You’ve heard the term deep work, but you’re not sure what exactly it means and if it’s something that you should pay attention to and apply to your work? In this article, we’ll define what it is, why it’s important, and how to get into the state of the uninterrupted workflow.
We’ll go over the basics, but to learn more in-depth about deep work (no pun intended), I recommend reading the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.
Table of contents
- What is deep work?
- Why is deep work important?
- Four deep work strategies
- Build a ritual
- Implement four disciplines
- Make time to rest and recharge
- Give yourself deadlines to finish the work
- Train your memory
- Minimize social media – or cut it down completely
- Schedule your whole day, including breaks
- Spend less time on emails
- The grand gesture strategy
What is deep work?
First, let’s define what deep work is, according to the book: professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replace.
On the contrary, there is also shallow work. It can be defined as non cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Why is deep work important?
According to Newport, “…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 this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
If you are able to master hard things and produce at an elite level in terms of both quality and speed, you will be very hard to replace because that’s rare. Consequently, you will be able to land the best jobs.
Many find meaning and significance through deep work, as they are challenging themselves to their intellectual limits. According to Hungarian psychologist Csikszentmihalyi, “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Deep work gives a lot of personal satisfaction.
But how to do deep work?
Short answer: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
The long answer is, well, the rest of the article.
Four deep work strategies
There are four ways to incorporate deep work into your schedule. While choosing the one that works best for you, keep in mind that not every philosophy is suited for every job; each one requires a certain lifestyle and work schedule.
The monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling
Your whole workday consists of deep work, while shallow work is minimized. Those who practice monastic philosophy are pursuing a well-defined and highly valued professional goal and the majority of their professional success comes from doing that one thing exceptionally well.
An example would be a writer who spends the whole workday alone in a room, working on their book and very rarely responding to calls or emails. According to fictional writer Neal Stephenson, there are two mutually exclusive options (for him, at least): writing good novels regularly or answering a lot of emails and attending conferences, and, as a result, producing lower quality novels less often.
However, it also means you have to say “no” to new opportunities that may arise while you’re working on your main task.
The bimodal philosophy of deep work scheduling
It means dedicating a chunk of your time to deep work and leaving the rest of the week for everything else. It means both admiring the monastics’ productivity and respecting the value received from shallow work.
During the period of deep work, you work with maximum focus and no interruptions. This period has to last at least one full day – according to this approach, few hours are not enough to get into deep work mode. People who follow this model typically need breaks from deep work to 1) do other work that essentially pays their bills and 2) make a break to stimulate their thinking. Division of time can happen on a scale of a week, month, or even year.
For example, Carl Jung used to spend a chunk of his time alone, writing; for the rest of the time, he ran a clinical practice, had a social life, and attended university lectures.
The rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling
If your day-to-day schedule rarely changes, you can adopt rhythmic philosophy: devoting a few hours of your day to deep work and doing the shallow work the rest of the day. For a lot of people, disappearing for a few days a week is not realistic nor doable, but disappearing for a couple of hours is.
An example of implementing this philosophy would be waking up a few hours earlier so you can work on your passion project in the morning, before your regular work starts.
The journalistic philosophy of deep work scheduling
The journalist approach consists of fitting deep work whenever you can into your schedule. It may seem the most doable, but it’s not for beginners; switching from shallow work to deep work mode so quickly takes practice. It also requires a lot of confidence that what you’re doing is important and will succeed.
Deep work can take as short as 20 minutes, or however long you manage to squeeze between other tasks. It usually means taking advantage of canceled meetings and other openings in your schedule.
Build a ritual
Before you get to work, you should build a ritual that will help you get into deep work mode faster and easier. Determine location, duration, structure, and requirements. Where will you work and how long? How will you work once you start to work? How will you support your work?
While location and duration don’t need further explanation, here are some additional questions to determine structure and requirements.
