What is Deep Work?
In 2023, the digital noise we are bombarded with has reached nearly deafening decibels. Each day brings a new tide of of calls, emails, social media messages, text and notifications on our phones and computers. And each one of those interruptions steals precious focus away from what we’re trying to accomplish in a given moment.
Consider this: a 2021 State of Your Inbox Study of remote workers found that 90% felt distracted while at work and that digital distractions accounted for a whopping 71% of their daily distractions. This is just one of many studies about the effects of digital distractions and they all paint the same picture: we are more distracted than ever, and digital interruptions are the main culprit.
Now to be fair, even when you’re distracted, you can still manage to rattle off a few emails, enter numbers on a spreadsheet, or do any task that’s repetitive and doesn’t demand too much thought.
But how are you going to take on things like a 10-page grant application, a quarterly report due at work, analyzing a big data set, or any task in your study or work that demands your brain's deepest concentration? The answer is simple: very poorly or not at all.
So we find ourselves in quite a conundrum: We’re expected to get more done than ever in a world where it’s never been harder to get things done.
Luckily for us, great minds the world over have been trying to solve this very problem and one of the greatest answers has come in the form of Deep Work.
What is Deep Work?
Computer Science Professor Cal Newport first coined the term in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016).
Deep work is a state of peak concentration where you’re able to operate at maximum creativity and focus. It involves limiting the distractions around us, while cultivating our ability to focus and concentrate intensely on tasks for extended periods of time.
According to Newport, the ability to focus for long periods is vital to producing our best work and maximizing productivity. Deep work helps us tone our focusing muscles and also allows us to create the time and space we need to learn new and challenging things.
Best of all, the higher degree of focus and concentration achieved by deep work allows us to produce excellent quality work in shorter periods of time.
Deep Work vs. Shallow Work
Shallow work refers to tasks that are not cognitively demanding and thus can be done even when we’re somewhat distracted. Most often, this is highly repetitive work that requires little concentration, like logging timesheets or responding to messages on Slack. Shallow work is generally more mundane and does not feel particularly satisfying or meaningful.
What are the Four Rules of Deep Work?
Newport laid out four fundamental rules for engaging in deep work:
1. Make Deep Work a Habit with Daily Practice
Be prepared to practice deep work everyday at a specific time. Making deep work a habit means doing it enough times that our brain can automatically engage when we need it to. Initially, this takes commitment, effort, and intention. The good news is that, once the habit is formed, you’ll be able to engage in deep work with relative ease.
2. Make Boredom Your Friend and Cultivate Concentration
“Lean in” to boredom. It’s an inevitable feeling that comes when you begin practicing the art of concentration and doing hard things. Dedicate time to tasks and activities that require absolute mental concentration, like playing chess or working on your memory.
You can practice improving your memory in small ways throughout the day: memorize your grocery list instead of carrying it on a piece of paper, do a word search or sudoku, or work on memorizing new vocabulary for that foreign language you always wanted to learn.
Don’t stress if concentrating for lengthy periods is difficult in the beginning: start with 15 minutes and gradually extend your sessions each time.Try to notice at what point you get distracted, observe what is distracting you, and remove those things for your next session.
3. Drop Social Media
Scrolling mindlessly through Instagram or YouTube can lead us down a spiral of wasted time and unnecessary contemplation of things that don’t serve our personal goals or potential.
So, step 3 is about eliminating social media. Feel some resistance to this suggestion? All the more reason to give it a try. You can always return to it later, but chances are, you either won’t miss it or won’t want to use it quite so much anymore.
And don’t forget to use your newfound time well: go for a relaxing walk in nature or engage in something that improves your cognitive ability and memory!
4. Free Yourself From Shallow Duties
Too much shallow work leaves you with little energy or time to engage in deep work. So, it’s important to free yourself from some of the small things that take up so much space in your day.
This can be done by scheduling limited time for shallow work and ensuring that deep work takes priority. Also, take a moment to do an audit of your shallow duties and reduce or delegate as many of them as you can.
Deep Work Comes with Big Benefits
If you’re still on the fence about trying deep work, here are some compelling reasons to give it a go:
Deep work can deliver a big boost to your productivity: it helps you get more done in shorter amounts of time. As an added bonus, you won’t just produce more work, you’ll produce better quality work with fewer errors–and people will notice.
Deep work dramatically expands your creative capacity. Creativity requires both concentration and dedication to pushing mental limits into unchartered territory. When you are free from distractions, your mind has the space to move, flow, and create dynamically.
