Deep work: The antidote to distraction we’ve been looking for?
We live in a world full of distractions. These snake their way into our professional lives, holding us back from reaching our full potential. But what can we do to resist the shallow work culture? Cal Newport describes a framework that revolutionizes the way we work. How hard is it to implement, and is it worth it?
I’m lucky to work for a company centered around learning and personal development. Our team already uses noise-canceling headphones, a traffic light system to signal when we don’t want to be disturbed, and we work in a single-item flow. So, after I expressed my interest in productivity, a copy of Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’ was promptly handed to me. I was immediately captivated and wrote an article about Newport’s concept for our Knowledge Center. Now I’ve decided to put his method to a practical test by researching and writing a second article on the subject, but this time in a deep work manner. I will implement the takeaways from this week in my daily work.
Deep work vs. shallow work
First, let’s look at some definitions from the book:
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.
Shallow work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Newport argues that the professional world is geared toward shallow work. This has dire consequences for our personal fulfillment and career output. To reach our full potential, we have to dig deep. While part one of his book delves into the theory behind these concepts, part two takes a more practical approach.
To reach our full potential, we have to dig deep
The way we structure our work at Easy LMS is rather atypical. At the end of each nine-week cycle, we have a ‘playweek’, a week for each employee to explore their interests in their field. This week is designed for depth, with shallow tasks mostly eliminated. Playweek provided a blank canvas for me to attempt deep work, but as I quickly learned, the shift from shallow to deep is not an easy one…
The rules of the game
Newport outlines four rules for implementing deep work in your professional life. These provided a framework for me to attempt his method:
Rule 1: Work Deeply
Unfortunately, a focused state is hard to reach in a shallow world. We are wired towards distraction and ruled by our desires, with willpower a weak weapon. Newport argues that willpower is finite, and our reserves deplete rapidly. It, like concentration, needs to be trained. Humans need structures, like routines and rituals, to increase concentration and willpower.
- Decide on your depth philosophy: There are multiple ways to practice deep work. Find a style that best suits your lifestyle. Some people cut off all distractions and sit alone for hours, while others need to switch between deep and shallow work periods for the best results. Your philosophy depends on you and the type of project you are working on.
- Ritualize: Plan your work, be strict in your routines, and stick to them.
- Don’t work alone: Newport recognizes the gray area of deep work and collaboration. Open office spaces are not the answer because they are too distracting. A balance between focused time alone and coming together to collaborate and share your findings is best.
- Be lazy: Newport gives the example of the essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider, who got so sick of meaningless work tasks that he shut himself away in a cabin in the woods. This worked wonders for his productivity. To get work done, we need proper periods away from it. One idea for this is the shutdown ritual, a ritual at the end of every work day to signal the transition to evening.
Rule 2: Embrace Boredom
Embracing boredom is not something humans are good at, according to Newport. It’s easy to reach for your phone any time you have five minutes to kill. But deep work involves training your concentration and willpower muscles, which extends into the time when you’re not at work.
- Don’t take breaks from distraction; take breaks from focus: Newport suggests scheduling when you’ll use the internet, one of our biggest distractors, in advance. This helps to regulate your usage.
- Note: Even if your job requires a lot of internet use, you can schedule blocks of time when you’re using it and keep the time around those blocks free.
Rule 3: Quit social media
Social media impedes our ability to concentrate. We live in a society with an ‘any-benefit’ approach which suggests that if you can find one reason to use social media, that’s enough justification to use it. However, this ignores all the negative sides of social media. Newport wants to find a happy medium.
We live in a society with an ‘any-benefit’ approach which suggests that if you can find one reason to use social media, that’s enough justification to use it
- Craftsman approach to social media: Only use a certain social media if its positive impacts outweigh the negative ones. Take a mindful approach to your usage and question if it’s really necessary.
- Don’t use the internet to entertain yourself: It’s easy to go to YouTube or other entertainment sites when the work day is over. We mostly do this on automatic pilot, wasting hours of our evening. Structured hobbies help you take back control of your free time and leave you fulfilled and recharged for tomorrow’s workday.
Rule 4: Drain the shallows
Way ahead of the curve in 2007, Fried, the co-founder of 37signals, trialed the four-day workweek in his company. He found that it yielded incredible results, with more work getting done in less time as employees properly respected working hours. He then took this trial even further and gave his employees the entire month of June to work deeply on their own projects and eliminate shallow work tasks. The results were astounding, and the new projects presented at the end of the month were innovative and incredibly useful.
