Emails. Messages. Phone calls. That new season that just dropped on Netflix.
How can you be expected to concentrate in a world full of such delicious distractions? It’s as if the universe is conspiring against you. In a lot of ways, it is. That means it’s your job to outsmart it.
To create work that matters—work that’s creatively fulfilling, adds value to the world, and brings in real money—you need to focus.
That’s why Cal Newport, author and computer science professor at Georgetown University, came up with the concept of deep work. I’m extremely grateful, as are Newport’s many other die-hard fans, to have found his now-classic book Deep Work.
If you want to find better work-life balance, have more time to focus, and spend less time in front of the computer, I highly recommend Newport’s work. And if you’re not quite ready to rush out and read a whole book on the concept, or you want a simple, actionable explainer on deep work, you’re in luck.
Table of Contents
What Is Deep Work?
Quoting Cal Newport, deep work is a process of performing “professional activities…in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Deep work principles stand in sharp contrast with “shallow work,” which Newport defines it as “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
Historically, psychologists used to refer to deep work as “being in the flow,” a concept that was taken from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi famous studies on the subject.
Newport, in contrast, focuses on the activities behind that state, which lets you concentrate on a task that’s both hard to do and highly valuable. Anything that fits that simple two-point criterion can be considered a deep work activity, including:
- Writing (like this article)
- Designing a graphic, blueprint, or brand style
- Video or photo editing
Deep work is neither a buzzword for concentration nor it is “some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century philosophers.” As you will see, deep work is “a skill that has great value today” because it’s what drives the new knowledge economy, in which highly specialized and deeply-skilled work must be done in order to succeed.
As Newport states in Deep Work:
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.
Throughout the book, Newport explains not only why deep work matters—something most people who work in the tech and entrepreneurial world should pay attention to—but also how to develop such skill.
In order to engage in deep work principles and leverage “the superpower of the 21st century,” as business writer Eric Barker puts it, let’s dig into the four techniques Newport recommends using.
How to Engage in Deep Work
Organize Your Deep Work
The first element of deep work starts with the recognition of your limited willpower. That means, you won’t have the mental discipline to stay concentrated on a single task unless you prepare your mind and environment to it.
Recognize you will be bombarded with distractions, and if you’re constantly trying to resist them, you will deplete your willpower before you even begin to work. From the book:
The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.
To develop those routines and rituals, Newport recommends three strategies:
1. Develop a Deep Work Schedule and Routine
Deep work is, by definition, a hard task, as it pushes your cognitive abilities to greater lengths. A systematic way of getting in that deep work mindset is to develop a routine in which you always perform the task in the same place and time, for a given time frame.
For example, if you are a designer who wants to develop a brand for a new client, consider working on it for two hours after breakfast. You brew your cup of coffee, you disconnect from the internet and close all your computer and phone apps, and get your client’s brief and documents close to you.
Once you have everything in place, you can work intermittently for the two hours you had defined until it’s time to log in and talk to your team members (or clients).
As David Brooks said, great creative minds “think like artists but work like accountants.”
2. Work on What Matters
Developing your deep work skill is all about execution. You need to have your routines and systems in place, and then use them with discipline. Newport recommends using the following strategy, taken from The 4 Disciplines of Execution:
- Identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours
- Find your lag and lead metrics, the former representing the goal you’re trying to achieve and the latter being the behaviors you’ll do to reach the goal. For the purpose of deep work, the lead metric will be time spent in a state of deep work
- Develop a scoreboard where you track your time spend in a state of deep work
- Analyze the results and be accountable for the results, always working to hit the metrics you had previously identified
At the end of the day, you should be acting like an executive, working towards your goals in a professional, consistent manner.
3. Accept Laziness
By now, you may think deep work is all about avoiding downtime and being super productive. While the results should lead to higher productivity levels, your ultimate goal is to have more time for yourself.
You work less, but you work smarter.
The extra time you get thanks to your deep work should be used to avoid burnout and get some rest, or on completing other shallow work that fulfills your professional responsibilities.
In other words, accept you don’t want to spend more time working. Enjoy your “lazy” time, whether that’s running a side hustle, spending time with your loved ones, or enjoying a hobby.
Concentrate Your Energy
As you’re likely figuring out, deep work is all about taking your existing time spent working and concentrating it to make the most out of it. But it’s not that you have to do more things in less time. Instead, it’s about getting more out of the tasks you normally do by reducing distractions.
When you work, you work with all your energy focused. But to get to that level of concentration, you need to prepare yourself.
These three strategies will help you get there.
1. Take Breaks
It’s impossible you’ll get much done if you are constantly facing potential distractions, from social media updates to emails from your boss to conversations with your coworkers. But instead of trying to get rid of those distractions, you should concentrate the energy you put into them during set breaks.
