Perpetually plagued by digital distractions? Need a better way to succeed in your life’s work?
Consider the tenets of Deep Work, a new productivity strategy to help you to get more out of your professional life.
Written by computer scientist and prolific author Cal Newport, Deep Work—Rules for Success in a Distracted World provides useful guidelines for us to better manage our time, energy and focus so that we can do great things.
Deep Work lays out strategies which knowledge workers need to vastly improve your productivity each workday. It inculcates you with the methods needed to enhance your performance and overcome distractions in a digitally-saturated world.
Like his later volume on digital minimalism, Deep Work is a fabulous read (or listen). It contained fascinating anecdotes and easy-to-remember practical tips.
Ready for the deep dive? Put on your gear and plunge right in!
What is Deep Work?
First, let us look at what deep work is. According to the book, deep work can be defined as follows:
Deep Work: 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 replicate.
On the flip side of the productive work equation, we have shallow work, which can be understood as follows:
Shallow Work: 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.
Comparatively speaking, deep work yields significant benefits for knowledge-based workers. They include scientists and academics, artists, writers, content strategists, programmers/ coders, and anybody in the business of creation.
The Benefits of Deep Work
Why do you need to embrace deep work? How does it add value to ourselves and to the world around us?
According to the book, deep work is needed for high value creative output that you can’t get from shallow work. Achievements like writing a book (or a bestselling series, like J K Rowling’s Harry Potter), inventing a new space rocket, finding a cure for Covid-19, or completing a blockbuster movie, can only be attained through deep work.
It also helps to sharpen your ability to focus, empowering you to accomplish projects of exceptional quality, depth, and impact. Beyond masterpieces and world-changing inventions, deep work is also useful in solving seemingly intractable problems.
Deep work can also improve your efficiency, and allow you to do more in less time. By batch-processing your tasks so that you can apply razor-sharp concentration on specific projects, you’re able to scale the heights of productivity.
The other benefit of deep work is greater happiness. I can personally attest to the sheer joy and exultation that I experience when I complete a monumental piece of work – be it launching a new course, completing a major client project, or crafting an in-depth article.
Finally, deep work helps you to gain greater momentum and traction in whatever you’re doing. When you can work intensely for hours at a time, you will more likely to continue on what you’ve started until it is completed (see Zeigarnik Effect too).
The Four Rules of Deep Work
Now that you’re convinced on its benefits, let us look at the four rules of Deep Work.
Rule #1: Work Deeply
While many of us prefer to shy away from working deeply and working hard, deep work forces us to face our demons. It requires us to run counter to what the environment and societal culture wants us to be – perpetually distracted, multi-tasking (and failing), and switching from task to task.
To overcome this, you will need specific rituals and routines – new work and life habits that make deep work automatic for you.
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
You will need to rewrite your brain to accomplish deep work. You will need to get used to boredom, and to resist the urge to continually check your smartphone.
Like a professional basketballer who continually practices a move that he is weak at, over and over again ad nauseum, deep work requires intense concentration. It is a skill that must be trained and sharpened.
Giving in to distractions at the slightest hint of tedium will destroy the concentration needed for deep work.
Rule #3: Quit Social Media
Admittedly, I can’t do this just yet – not while my livelihood depends on it. However, I do batch process my social media activities.
However, if your job doesn’t requite you to constantly post food photos on Instagram, or share news articles on Facebook, you may wish to jump off the social media bandwagon altogether. Designed for addiction, social media and smartphone apps can grip your time and attention like a vice.
Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
In a related fashion, consider ways to reduce what Newport term “the shallows” – low-value tasks like answering emails, making phone calls, immediately responding to all instant messages, attending meetings and so on.
Here, the suggestion is to schedule your most sacred time for deep work and to spend as little time on shallow work as possible. Don’t let shallow work fill the time needed for deep work.
The Four Routines of Deep Work
So how can you adopt the practice of deep work? There are four main philosophies which Newport suggests:
#1 Monastic Philosophy
Cut yourself entirely away from the world. Live like a hermit or a monk during the period of deep work.
Here, your normal response to requests for your time or attention is a big “NO!”
This is the most dedicated form of deep work, and has been used by authors and philosophers and great thinkers. However, it may be unrealistic for most people in the contemporary age.
#2 Bimodal Philosophy
This alternates between a normal, busy, multi-tasked work life and a monastic approach. Apparently, psycho-analyst Karl Jung was known for this – he alternated between his normal psycho-therapy practice and social life in Zurich, and retreating to his mountain abode home for writing.
Doing so requires some flexibility in your schedule to take a sabbatical for a year, months, or weeks.
#3 Rhythmic Philosophy
Here, your goal is to fix an immovable block of time for deep work. Every. Single. Day.
An example could be in the early mornings between 7 am to 9 am before busy shallow work overwhelms you. Or you can fix a certain day of the week, like Google’s 20% time which allows employees to take one full-day to work deeply on a project.
