In our age of constant distraction, true productivity is never quite within our reach. This is a huge issue for knowledge workers, who are often distracted from their main tasks by administrative work, emails, chat notifications, and, of course, social media.
But what’s the answer to this issue? According to writer and computer science professor Cal Newport, the solution is ‘deep work’. Newport believes that by reducing or eliminating ‘shallow work’ and prioritizing ‘deep work’, we can regain our lost focus and improve our productivity, skills, and even our happiness.
In this article, you’ll discover how deep work can benefit your professional and personal life and how you can implement a deep work strategy. As an entrepreneur, you’ll learn how deep work can help your business grow and develop, and if you have employees, these tips can be passed down to benefit your whole organization.
What Is Deep Work?
Cal Newport coined the term ‘deep work’ in a 2012 blog post, and later published the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World in 2016. In his 2012 blog article Newport defines deep work as ‘cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve’.
Ultimately, working deeply means working in a distraction-free environment on a single task that is challenging, requires a specific skill set, and produces high-value results. Examples of deep work tasks include studying for an exam, writing an article or book, and researching a complex topic.
Deep work pushes our abilities to their full potential in order to produce the best results possible. As a result, deep work can be incredibly rewarding, providing the foundation for a successful career and a fulfilling life.
Shallow work is the opposite of deep work. Whereas deep work involves cognitively demanding tasks that improve our skills and produce valuable results, shallow work is straightforward, easy to replicate, and can be performed by anyone with the minimum amount of training. Shallow work can also easily be performed when you’re distracted.
Often, shallow tasks are preferred by workers as they give them the sense of being productive without having to tackle difficult projects. Additionally, shallow work is appealing because it generally involves social tasks, such as replying to emails and Slack messages, scheduling meetings, and networking on social media.
However, our reliance on shallow work could actually be harming our ability to concentrate effectively. Flitting between different forms of digital communication creates a perfect storm of distraction, mental overstimulation, and addiction to social media.
Why Is Practicing Deep Work Vital Nowadays?
In a 2022 article containing a section of his book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, Johann Hari boldly claims that we are ‘living in a serious attention crisis’. Hari describes how he feels like his ability to focus for longer periods of time is slowly eroding, which he links to factors such as our reliance on technology and working patterns.
Many scientists have raised concerns about the shortening of our attention spans due to constant distractions and mental overstimulation from social media. Although others dispute this claim, evidence suggests that many knowledge workers are struggling to concentrate. Indeed, according to a report by Asana, 33% of workers say their attention span is shorter than it was a year ago.
As a result, deep work is more elusive than ever. However, just like any other skill, deep work and true concentration can be practiced. By implementing a deep work strategy, you and your employees can reduce distractions and thus improve your productivity, outputs, and work-life balance, which shows how deep work can help your business grow and thrive.
How to Create a Deep Work Strategy
Step 1: Establish a Routine
To start integrating deep work into your schedule, you must be able to plan out your work week in detail and set aside specific times for deep or shallow work. According to Cal Newport, there are four different deep work scheduling philosophies to choose from:
- Monastic. This involves the elimination of shallow work and total focus on deep work. For most workers, this approach isn’t compatible with their work duties.
- Bimodal. In this approach, you split your time between long stretches of deep work and shallow work, with each period lasting longer than a day and up to a few months.
- Rhythmic. This is the most common deep work approach. The rhythmic philosophy involves scheduled periods of deep work and shallow work each day.
- Journalistic. With this approach, you simply fit in deep work where you can in your changing schedule. This usually only works for those who are experienced at practicing deep work.
If you own a business, you and your employees may find it easiest to start with the rhythmic philosophy of deep work. This means you can get started on creating your deep work schedules and routines for each day.
First, decide when and where you will practise deep work each day. If you’re a morning person, you could set aside a couple of hours at the start of the day to work uninterrupted on an important task, or if you feel more energized after lunch, you can schedule your deep work for the afternoon. Always select a location that’s conducive to quiet, focused work, such as an uncluttered office with the door closed.
To make your deep work sessions a success, you should also set some clear rules. For example, you could choose to block certain apps or websites on your phone or computer, or you could even turn your phone off if it’s still too distracting. Consider what you need (or don’t need) to help you focus.
Establishing a deep work routine or ‘ritual’ may help you get into the right frame of mind at the beginning of each deep work session. This could involve turning off your phone, getting a cup of tea or coffee, turning on some quiet music, or putting on noise-canceling headphones. Eventually, these repetitive cues will trigger your mind into entering a more focused state.
Step 2: Decide What to Do During Deep Work Periods
Once you’ve established the right schedule and routine for your needs, you’ll need to decide what to do during your deep work sessions. This means you must evaluate your tasks and place them into ‘deep work’ and ‘shallow work’ categories.
