Deep work in a distracted world
We live in a distracted world. It’s not only our evenings that are ruled by apps built to shorten our attention spans and disrupt our downtime. Workplaces are increasingly designed to interrupt any stretch of concentrated work. Co-working spaces with moveable furniture take away individual agency to think and work deeply on a subject. Deep work is a phenomenon that opposes our world of shallow work. It’s about hard focus for long periods, with astounding results. As learning moves online, e-learning Courses must reflect a deep work approach to get the best out of their learners.
Table of contents
Deep work vs. shallow work
You must learn to work deeply to stand out and be the best in your field
In Cal Newport’s well-known book, deep work is defined as “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 ."
As Newport describes, the results of deep work go beyond personal gain to making a real impact at work. You must learn to work deeply to stand out and be the best in your field. It’s no easy thing to do, though, as your cognitive capabilities get stretched, and your phone needs to stay switched off and out of reach. The digital world we live in is not particularly set up for this learning style, so engaging in it is a radical stance against a culture that promotes shallow work.
Shallow work is the enemy of deep work, yet it’s what most of us do most of the time. Newport defines it in his book as “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
Our workplaces reflect this surface-level style of working. Think about all those emails you have to reply to and the internal messages that won’t stop pinging. These tasks require very little intellectual skill and don’t need much focus. If you work this way for a whole day, you’ll likely be unsatisfied with what you achieved. We need quiet focus with longer, more complex tasks if we want to get the most out of ourselves and our companies. In other words, we have to practice deep work!
Why learners need deep work
A major part of deep work is focus
Deep work is an essential aspect of learning. Without it, the information goes in one ear and out the other. A major part of deep work is focus, which is needed to fully engage with the learning material. Only then can satisfaction be truly felt. This equation demonstrates that point:
High-quality work = time spent ×the intensity of focus 
Bill Gates example
Learners must work deeply to get the best out of themselves. Newport often refers to famous people who have adopted a deep work mentality to catapult them to success. Bill Gates had ‘think weeks’ which are a great example of building a structure within which to work deeply. One week, twice per year, Gates would lock himself away in a cabin in the woods. Here, he would dedicate himself solely to his work for around 18 hours a day. This structure helped Gates conceptualize ideas that molded Microsoft into the company it is today.
While Gates got a lot out of his ‘think weeks,' this isn’t a realistic possibility for most of us. Instead, we can take the idea behind it on board: blocking out uninterrupted focus time daily is the route to personal growth, productivity, and ultimately better results! We might not need to focus on one task for 18 hours a day, but we can develop our focus muscle over time.
Deep work trains your focus muscle
Generally, people fall into one of two camps when it comes to focus: the struggle to start a task and the struggle to stay focused once they’ve started.
Focus needs to be trained to grow strong
As with any muscle, focus needs to be trained to grow strong. Artificial deadlines are one path to better focus because they create a fake sense of urgency which can help start a task. We tend to fit the task to the time we have; if you only give yourself 30 minutes to do a task, the likelihood is that you’ll get it finished in that time. In contrast, a whole day of unstructured time for one task will take you all of that time .
Turning off notifications can also help to train your focus muscle. It’ll quickly become a habit if you turn off your phone while in a deep work task, or snooze the internal messaging settings on your computer. Sounds easy enough, right? Training your focus muscle is actually really difficult, but sticking to a routine can help. Try these steps the next time you need to focus:
- Snooze notifications
- Store your phone out of sight
- Gather all the information you need
- Sign out of your internal messaging service
- Start deep work
What do you need a trained focus muscle for, anyway? As we identified in the Gates example, deep focus = increased productivity. Learners need to engage with Course material deeply and without distraction to get the most out of the content. Not only that, but training your ability to focus will reap benefits in different areas of life; it’s a real-world skill!
The satisfaction argument
What makes learning satisfying? We can think of it as a craft. It doesn’t matter what someone is learning about, but putting in the time and effort that a talented jewelry maker might over their craft, ensures satisfaction. Put simply, if you take the time to do something, you’re more likely to be proud of the outcome. Interrupted time is not useful for deep work, and allows learners to slip into the shallow work category.
Satisfaction is inevitable after a day of deep work. Time has been spent meaningfully on one task, and uninterrupted learning has been allowed to take place. We can almost guarantee you won’t get the same satisfaction after a day spent replying to emails!
E-learning with a deep work mindset
Deep work takes time, dedication, and motivation
Diving into deep work is tricky. It takes time, dedication, and motivation. Using a tool is a good idea because it provides structure and helps you unlearn bad learning habits acquired over years. Without a structure, humans tend to stick to behaviors they know; psychologists term this ‘the Default Bias’ . We aren’t wired to undo our behaviors, which is why e-learning tools are especially useful. E-learning can support a deep work mindset as it is a central learning space free from interruptions and distractions. It’s a good idea to use an LMS to create learning content. This gives learners a positive deep work experience and helps them properly engage with the material. Several key LMS features support deep work :
As discussed in the focus section, artificial deadlines help learners create a sense of urgency. Alternatively, real online Course deadlines have a similar impact. Adding deadlines to your Course material promotes focus because learners don’t have to use a distraction device like a phone to look them up. It’s all in the system, with reminders!
The beauty of an online Course builder is that the power is totally in your hands; you can remove distractions you can control. You get to decide what and how your participants learn. It’s possible to build interesting and fun Courses which hold participants’ attention. Think, for example, of a Course page with just one video on a subject: no logos, no timers, and no navigation. Use all the screen real estate to learn. The learner won’t be distracted by text or pictures but will give total focus to the video. A few Quiz questions on the next slide will check if they’ve been paying attention 😉!
Chase only meaningful goals
It’s important to set objectives before creating any new Course material. These could be both broad and personal. For example, as the designer of your online Course, you can set learning objectives for all the Course participants.
According to research, we lose 20% of our productivity when we switch contexts. That’s why being clear about what you want your learners to achieve at the outset is crucial.
Get into a routine
We learn best when we know what to expect next. Scheduling concentrated blocks of time for deep work is most effective. Online Course builders can help by allowing you to group learning tasks into shallow and deep work.
For example, several light-hearted topics may be easy to understand; it’s best to group these so learners know what to expect from that learning session and can get their ‘shallow work hat’ on.
In contrast, if you need to design a Course around more complex topics, you can create content that supports deep work. Think of fewer quiz interruptions and longer tasks to assess participant knowledge.
Splitting subjects into deep and shallow work benefits the learner because they know what to expect from a Course, and which to tackle when their energy and focus levels are high or low.
It’s no easy task and takes time to develop, but diving into deep work is the best learning solution in a distracted world! Design online Courses with a deep work focus to ensure you get the best out of your learners.
- Deep work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (2016)
- The Decision Lab
Frequently Asked Questions
- What is deep work?Deep work is a style of working that promotes focus on one task for a long period. It requires self-discipline and focus but results in greater productivity and satisfaction!
- What is shallow work?Shallow work is the opposite of deep work. Our workplaces are set up for this work style. Think of our culture of sending emails and internal messages that interrupt our main daily tasks! Shallow work creates less job satisfaction and is less productive than deep work.
- Why is deep work essential to learning?Deep work is necessary for working effectively. Many successful people adopt this method to get the best out of themselves. Learning requires focus, and deep work focuses intensely on one task at a time.
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