That sounds nice, right? Sliding into your workday casually and calmly with your cup of coffee in one hand and your sense of purpose in the other, deliberately deciding what’s truly important – not urgent – to move your department or a major project forward. Going to only the meetings where you can directly impact the outcome and focusing on creative brain power, deep thinking kind of work the rest of the time.

The reality is, maybe you had one day like that back in 2011 and as the decade starts to tumble to a close (how did THAT happen?), that sweet, sweet day is like a blurry memory of your Aunt Hazel baking you cookies back in the 80s.

Instead, what really happens is a version somewhat like this:

  • If you get a chance to grab a coffee at all, by the time your bum touches your seat, someone is in your office or at your desk with something that requires your immediate attention. Back when I was in this boat, my FAVORITE was an urgent impromptu meeting about a marketing assistant who used the words “Subject Line” in an actual marketing email that went out (since she forgot to remove those words for the final version).
  • You open your email to find 7 exclamation mark emails among the 30 or so other emails that came in overnight. Already your mind is in hyperdrive and as you scroll through them, you notice the ‘urgent’ emails actually seem less important than other ones, but you can’t quite tell, which muddies your brain.
  • Sally in sales pops in about 2 minutes later to tell you a last minute meeting was called for 10am today (when you had actually set aside to do work) and you need to be there. Your boss is coming. Groan. Means you gotta be there.
  • The only time you might be able to squeeze in work now before you have to pick up the kids/go to your networking event/meet your trainer/go to your volunteer meeting is during a company-wide All Hands meeting. Do you run the risk of not showing face there to get the important work moving along, or do you dutifully show up, thinking the entire time of what’s not getting done and how much further behind you are?

The truth is, this is happening in companies large, medium and small all across America and by my estimation, as time passes, this phenomenon is only getting worse and more pervasive. Why?

Because no one knows what they’re doing.

There, I said it. And I don’t mean people don’t know how to do their jobs. Most of us are capable, driven intelligent folk who joined our current company because we believe on some level in what they do or we believe our skill set and experiences can have major impact there.

Instead, what I mean is, people don’t know how to WORK anymore. As people continue to ‘wear many hats’ and lines between roles continue to blur, we are more and more ill-equipped (read: bad at) actually working. We’re GREAT at going to meetings, answering email, filing expense reports, running marketing or sales reports and many other ‘shallow work’ tasks.

You’ve read this far because you want to break this cycle. You recognize that this isn’t just specific to your company – that this WILL occur elsewhere if you leave. You want to love what you do again – because you’re actually doing the work that matters, not just looking busy by being in meetings all day.

So, how can you develop a routine or system at work that helps you get needle moving work done and allows you to leave for the day feeling like something actually changed today, rather than the anxiety that invades your evening spin class about what you still didn’t get done today?

  • Set an Intention: This sounds coachy and woo-wooy, but it’s absolutely the first thing you must do. Acknowledge your role (we all have roles!) in how you haven’t been getting your work done, and set an intention to put effort into stopping this cycle. Write this intention down, preferably somewhere you can see it and be reminded of it.
  • Name the Day’s Top Priority…before you go home the night before. What is THE most important thing that must get done tomorrow? If, because you’ve been in the shallow work cycle for so long, you don’t know what THE most important thing is, this may take some practice. Generally speaking, team meetings, conference calls and urgent conversations about an email subject line are NOT on the list. What’s your biggest priority you’ve set for the quarter? Where are you with that project and what’s the next step or bottleneck that’s been holding back the progress there? Chances are, THAT’S Your top priority. Setting it – with a specific task or tasks you need to do to accomplish it- the night before is key. Put it on the top of your to-do list
  • Rejig your Day: It’s often said the best work gets done first thing, so if that resonates, do the deep work the first hour or 2 during the day. Block off your calendar and do not accept meetings at that time.
  • Educate your Team: People might be confused at first, so you likely can’t just shut your door and decline meetings for the first two hours of every day. (In fact, I don’t recommend that). It can be something as simple as, “I’m available for meetings after 11am; before then, I’m working on <Insert top priority here that the team likely knows about>.” You can even suggest everyone try it and you’ll likely find that this has an added bonus- the work is actually getting done so less meetings are needed.
  • Develop Boundaries/Be Uncomfortable: This is especially if you identify as a people pleaser. You’re going to need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable pushing back when someone needs something urgently and runs the risk of hijacking your agenda. There’s a way to say it, that allows you to say “no” without them hearing “no”. That’s key. You can do this in a variety of ways: delegate, if that’s a possibility, or tell them you’ll get it to them by X time, which allows you to not get off the Deep Work Express Train.

I could really talk about this all day and give more tips and scripts for how to navigate these murky-as-hell waters.

The final takeaway I want to leave you with is that this feels weird and foreign to most of us, but that’s precisely why we need to do it. Once you start to implement systems and communications that allow you to get deep work done, you can help others do it too. And this is to the advantage of your entire group. In other words, the cycle – once it gets going- perpetuates and the benefits increase more and more. Because people are focused, there are less errors (and meetings about the dire nature of the words “Subject Line” in a marketing email subject line), less meetings and less feeling anxious about what didn’t get done that day as your head hits the pillow at night. And think about what a rad, go-getter type person you’d be if you actually got a full night of sleep.