Greater work satisfaction
Deep work lets you easily enter a state of flow that lets you produce more meaningful and satisfying work. As you excel in your work or studies, you will feel real pride in the work you do and how you spend your time.
You’ll feel better about yourself overall
By allowing us to work to our full potential, deep work improves how we see and experience ourselves. Our natural search for meaning in life finds no answers in mundane shallow work. But the state of maximum potential that deep work promotes gives us a sense of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.
Creating Your Own Deep Work Routine
You can increase your chances of success by creating a deep work routine that suits your personal lifestyle and needs.
1. Choose a Deep Work Philosophy
This philosophy involves removing all distractions completely–usually for at least one day and often several consecutive days. This hardcore approach is ideal if you’re finishing a thesis paper, a research project, or a big report.
It does involve a considerable amount of isolation, so it will probably only work for you if you can step away from all shallow work for long stretches of time.
With this approach, deep work and shallow work are scheduled alternately. It can be applied to days, weeks, or even months. You do need to commit to at least one full day of deep work in a distraction-free environment. An example could be dedicating Monday through Thursday to deep work and reserving Friday for shallow work.
This can work well for project-based deadlines where you need to produce high-quality work in a set amount of time, but also need space for some shallow work.
This is the most “user-friendly” way to try out deep work. It’s a more manageable approach where you create a daily routine with scheduled blocks of both deep and shallow work.
Daily deep work sessions can be used to tackle impending deadlines or to work on a personal project, such as writing a book. Whatever you devote your deep work sessions to, practicing it every day will supercharge your concentration abilities and ensure it becomes an ingrained habit. If you go with a rhythmic approach, use your personal chronotype to find the best time of day for your deep work session.
This is the most unstructured form of deep work: you simply dive into deep work as the opportunity arises. If you choose to go this route, it does require a different kind of self-discipline. You need to be prepared to delve into deep work when you have the chance–even if you don’t feel like it.
This approach may be the only option for people with workdays that don’t allow much structure but who really want to commit to practicing deep work.
2. Create Rituals
Creating rituals will allow your brain to pair specific actions with an imminent deep work session. It’s about setting the stage for a period of deeper concentration and focus.
Here are some things to think about when creating your deep work ritual:
- When will you be setting aside time for deep work?
- Where will you be engaging in the deep work?
- How do you plan to use your time?
Some people even benefit from engaging in a specific activity to commence their period of deep work, such as listening to a specific song or doing a few stretches.
Prioritize work with the greatest impact
Make a list of tasks that need to be completed, set specific goals, and then attend to the one with the greatest impact.
Plan and track your time
You’ll need to cut back on the time you allot to shallow work to create space for deep work. Here are some tools to help you out:
- Time tracking: Record how you spend your time each day and make note of your deep work to shallow work ratio. Once you understand where your time goes, you can be more intentional with your scheduling. Ultimately, you want to reduce and contain the time spent on shallow work and increase the time devoted to deep work.
- Time blocking: Time blocking is a great way to designate which parts of day are devoted to which kinds of activities. In the beginning, be sure to block off time each day for deep work, starting with small blocks and gradually increasing.
- Timeboxing: Timeboxing helps you create a visual container for how long you want to be in deep work, shallow work, or on a break. Estimate how long an individual task will take you and create a box of time during the day in which you can complete that task.
3. Get rid of distractions
A fundamental aspect of deep work is getting rid of all distractions. There are various apps available that can help you do this. The kōno app is one of the most comprehensive solutions, as it includes customizable deep work modes with various options to block incoming messages, notifications, and access to distracting apps and websites.
4. Don’t forget to take breaks
To get the most out of deep work, scheduling breaks and rest periods is crucial. We need sufficient rest and time away from our work to refresh our minds and avoid experiencing burnout.
Cal Newport also emphasizes the need for setting clear boundaries between work time and non-work time. For example, end your work day at a specific time and then don’t recheck your work email until the next day during work hours. Creating some space between work and non-work is a vital part of looking after your mental and emotional well-being.
5. A Holistic Approach
Mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises are proven ways to prime your mind for better focus and concentration. These practices allow us to train our minds for deep work while also developing a sense of inner calm.
It’s Time to Get Deep
If you’ve become frustrated with your lack of productivity, or are tired of shallow work taking over your life on a daily basis, it might be time to start including deep work in your life.
Engaging in deep work can bring new levels of satisfaction, meaning, and purpose to your life. Remember, deep work is not a once-off activity but a lifelong approach that emphasizes developing your concentration skills and ability to focus. It’s an investment that can pay off for many years to come, so don’t hesitate to dive deep and see what it can do for you.