Your Long-Term Success Comes Down to This One Thing

What are you supposed to be doing right now, instead of reading this post?

I ask because there are countless demands competing for your attention, right? Your inbox. Text messages you need to return. Headlines in the news. A stakeholder who needs something. A problem at home. The deliverable due in a few hours. Something that went wrong on a project. An angry customer. A demanding boss. Something that you’re supposed to remember to do but can’t quite remember right now. Oh yeah, and this article.

Distractions bombard our lives. It’s an unrelenting attack of competing demands, all vying for at least a moment of our attention. Gloria Mark’s research finds that typical information workers are interrupted once every three minutes. Lest you want to lay the blame at the feet of millennials, open floor plans, or technology, Mark found that 44% of the time we interrupt ourselves!

Life in the Shallows

We live in the shallows. Getting time for deep, focused, uninterrupted work is rare for most of us. If deep work was a species, it would unquestionably be on the endangered list. And it takes a toll on our projects, our organizations, and on our very selves.

What if your ability to succeed wasn’t really about your IQ? Or the number of hours you work? Or your title? Or your looks or the family you grew up in or the college you graduated from?

What if your ability to succeed as a project manager in the years ahead came down to this: your ability to focus. I’m talking about your ability to carve out undistracted time, pushing your cognitive capabilities to their limit, allowing you to create new value and improve your skills.

After coaching hundreds of executives, one common thread I’ve seen across the most successful leaders comes down to what they focus on. The most successful have developed the ability to focus on the most important things, most of the time. They are less susceptible to being distracted by the trivial.

We all are gifted the same 24 hours a day. The difference is what we pay attention to.

Deep Work

I recently interviewed Cal Newport about his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport offers up his Deep Work Hypothesis: the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate the skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Makes sense. But certainly you must be tempted to think, “Cal is an academic! What does he know about the realities of my business life? He doesn’t know my project load. Or boss. Or demands at home.” Or whatever objections come to mind that convince us that deep work is no longer possible in today’s work culture.

Well, before you get back to what you’re supposed to be doing anyway, here’s the seed I’d like to plant. I’m taking Newport’s hypothesis as a challenge and I invite you to join me. I’d like you to join me in cultivating the ability to get more deep work into our weeks, making it the core of our working life.

In my next post, I’ll share some practical insights from Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. For now, here’s where you can listen to Cal Newport talk about his book, in his own words:

I’d love to hear your thoughts! What are some practical things you do to stay focused on the most important priorities, most of the time?

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