As Newport puts it:
Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.
Newport recommends you schedule such sessions in advance. This break time should be respected strictly. Just because you can relax for, let’s say, 10 minutes, doesn’t mean you can extend it to 20 minutes.
Imagine you are trying to work, but thinking about watching the latest season of Narcos on Netflix. Instead of fighting against such temptation, your plan should be to watch whatever you want on Netflix, but only after 8 p.m. That’s Netflix time.
You can do something similar with the entire internet, scheduling chunks of time to access the web, Twitter, email, etc., and then avoiding it altogether outside of these times.
To track your behavior, Newport suggests you use a notepad (or any kind of note-taking app) where you check when you’re allowed to give into the temptation of your distractions.
The main idea is, enjoy your distractions, but only when you’re allowed.
2. Schedule Tight Deadlines
You’re capable of doing more in less time than you think—only if you allow yourself to do it.
Newport recommends you pick your most important tasks, the ones that require deep work, and then you schedule them in a shorter time span than you normally would.
For example, if you often take two hours to edit a 30-minute video, schedule such work in an hour and a half, or even one hour.
Your goal isn’t to fail at achieving within that time, rather it’s to have you concentrate with all your energy on the task, which not only helps you develop your deep work but also helps you finish it in the predefined time.
The tight schedules will break you from all your distractions. You have no space for checking your emails or your Facebook feed—you have to get your task done before your time is up.
If you treat your shallow work as what it is, unimportant and easy to do, then you can schedule such work in their specific blocks of time, and put the more important ones under strict deadlines.
Meditation, for Newport, isn’t to focus your time on breathing and taking your mind off distractions, like in the Buddhist way. Rather, he refers to a scheduled break which you dedicate to a physical activity, like walking or driving, focusing your attention on a specific problem as you carry out the former.
Imagine you are a web designer and you were agonizing over three different layouts for one of your clients’ websites. You like all three, but you don’t know which one represents your client’s brand the best.
The key to this tactic is that you take the time think deeply to find a solution to a challenge. If you mix this strategy with the previous one (having a tight deadline for this activity), you’ll undoubtedly come back with a clear answer.
The meditation will reinvigorate you while helping you find the right solution. Once you are back from your walk, you’ll have a much clearer idea of the perfect solution to your problem.
Quit Social Media (Mostly)
You will not be shocked to hear that social media is distracting. I mean, you’re probably reading this article in between tweets and selfies.
I’m not going to say that social media lacks any benefits, because we all know sometimes it is acceptable and useful—to relax, to talk to your friends, to find the latest news, and much more. It’s even an integral part of most marketing strategies these days.
Instead of denying their use completely, Newport suggests what he calls the “Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection.” What this fancy term means is that you copy the way craftsman pick tools: they use the ones with positive impacts that outweigh the negative impacts.
In other words, if you are a Facebook Ads marketer, by all means, use Facebook. If you have found the use of LinkedIn helps you attract traffic and leads to your site, the same idea applies.
If you can’t find a positive outcome from the use of a social media channel, however, then quit it cold turkey. To help you achieve this, Newport recommends following these three steps:
1. Define Your Personal and Professional Goals
What is it that you want to do in your personal life? Do you want to have more free time to spend it with your family? Do you want to spend more time outdoors? Define the one goal that surrounds your life. Apply the same questions to your professional life. Do you want to make more money? Do you want to work in a job that fulfills you?
2. Define Your Key Activities
With these goals in check, define the key activities that help you satisfy each goal.
For example, if you want to spend more time with your family, an activity could be to stop work after 5 p.m. If you want to make more money, an activity could be to have coffee once a week with a mentor.
These activities should be neither too broad nor too specific; they should be easy to track and measure.
3. Define the Tools
The final part of this process is to define the tools that you use to carry out the previously defined activities. For example, do you need Facebook to connect with your family? Probably not—at least not with your close family, like parents, siblings, wife, and kids.
In the professional example, however, you may find LinkedIn to be extremely useful to connect with potential mentors.
Go through each of the tools that you use to support these activities and, as Newport suggests:
Keep using this tool only if you concluded that it has substantial positive impacts and that these outweigh the negative impacts.
Remember Pareto’s Law: 80% of the success for each goal will come from 20% of the tools you use. At the end of this exercise, you should have a small number of tools that you’ve found to be useful in achieving your goals. Quit the rest.
Try It for 30 Days
If you are scared about implementing this strategy, Newport recommends testing it for 30 days. Quit the unnecessary tools right away for that time period, and when you come back, ask yourself the following two questions:
- Would the last 30 days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
- Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?