- Schedule every minute of your day: Most of us zoom through our days with little thought. Schedule and time block your day down to the minute to avoid getting distracted. You can do this by drawing a box around time-blocked tasks, including grouping shallow tasks and time-boxing these too.
- Quantify each activity's depth: Ask yourself, ‘How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training to complete this task?’ If the time is short, it’s a shallow task and should be given lower priority.
- Ask your boss for a shallow work budget: Talk with your boss about how much of your week should be taken up with shallow tasks and how much with deep ones. For most people, shallow tasks will take between 30-50 percent of your time. Practice self-discipline by saying no to shallow tasks that don’t fit your time budget.
- Don’t work after 17:30: Practice ‘fixed-schedule productivity’ and switch off from work at the same time each day.
- Become hard to reach: Try adding a ‘sender filter’ next to your contact details that encourages people only to make contact in specific circumstances. This, in turn, will reduce the number of emails you receive and diminish the shallow work you have to do.
The strategies I tried
I tried out Newport’s approach over the course of our playweek. My project was to write this article, and I took a few steps to do that:
- Watched videos by Newport to refresh my knowledge of the deep work concept.
- Read part two of ‘Deep Work’.
- Made notes on the highlights of each chapter.
- Reflected on my own experience.
- Wrote the article while staying aware of my process.
With limited time, I had to be selective about which strategies to implement. I attempted to work the following strategies into my workday:
- Eliminating distractions
- Timeboxing my schedule
- Daily shut-down ritual
I hadn’t realized how distracting my phone could be! I really recognize the auto-pilot mode we go into when it comes to distraction. I found that interruptions in my flow of concentration or switching tasks caused me to pick up my phone. I decided to put it in a drawer for the periods I time-boxed rather than having it next to me as I normally would. The ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mantra is famous for a reason!
Another trick I used was turning off my company messaging notifications. I hadn’t been aware of how many alerts I received per hour and how it impacted my concentration levels. It was insightful to pay close attention to it.
Time-boxing my schedule
I’m a planner by nature, but I hadn’t thought enough about grouping my tasks and drawing a box around them. This extra visual step helped me stay organized and on task.
Daily shut-down ritual
This was truly a revelation! I had never considered a shut-down ritual before, but it helped me to mentally transition into my evening. I ended each day by checking off the things I got done on my to-do list and writing a new list for the next day, including a detailed schedule. I then responded to any final messages and closed all my tabs. I said Newport's slightly cheesy line: 'Shut down ritual complete', out loud to signal to my brain that the workday was over
I found this to be an excellent routine. It helped me feel refreshed and clear-headed when I turned on my computer the next morning.
I said Newport's slightly cheesy line: 'Shut down ritual complete', out loud to signal to my brain that the workday was over
I had a lot of takeaways from this experiment! These are the most significant:
- Concentration is a muscle to be trained.
- You’ll be surprised by what you can achieve with a deep work mindset.
- Work smarter, not harder.
Concentration is a muscle to be trained
I underestimated the difficulty of getting into deep work. Eliminating distractions certainly helped, but I still noticed my mind drifting off during intense tasks like writing. This was surprising and emphasized to me that concentration is a muscle to be trained, not a state that can be gone into quickly and easily. A wandering mind can be just as detrimental as external distractions.
You’ll be surprised by what you can achieve
I used to love reading. In recent years my love for it has dwindled significantly. I hadn’t realized that this was due to my low concentration levels. Once I eliminated all the usual distractions, I read 200 pages of ‘Deep Work’ within a few hours! This gave me confidence that there’s hope for my bookworm side, yet.
Work smarter, not harder
Throughout this experiment, I marveled at how much I could achieve in less time than I would typically spend. I found grouping tasks and timeboxing them to be especially useful in this regard. At the same time, I allowed myself more time to think rather than do. This altered my view on productivity. For example, I took myself on regular walks and found that’s where I got my best ideas!
I was confronted by how hard it is to work deeply this week. We live in a world designed for shallow work, and resisting those comfortable and known ways of working takes discipline and determination. When I time-boxed my tasks and eliminated distractions, I felt particularly fulfilled by my job. I was also struck by my unique position to work for a company that allows me space and freedom to design my week as I wish. It is this freedom that gives me the opportunity to implement deep work. I’m excited to make Newport’s strategies part of my typical working week and to see where it takes me personally and professionally.