For structure: Will the internet be on or off? Can you go to the kitchen to get a snack or you need to sit at the desk the whole time? How do you measure the success of a session? Requirements are what you need to get into deep work mode – any specific music, beverage, or software. You may not know it right away; after a few deep work sessions, it will become clearer what works for you and what requirements you need.
Building a perfect ritual for you may take some time and experimentation.
Implement four disciplines
Newport mentioned a book that intrigued him – The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Sean Covey, Chris McChesney, and Jim Huling. It helps companies successfully implement high-level strategies, but he adapted the framework to his personal habits.
- Focus on the wildly important. Choose a smaller number of important, ambitious goals, rather than a lot of less significant goals. It will help you focus your energy in the right direction.
- Act on the lead measures. Once you’ve identified your big goal(s), you need to find a way to measure your success. There are two metrics to pay attention to: lag measures and lead measures.
Lag measures are the measures you’re ultimately trying to improve. For example, if your goal is to earn more money, the relevant lag measure is, naturally, the amount of money you earn each month.
Lead measures measure new behaviors that will drive success to lag measures – in this case, it could be an increased number of leads for the product you’re selling or how close you are to meeting promotion requirements.
- Keep a compelling scoreboard. Track how much time you spend in deep work each day and put it somewhere visible to motivate you. You can use a productivity tracker too.
- Create a cadence of accountability. To keep yourself accountable, you should have some sort of Weekly Review (similarly to GTD methodology). Analyze what went well, what went not so well, and what area you need to improve on. If you reach your weekly goals with ease, it’s time to push yourself further.
Make time to rest and recharge
Our brains can’t stay focused for an infinite amount of time – it’s crucial to let yourself rest and recharge. A tired brain is not capable of doing deep work, but even more important, forcing yourself to be productive all the time is not good for your mental health.
Don’t work after your working hours are done and don’t work instead of sleeping.
If you’re still not convinced – your unconscious mind is often better at detangling issues. You can’t force good ideas and creative solutions, they will come to you, usually at random times, like when you’re showering.
Do you know why a lot of us come up with the best ideas when we’re in the shower? Because you’re relaxed and your brain produces dopamine, which boosts your creativity. Also, research shows that we’re more likely to come up with creative solutions while we’re doing something monotonous, like showering or washing the dishes, since we’re on autopilot and our unconscious mind is free to work on something else.
Give yourself deadlines to finish the work
If you give yourself 2 weeks to finish a project, you’ll finish it in 2 weeks.
If you give yourself a week for the same project, you’ll likely manage to finish it in a week.
When setting a deadline, try to find a balance and give yourself just the right amount of pressure that will force you to concentrate and do the work, but will not make you too stressed out and/or panic. If you’re tracking time, it will be easier to estimate the right amount of time you need and find that balance.
A very interesting example is a software company 37signals (now Basecamp) who experimented with shortening the workweek to four days during summer. As their cofounder Jason Fried said (very wisely, if I may add), “people should enjoy the weather in the summer”. They weren’t working longer hours – they worked 32 hours a week. The only exception was customer support that worked normal hours, due to the nature of their job.
Does that work? Well, 14 years later, they still do it, so it must work.
Fried explained how: “Very few people work even 8 hours a week. You’re lucky if you get a few good hours in between all the meetings, interruptions, web surfing, office politics, and personal business that permeate the typical workday.
Fewer official working hours help squeeze the fat out of the typical workweek. Once everyone has less time to get their stuff done, they respect that time even more. People become stingy with their time and that’s a good thing. They don’t waste it on things that just don’t matter. When you have fewer hours you usually spend them more wisely”.
Train your memory
If you need to work on your focus, you can do so by training your memory. As Newport said in the book, “A side effect of memory training is an improvement in your general ability to concentrate”.
Leading a healthy lifestyle (especially eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep), as well as playing memory games can improve your memory. You can try memorizing a deck of cards, order of the stack of books, or a list of words in a foreign language. These may not be particularly fun, but they will help you with deep work.
Minimize social media – or cut it down completely
It’s no secret that social media is made to be addictive. Checking your phone again and again for a new dose of dopamine interrupts your workflow and makes doing deep work near to impossible.
