You’ve probably noticed that staying on task is extremely difficult.
In today’s modern world distractions are everywhere. When we are supposed to be working we actually wind up checking news updates on the TV, peaking into our friend’s lives with Instagram on our phones, and jumping between pointless meetings all day.
None of these additional tasks will help you learn a new language, write a novel, or start your own business. What if there was a way to refocus your energy and become truly exceptional at the work you do? Now there is with a new concept: deep work.
What is Deep Work?
Deep work is a concept expressed by the author and professor Cal Newport in his best-selling book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Instead of arguing distraction is bad, Newport flips the narrative and celebrates the opposite. In his two-part book, Newton lays out the benefits of cultivating a deep work ethic and his guidelines that support this skill.
Deep work, Newport argues, is the ability to work without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. When you can master deep work your brain can quickly pick up complicated information and produce better work results in a shorter period. Deep work can help you grow and become better at what you do. It provides a true sense of fulfillment. Most people spend their days in shallow work not realizing there is a better way. When we practice deep work we become more focused and achieve the results we are looking for.
As Newport puts it, “The ability to perform 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.”
This article is a guide written from Newport’s strategies for cultivating deep work. We highly recommend that you read the book for yourself. It is an excellent read that lays out the message clearly that you will come back to as a reference as you practice deep work in your own life. However, this article will lay the foundation for how you can begin practicing deep work in your own life and discover its rewards for yourself.
Deeper Work Strategies
Now that we have covered what deep work is let’s talk about how to apply it to your life. There are four main strategies Newport describes in his book. There are pros and cons to each of them. Take a look at each strategy and consider which one you could implement.
- Monastic Philosophy – This is the most dedicated form of deep work. The Monastic Philosophy requires spending all of your working hours on deep work at a very high level of focus. This strategy has the highest potential for reward but it can also be unrealistic for many people.
- Bimodal Philosophy – This strategy for deep work requires the practitioner to rearrange their schedule to fit in large chunks on uninterrupted deep work sessions. You can still enjoy other activities in your life as your life is split into two to accommodate work and free time.
- Rhythmic Philosophy – If you already know what your schedule will look like it may be easy for you to block off several hours a day for deep work and leave the rest of your time for shallow work. This helps the practitioner get into a “rhythm” or schedule for completing deep work-related tasks.
- Journalistic Philosophy – If you are constantly on the move with little regularity of your days then this is the strategy for you. The Journalistic Philosophy fits in little pockets of deep work throughout the day whenever you are able.
Feel free to experiment with these deep work strategies until you find the one that suits you best. Once you have found your strategy apply it to your schedule.
Build a Deep Work Routine
Building a deep work routine, much like a morning routine, is crucial to cultivating deep work in your own life and making it a habit. Take a look at the following factors when you are first starting to build your deep work routine.
- Location – Where you choose to conduct your work, or the location, is important. Your space must be free from distractions so that you may focus. If this is not an option a good pair of noise-canceling headphones may help you focus. Be consistent with the location of your deep work.
- Duration – Before you begin your deep work session map out how much time you will devote to each task. Start small and work your way up to longer sessions.
- Structure – Define what your deep work sessions will look like and how you will measure success. Will you have your phone turned off? Will you be allowed to gt up and move around? Will you go onto the internet? Whatever the structure of your deep work session, follow the rules for the entire session.
- Requirements – After you begin to practice deep work you will learn what you require to stay committed. This may be your favorite beverage or snack or a specific type of music. Have all of your requirements before you begin a session.
The Grand Gesture
If your attempts at this deeper work fall short, Newport suggests enacting a grand gesture.
“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.”
If you feel constrained by your office setting initiate a grand gesture by asking your boss to allow you to work from home until you finish the project. Or you could spend the day working at the library or a nearby co-working space. Your investment of effort or money to the task will make your brain believe it is more important and this could help you get into a deep work state faster.
Working With Others
When you prioritize deep work this often means you will be working alone. Sometimes working with others can help us be more creative. When you commit to a deep work schedule this doesn’t mean that you are not able to benefit from collaboration.
The time that you spend working with others and learning can be enhanced when you are alone again in deep mode. Collaboration is an important tool that can also help you grow and learn.