As mentioned earlier, deep work involves effort, concentration, and the use of a specific skill set, whereas shallow work is more administrative or related to communication. So, for example, you could categorize research and writing as deep work and answering emails as shallow work. Then, all you need to do is schedule these tasks within your daily deep work and shallow work blocks.
Separating deep and shallow work in this manner allows you to focus your undivided attention on one important task during your deep work period, enabling you to produce high-quality work more efficiently.
Step 3: Eliminate Distractions
Splitting deep work and shallow work into separate blocks in your schedule is one way to reduce distractions (e.g., Slack notifications, new emails) during periods of focused concentration, but you could still become distracted by non-work-related issues.
In fact, even a few seconds of distraction can have a marked effect on your productivity. This is known as the switch-cost effect, where your brain takes time to get back up to speed when you return to your work following a distraction.
For most people, the biggest distraction is social media. If you find yourself reaching for your phone regularly or being pulled away from your work by notifications, try putting your phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’ or turning it off when you begin deep work. You could also block social media websites on your work computer.
Of course, not all technology should be avoided. Some technology can actually be very useful for your work, such as VAT software, time tracking software, and project management software. Think about all of the technology you use and assign usefulness ratings. If something doesn’t have a positive impact on your work, eliminate it from your deep work sessions.
Step 4: Digital Detox
However, Cal Newport suggests you should go one step further. Newport promotes the idea of ‘digital minimalism’ and encourages people to try a 30-day ban on social media. The idea is that social media diminishes your ability to concentrate and distracts you from more meaningful pursuits, so trying out a digital detox can help you restore your focus.
Instead of scrolling through Twitter or Instagram in your free time, Newports suggests that you should pursue higher-quality leisure activities to make the most of your downtime and fight back against social media addiction. These activities can include spending time with friends and family, reading books, hiking, and playing musical instruments.
At the end of the 30-day digital detox, you should evaluate the necessity of social media in your life. Would the month have been improved if you used social media? Did anyone miss your social media presence? If the answer to both questions is no, perhaps you can continue this detox or at least reduce your use of social media in the future. Ultimately, this will fill your time with more valuable hobbies and increase your productivity at work.
Step 5: Prioritize Your Work-Life Balance
Engaging in high-quality leisure activities is obviously beneficial for your mental wellbeing, but this is actually extremely important for your work too.
For instance, if you’re stuck on a particularly difficult problem related to your deep work tasks, getting enough rest will allow your mind to refresh and be more able to tackle the issue the following day. Over time, being able to relax and do what you enjoy will make you happier, healthier, and more productive in all areas of your life.
Finishing your work at the same time every day and not working outside your set hours will help you get the high-quality rest you need. To disconnect your mind from work and therefore feel more refreshed the next day or week, you could create a ‘shutdown ritual’. For example, you could shut down your computer, check/amend your to-do list, or make a note of all of the things you achieved that day.
Step 6: Evaluate Your Deep Work
Whenever you want to improve a skill, you must set goals and evaluate your progress. The same thing applies to practicing deep work.
No one is immediately a master of deep work. You must slowly improve your ability to concentrate and work deeply, and to measure this improvement, you need clear metrics.
One value you could measure is how many hours per week you spend in deep work mode. As you become better at concentrating for long periods of time, you can increase your amount of deep work each week and measure your progress. At the end of each week, identify things you did well and areas to improve; this will boost your performance and productivity.
Step 7: Enter a Flow State
Have you ever been so focused on a task that time seemed to just slip away? This is called a flow state, which is where you can harness your maximum amount of efficiency and productivity.
But how can you make yourself enter a flow state? You may find that your deep work sessions aren’t making you feel productive enough, or you may still be finding distractions that interfere with your concentration. In this case, one solution is to reduce the amount of time allocated for each task.
Parkinson’s law states that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’. This means that if you have too much time to complete a task, you will work more slowly (or be more easily distracted) due to the lack of urgency. With a shorter amount of time available, you’ll be more likely to concentrate fully and enter a flow state.
To test this theory, you should reduce the time allocated for each task and see how this affects your productivity. Keep reducing the allocated time until you can’t quite complete your tasks; this will show you exactly how much time you really need, which will eliminate a huge amount of wasted time in your workday.
How Deep Work Can Help Your Business
Creating a deep work schedule is one of the best ways to boost productivity within your business. Whether you run a business on your own or have employees, practicing deep work will increase efficiency within the company by helping you and others achieve distraction-free concentration, allowing you to tackle cognitively demanding tasks and produce high-value results.
By following the framework laid out in this helpful guide, you and your employees can start restructuring your workdays to reduce shallow work and get the most out of your time. Ultimately, if you want to produce meaningful work that will add the most value to your business, you should focus on honing your ability to work deeply.