💡 If you have trouble with procrastination, you may find this article helpful: How to beat procrastination: 8 personal tips for a productivity coach
Go without social media for 30 days, as an experiment. After that time passes, ask yourself would these last thirty days been notably better if you had been able to use that service? Did people care that you weren’t using that service?
If the answers were no, you won’t lose anything by deleting social media.
If at least one answer was yes, don’t delete them, but try to minimize your social media consumption.
Try discovering other forms of entertainment and ways to pass the free time. Trying a new hobby, reading, spending more time in nature and/or with your friends and family are all great options.
Schedule your whole day, including breaks
We spend a lot of time on autopilot and rarely ask ourselves if what we’re doing is aligned with our goals and values and if there’s something else we should do instead. To avoid that, you should schedule your time in advance, having in mind the goals you are trying to achieve and making sure you have a healthy balance between work and life.
Your day probably won’t go exactly as planned, but it’s important to have a plan regardless.
Newport recommends time-blocking, which means dividing your time into blocks and assigning a task to each block. Include meals and breaks in your schedule, too. You can group similar shallow work and do it in one time block, after a block of deep work.
Other options are using timesheet templates, to-do lists, or a time tracking app.
At first, you may have trouble with estimating how much time you need for a certain task, but as time goes, you’ll get better at it. If you use a time tracking app, you can use the data you collected over time to estimate it as accurately as possible.
Schedule breaks and strictly ban yourself any distractions when you’re not on a break.
The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. After a while, your brain will get bored and start searching for distractions, but you need to learn to embrace the boredom.
I used to schedule breaks when I was a student and preparing for exams; it was easier to stay focused when I knew I had a break coming soon and I had to study only for 30 more minutes, not until the end of time.
I have a degree now, so I can confirm it works.
Spend less time on emails
You don’t need to be available 24/7.
Set expectations in advance, for example, you can state “I respond to emails Mon-Fri from 4 PM to 5 PM” or “I’ll only respond to emails that are a good match to my schedule and interests”.
You can also shorten email conversations by saying something like “I’d love to meet up. I’m free Mon 3-4 PM, Wed 10-11 AM, and Thu 2-5 PM. Are you available at any of those times? If so, send an invitation to my calendar for the time that works for you and I’ll see you then.” instead of “I’d love to meet up. When are you free?”
See how the former is faster and straight to the point?
If you are the one writing emails to others, write them in a way that generates a response.
If you’re writing to someone who has a busy schedule, they may not be very likely to respond to “I’d like to meet up. Are you available anytime soon?”
Instead, try writing something like this: “I’d like to discuss X, which may interest you because of Y. Is it okay if I stop by tomorrow to see if it might complement your current project?”
The grand gesture strategy
How to let your brain know you mean business? If everything else fails, make a grand gesture.
Grand gesture means making an additional effort by changing the scenery and perhaps even investing some money. By doing that, you increase the perceived importance of the task.
In 2007, J.K. Rowling was struggling to finish The Deathly Hallows. It was the final book of the Harry Potter series, so the expectations and the pressure were high. It was a project that required deep work and she just didn’t have enough concentration, distractions were everywhere.
So what did she do? She made a grand gesture – she booked a suite in a five-star Balmoral hotel in downtown Edinburgh and ended up finishing the book there.
I think investing money helps as much as changing the scenery, if not more – you are more likely to do what you came to do since you don’t want to waste your hard-earned money.
It has always worked for me: I used to study for my university exams only in the library, never at home. The combination of a distraction-free space and the fact that I paid to enter made it easier for me to concentrate and get my work done.
Deep work is a skill that requires time and practice, but it’s very high-reward. By working on it, not only you’ll be able to master hard things and produce at an elite level in terms of both quality and speed, but the work you produce will also give you a lot of personal satisfaction.
If you master the art of deep work, you will be able to master everything else.
What is your experience with deep work? Let us know at email@example.com.