Achieving Important Goals
In Deep Work, Newport lays out some simple concepts for businesses to achieve “wildly important goals”. These strategies are also helpful to individuals. Let’s examine them closer.
- Focus on the Wildly Important – Keep all your effort on your most important goal or goals during your deep work sessions. Place these objectives at the front of your mind and ignore any tasks that don’t serve these goals. Use sticky notes or whatever tools help you remember your goals more clearly.
- Act on the Lead Measures – Many of us attempt to maximize our lagging measure, for example, the number of blog posts we publish. Instead, we should seek to optimize our lead measure, for example, the number of hours we spend doing deep work. By increasing the number of hours in deep work you will increase your focus and accomplish what you set out to do naturally.
- Keep a Scoreboard – Be sure to keep track of how many hours a week you spend doing deep work. Track your hours somewhere that is easily visible.
- Create Accountability – Hold yourself accountable by committing yourself to daily or weekly reviews of your progress. Check-in with your scorecard and assess why you are falling short of any goals you have set. If you are easily exceeding them it may be time to increase your goals.
The Importance of Downtime
Have you ever noticed that you come to work on Monday more ready for the week ahead when you have had a good weekend? It’s true! In his book, Newport provides compelling reasons why working for long hours at a time without any rest can be detrimental. Making downtime a priority and taking time to regularly rest your brain can help improve the quality of your deep work sessions.
Downtime can help improve our thinking. Have you ever hit a roadblock in your work only to come back the next day to see the solution clearly? This is what downtime can do for you. When you allow the mind to take a rest you can work through greater challenges with additional “power” rather than approaching the situation on an “empty tank”.
Newport says, “… providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges.”
Adequate rest replenishes our ability to practice this kind of work. After work, give your mind some time to rest instead of taking on high priority challenges. Spend time with friends or family, cooking, going on a walk. Sneaking in extra work emails does not allow your brain to fully rest.
Newport also argues that our ability for deep work is finite. He suggests the upper limit for deep work per day is around four hours. Anything that goes beyond this will not have 100% of our focus and attention. Given this figure, there is plenty of time in the day to enjoy some downtime and prepare your brain for tomorrow’s deep wor sessions by relaxing.
Enhance Your Deep Work Practice
Okay, so now we have covered the fundamentals of deeper work. Let’s talk about how you can enhance your deep work practice and get the most out of your sessions.
Concentration is something that requires practice. You can start the day with the best of intentions to find it slip away without achieving any of your goals for the day. So let’s talk about some techniques to help us concentrate for longer periods.
Focusing is Your First Priority
As a general rule of thumb, Newport suggests you schedule your Internet usage in advance and avoid using it during times when it hasn’t been scheduled. Switching back and forth between working and the internet is distracting. Make focus your default and stay offline. Here are a few strategies that can help you focus.
- Blacklist sites that waste your time
- Set up blocks of time throughout the day to answer emails
- Block off your time, even when you are at home to give your brain a rest
Make Use of Time
If you have difficulty finding your work groove, try imposing time limits on your tasks. If it normally tasks you two hours to complete a task tell yourself you must complete it in an hour and a half. That way your mind will focus solely on the task at hand to complete it on time. Start small and then add in more frequent timed sessions.
Practice Using Your Memory
Newport recommends working on your memory to prepare yourself to complete deep work. Memorization requires great focus and is greatly beneficial when it comes time to direct your focus on an important task or goal.
“A side effect of memory training … is an improvement in your general ability to concentrate.”
Here are a few exercises that can help you increase your memory.
- Learn poetry
- Commit to learning a list of foreign words
- Memorize the capitals of every country in Europe or Asia
- Practice memorizing a stack of cards
Practicing memorizing things probably doesn’t sound like much fun but the deepened state of concentration can help grow your capacity to complete deep work.
Deeper Work Will Help You Achieve at a Higher Level
Without focus, we cannot carry out high-level activities and reach our goals. It is difficult to focus in today’s modern world but those who can master their mind will be able to achieve more.
Apply these concepts throughout this guide and you can regain your focus and attention span, grow, and create your best work. Practicing deeper work can help you rise to the challenge by applying focus.
If you enjoyed this article please share it with your friends and colleagues, and read more of our articles on productivity and ways to focus your mind.
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