Bill Gates is without a doubt one of the most recognizable names within the last century. He co-founded Microsoft with Paul Allen in 1975 – it would turn out to be the largest software company in the world and make Bill the richest man on Earth (who currently holds a net worth of $90.8 billion). Microsoft, with a market value of $650 billion, is still an enormous company. While Gates has since left Microsoft in order to pursue philanthropic efforts through his charity, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – the largest private charity in the world, having received over $40 billion in total endowments – his ongoing work continues to cement his place in history as one of the most influential people to have ever lived.
How Bill Gates increased his productivity using the habit of ‘deep working’
In similar fashion to most other successful business people, Gates has received a barrage of questions over the years from people trying to figure out how he has managed to maintain his productivity throughout the years, particularly during the early years of Microsoft. Naturally, that was a stage in his career when he was required to put a large number of hours into his work on a daily basis. His motivation to work long hours is reflected in comments made by his co-founder, Paul Allen:
“He’d be in the middle of a line of code when he’d gradually tilt forward until his nose touched the keyboard,” said Allen.
However, it’s not only the hours that Gates worked that ensured he completed line after line of code on schedule. He practiced a technique known as deep working, which can be defined as:
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit, [which then] create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to duplicate,” according to Cal Newport in his book ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’.
Gates had an uncanny ability to switch in and out of high concentration which allowed him to regularly maintain focus on his work at an optimal level for prolonged periods of time. Of course, while it might be difficult to suddenly develop this technique, it’s certainly possible to begin practicing it in your own work life.
How to build a habit of deep work like Bill Gates
As with any habit building process, it’s helpful to break down what Gates does to enhance his ability to deep work effectively, and then assess how it could be possible to build upon the required skills over time.
1. Set aside chunks of time for deep work during your day
First, it’s helpful to actually allocate a segment of your day specifically to deep working. Why? If performed correctly, deep working is most effective when you do for it a shorter period of time on a task which you consider a high priority. However, it’s difficult to maintain that level of focus for very long, so wasting your deep working ‘energy’ on smaller tasks throughout the day isn’t advised. For example, you might want to start out by:
“Setting aside 15 minutes to work on the most important task, or subtask, each day.”
Even if you can’t complete that task within that 15 minute window, it’s a great way to begin allocating time to one specific thing that you can solely focus on.
2. Go offline if possible or turn on airplane mode on your mobile devices
Depending on the type of task you’re doing, this might be counter productive but in most instances it can certainly help to be disconnected from your mobile or the internet for at least 15 minutes. Notifications, emails, and web browsing are some of our biggest distractions, so do yourself a favor and eliminate them from your routine while you deep work. An easy way to start doing this is to:
“Turn on airplane mode before you begin your designated period of deep work.”
Gradually you’ll find that as you want to increase the amount of time that you’re deep working, you’ll also want to increase your time offline. It might help to also disconnect from your WiFi network while you’re working on specific tasks.
3. Be selective about when you deep work
As the earlier quote from Paul Allen suggests, Gates had a tendency to work during early morning and late night periods. Why? It probably has to do with the fact that the office or workspace is quieter and free of distractions and also that those times particularly suited him for completing particular tasks.
While it might not be advised to work both early mornings and late nights, you can try to practice more efficient deep work at times where you’re likely to not only have peace and quiet, but also when you’re able to perform highly. For example, try to:
“Choose a time of day to allocate your allotted time, for example [6am before your family wakes up]”
Naturally, as you increase the time you’re spending doing deep work, you’ll find that you’ll need to work earlier or later depending on when you start or finish.