem you are trying to solve or project that you are working on. Just chew it over. Brainstorm. Think of ideas. Think of solutions.

Side note: Exercising is an excellent time to think about these things as well.

It will amaze you how many tricky problems you figure out or how many great ideas you have from doing this!

Honestly, most of my ideas for my blog, podcasts, and other projects come from this time.

4. Set limits on your deep work

This doesn’t mean to limit the time that you engage in deep work. There is no limit to this necessarily.

What I mean is that you should go in with an intentional time period that you will spend in deep work. Most of the time, we say we are going to work on a task or project. But we get constantly derailed by shallow work (checking emails, social media, etc.).

The antidote to this is to be intentional with your deep work. Set out an hour during which you are going to go into deep work on a set task. No shallow work allowed during that time.

Just creating such a seemingly arbitrary structure in your mind will yield huge increases in productivity.

5. Set up breaks during deep work

This is a logical follow to #4 above. You also need to schedule breaks into your work.

This is in contrast to what we usually do, which is to schedule work into our breaks.

If you intentionally set out to engage in deep work for 1 hours, set aside 10 minutes after the hour to relax. Maybe this is when you check your phone. Or watch a show for 10 minutes.

Then back to deep work with a refreshed focus.

6. Recognize shallow work

Part of successfully engaging in deep work is to recognize the factors distracting you from deep work. These items are called shallow work.

Shallow work can be just about anything. For most people they include:

  • Checking your phone
  • Scrolling social media
  • Reading and responding to non-urgent email
  • If you are me, reading ESPN
  • Zoning out to Netflix

Recognize your shallow work habits. Practice eliminating them during your deep work.

7. Focus on the wildly important

The biggest issue with the “work mode” that I talked about above is that I employed it for all tasks indiscriminately. This does not work.

We need to focus on the wildly important topics and tasks of our life. Think about what you can do today that will have the biggest impact on your life. That is what you should work on.

Then examine the rest of the items on your to-do list. Do you actually need or want to do them? If the answer is no, ditch them.

If the answer is yes, but they are not wildly important, then pick a time to batch them and take care of them during shallow work. Do not let them impede your deep work progress on the goals that will make the biggest impact for you.

8. Review progress regularly

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step…insert other quote…

I could go on and on trying to illustrate it, but you get it.

If we try to go from 1 to 100 all in one step, we get overwhelmed, procrastinate, and never reach deep work. Then we never fully accomplish out goal.

That is why it is so important to create checkpoints along the way from the start to the end of our goal(s). Celebrate each milestone and then focus on the next one ahead.

Before you know it, you will have accomplished your overall goal.

9. Limit social media

I am not great at this. Honestly this is probably the area I need the most work in.

Social media is the killer of deep work. There are so many great examples of people who don’t have social media and find immense increases in their productivity.

It’s tough because social media is a big way that I reach you, my audience.

But what I have started to do is to batch my social media. I create and schedule all of my social media posts one day each week, rather than doing it every day like I used to. This has helped.

I also try to set times to respond to comments and such online. This is usually early in the morning right when I wake up.

I’m not saying you need to swear it away, but realize that it is a huge detriment to deep work. Eliminate it from your deep work.

10. Give yourself grace

Achieving deep work, especially as a physician, is challenging.

It will not be a linear progression. Especially in the beginning, it will be really, really tough.

But give yourself grace and allow yourself to practice.

Like anything, practice makes perfect.

Ready to implement deep work to get on track for financial freedom?

What do you think? Do you engage in deep work? What helps you the most? What are the biggest impediments to deep work? Let me know what you think in the comments!

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    Jordan Frey MD, a plastic surgeon in Buffalo, NY, is one of the fastest-growing physician finance bloggers in the world. See how he went from financially clueless to increasing his net worth by $1M in 1 year and how you can do the same! Feel free to send Jordan a message at [email protected].

    4 thoughts on “10 Ways to Implement “Deep Work” as a Physician”

    1. Great post, Jordan! I’m a big fan of making lists. Whenever I’ve got a gazillion tasks to accomplish, it can seem so overwhelming that I want to give up and I end up procrastinating and doing nothing. (I’m actually a board certified procrastinator…) Anyway, simply making a list on an index card with check boxes has been a great help to me over the years and I like to list the tasks in order of priority. Thanks again, David.


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