If your answers are “no” in both cases, that’s all you need to know—you have no reason to keep using that tool anymore.
Eliminate Shallow Time
Here’s a shocking fact: You can work four days a week for eight hours a day, and you’d still be as productive as you are in a five-day week.
Wait, what? Did I just write that?
Yes, you can work less time and produce more for a simple mathematical reason:
Productivity is defined as the rate of output per unit of input.
In simpler terms, if you produce the same output as you normally do with less input (that is, in less time), by definition, you will be more productive.
The question is, how can you work less and still produce the same value?
Simple: by reducing shallow time to a minimum. As Newport says:
If you not only eliminate shallow work, but also replace this recovered time with more of the deep alternative, not only will the business continue to function; it can become more successful.
Instead of having a day filled with scattered meetings, emails, phone calls, and other distractions, Newport suggests organizing your day in such a way that lets you invest a substantial amount of time deep in your work without distractions. Once you’ve done your deep work, you can re-incorporate your shallow work into your day.
This type of work is inevitable, but you must keep it confined to a point where it doesn’t impede your ability to take full advantage of the deeper efforts that ultimately determine your impact.
Here’s how you can “drain the shallows,” as Newport puts it, and tap into your deep work every day.
1. Schedule All Your Activities
Most people use a calendar and a to-do list organizer to schedule their work. Newport builds on these elements of a typical productive schedule and adds a slightly OCD-ish tactic: schedule your day before you start it and organize your work — both deep and shallow.
Here’s his strategy in detail:
At the beginning of each workday, turn to a new page of lined paper in a notebook you dedicate to this purpose. Down the left-hand side of the page, mark every other line with an hour of the day, covering the full set of hours you typically work. Now comes the important part: Divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks.
In the following image, you can see what this schedule might look like:
As you can imagine, problems will arise. You may under or overestimate the time a certain activity takes you, and you may get distracted.
In such case, rewrite your schedule with the new times over the old one.
Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs; it’s instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward—even if these decisions are reworked again and again as the day unfolds.
2. Finish Your Work Day Early
How many times have you been working on a project that seemed to drag on forever? You may have started with a lot of passion and excitement, but all of a sudden, something happened that pushed you to work overtime, much more than you had originally expected.
Newport proposes an obvious and liberating strategy: finish your work early in the day.
Newport calls this strategy the “commitment fixed-schedule productivity,” because his goal is to “ working past a certain time, then work backward to find productivity strategies that allow me to satisfy this declaration.”
In other words, just as you need to schedule everything, and give yourself less time than you normally would (as outlined before), cutting off your working time early will put your mind in “scarcity mode,” pushing you to finish it in less time than usual.
The best part is that you become more selective and respectful of your own time and commitments.
Suddenly any obligation beyond your deepest efforts is suspect and seen as potentially disruptive. Your default answer becomes no, the bar for gaining access to your time and attention rises precipitously, and you begin to organize the efforts that pass these obstacles with a ruthless efficiency.
He suggests 5:30 in the evening as the perfect cut time, but that will depend on your lifestyle and preferences.
You may find that you’re more productive late in the evening, or you may start your work later in the day. For that reason, you should adapt your work cut time to a moment that suits your style.
The main point of this strategy is having a predefined time to stop working and decompress.
Become Hard to Reach
The last strategy is the most obvious one, but one most of us have a hard time following. If you want to find time for your deep work, close all your distractions—email, Slack, phone, internet connection—and work until you’re done. Then reconnect to the world.
The strategy, while impossible to implement for many, is effective for the simple reason that you’re forcing yourself to do your work. It’s the equivalent of the “burning ships” motto the Greeks used in the Troy invasion — you give yourself no choice but to work.
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend this strategy for all of your daily activities, but instead saving it for specific situations when you must get a given job done.
Let’s say you had to finish a critical presentation that needs your complete attention. Cutting yourself off from the world will help you leverage deep work and finish the presentation in time.
One strategic way to apply this tactic is to define a day every week, or a specific window in every day, in which every team member who wants to work deeply can do so with no repercussions. It’s like “casual Fridays” for deep work.
Just make sure you’re accountable to your team. If you become forever hard to reach, you’ll likely hamper relationships with your teammates.
Using it sparingly and in specific moments will be your best way to use this tactic.
Dive Into Deep Work and Watch Your Productivity Soar
The idea behind deep work isn’t all that novel. You focus your energy, you get shit done, and you make progress toward your goals.
The key to deep work is that it’s strategic and methodical.
After reading this article, how does the concept of deep work sound to you? If it’s intriguing, what are the next steps you’ll take to start leveraging it in your day-to-day life?
Send us your ideas and thoughts, and I’ll respond with some advice to help you boost your productivity!