#4 Journalistic Philosophy
Like a reporter on a deadline to file his story, the journalistic approach looks at how you can fill in whatever periods of time you have with deep work.
This works well for people who may be constantly on the move. Or those that have little control on the regularity of their days.
However, it requires that you are disciplined and vigilant with your time. You need to also note how you can fit in the interstitial periods with at least 30 minutes to an hour or so of deep work. It also mandates that you can find concentrate during these short periods – something that novices may find challenging.
How to Implement a Deep Work Routine
To make deep work a part of your life, you’ll need to do the following:
#1 Choose Optimal Location
Find a space that is as distraction free as possible. This should be conducive to long and intense period of focus.
If you can’t find it, use earphones or headphones that can cancel external noise. Where possible, try to be consistent in choosing your working environment – this helps you to get into the deep work rhythm more easily.
#2 Fix Deep Work Duration
Prior to commencing, establish exactly how much time you’ll need for the task ahead.
You may start with smaller stretches of say 30 minutes to 45 minutes, and work all the way up to 3 or even 4 hour stretches. Your goal is to make sure those periods are intense and focused, shutting out all distractions.
#3 Establish Structure
How will each deep work session be like? What can you do? What will be out-of-bounds? How much work should you accomplish during each session (eg X no of words, Y lines of code, Z no of slides done).
A good structure is one where you’re forbidden to do random stuff during deep work periods. You may also want to structure every minute of your workdays, and design a system that allows you to still do some shallow work while not impeding the progress of your deep work.
Make these cardinal rules mandatory.
After you’ve gone through a few rounds of deep work, you’ll probably have a better idea of what you need to accomplish it.
This could be the music on your playlist. Or having a cup of coffee, or a bottle of water. Or perhaps a certain chair to sit on.
Ensure that these ambient factors are settled prior to each session of focused work.
#5 Execute a Grand Gesture
This is a way to signify that you’re ready to embark on a deep work project. It not only sets you up for deep work – it also helps to manage the expectations of others that they should respect your need for uninterrupted time and space to do your deep work.
A grand gesture may include buying new furniture. Or pasting a sign on your door which says “Deep Work in Progress – Do Not Disturb”. Or it may mean working remotely from an unspecified place.
“By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task.”
#6 Collaborate with Others Purposefully
Interestingly, deep work doesn’t mean being a hermit. However, it does require you to keep your “serendipitous encounters” with colleagues, partners, and collaborators to highly-specified spaces and times of the day. Such exchanges are beneficial so long as you can later retreat to your shell to do your part of the work.
In short, cut out frivolous water-cooler conversations. Be purposeful in your interactions.
#7 Minimise Digital Distractions
Stop using social media altogether. If you can’t (like me), find replacements for Internet entertainment.
Substitute high quality leisure (learning a musical instrument, hiking in nature, reading a good book, cooking) for low quality leisure (watching television, scrolling Instagram, reading online forums, binge-watching Netflix shows).
#8 Lock in Your Deep Work Schedule
Fix your times and spaces for deep work in your diary. Batch-process and schedule specific time periods for shallow work as well as leisure.
For instance, you can give yourself a 90 minute time limit for each major task. You should also block off all your time periods, even while you are at home.
You should make it a routine so that you have a fighting chance of sticking to your routine and succeeding in it.
#9 Practice Mind Building Games
Rather than mindlessly scroll through social media, use your leisure to improve your memory and cognitive acuity. This could include the following:
- Memorize a deck of cards
- Learn a new song or poem by heart
- Learn a new language or a new recipe
- Commit a list of new words to memory – build your vocabulary
- Try to imitate a masterpiece by drawing it from memory
#10 Have a Shutdown Routine
The final practice in deep work is to have clear boundaries between work and life. You need to completely shut down from your deep (and shallow) work to engage fully in leisure activities. This could be playing with your kids, walking your dog, going for a run, or reading a good book.
This brings us to our final point below.
How Downtime Can Be Productive
“The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.”
In today’s hectic and multi-tasked world, leisure is underrated. However, it is an important part of a deep worker’s toolkit.
In fact, systematic idleness — times when you’re completely cut off from the tasks for the day — can contribute to moments of great insight and inspiration.
Downtime can help us to improve our thinking, replenish our mental and physical energies to do deep work, and allow us to more productive overall. Thus you should make space for productive meditation.
Consider taking a walk while you’re mulling over a problem. Or going for a run (my favourite kind of downtime). Or perhaps you can have a long shower. Or cycle in the park.
Deep Work is more than just a panacea to digital distraction. It revolutionizes how we treat our time and attention, and can help us to accomplish greater things in life.
What I’ve written is just a scaffold of the book’s salient points. Do get a copy of it to benefit from Newport’s wisdom.
“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.” – Cal Newport