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Last Updated on January 19, 2023

What Is Deep Work and How To Practice It (Complete Guide)

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What Is Deep Work and How To Practice It (Complete Guide)

In today’s digital age, distractions from technology make completing your best work difficult. When you aren’t being inundated with beautiful images and videos on social media, you’re likely bombarded with an influx of email notifications, text messages, meetings, and work pings that can significantly lower your productivity and focus.

These distractions constantly take up valuable amounts of your time and attention; however, deep work provides a solution to do better work more efficiently.

What Is Deep Work?

Deep work, also known as deep focus, was first coined by Cal Newport. Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, defined deep work as:

“Professional activity performed 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”.

In other words, deep work involves completing demanding tasks efficiently thanks to being able to focus without interruption. Deep work can be a powerful tool, especially in today’s competitive world where seemingly more and more quality output is expected in less time to outpace your competitors.

Shallow Work

It’s important to distinguish the difference between deep work versus its opposite, shallow work. Shallow work, also defined in Newport’s book, is defined as:

“Non-cognitive, logistical or minor duties performed in a state of distractions”

These are tasks that require little cognitive effort on your part.

For example, replying to emails or text messages is an example of shallow work. While these shallow work tasks often cannot be ignored, as it is expected of you to reply to emails, text messages, and other forms of communication in a timely fashion, these tasks are time and attention-suckers.

Responding to emails, texts, and the like brings little significant, meaningful value to the work at hand. Therefore, constantly having to stop working to respond to these notifications prevents you from achieving your peak work performance, which takes a toll both on the quality and efficiency of your work.

Meanwhile, developing an effective business strategy, writing a proposal, preparing for a presentation, and analyzing complex data to optimize your business are all examples of deep work. Each of these instances requires a certain level of uninterrupted focus to produce your best work while optimizing your time and turnover per project.

Benefits of Deep Work

Deep work can significantly improve your work output to produce higher quality work in less time. Here are some of the top benefits that can be achieved with deep work:

1. High Value Output

Deep work benefits your overall quality of work or performance. You’re able to achieve and reach your greatest creative potential or excellence in your work. Achieving your highest value output, or peak performance is not just good in its own right, but it is fulfilling in that you are achieving your greatest possible potential.

2. Create Momentum

Deep work cuts distractions so you are better able to get into a rhythm to complete your work efficiently. Without the constant nagging to check your email notifications or text messages, you can give your full undivided attention to your work. As you focus more and more on achieving your specific task, you’ll gain momentum to complete the task well in less time than if you were distracted.

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3. Improve Your Ability to Focus

Deep work also creates a flow state in which you “get in the zone” to reach your peak performance of zooming in on the task at hand, and nothing else. This helps improve your focus to complete the task well, and efficiently, without letting interruptions prevent you from producing great work.

Research on flow and performance found a positive correlation between flow, performance, and creativity.[1] This shows that your ability to maintain a flow state not only improves your focus but your overall performance.

4. Make You Feel Energized and Empowered

Completing quality work efficiently inevitably will make you feel more fulfilled and accomplished. When you waste time on shallow work, this not only takes away time and energy to do your deep work tasks, but it is not fulfilling and doesn’t bring much value.

However, as you work towards completing a deep work task that requires a great amount of cognitive function on your part, you feel empowered that you were able to complete a task/ produce work that was to the best of your ability.

How to Practice Deep Work

With most things in life, the more you practice something, the better you get at it. Deep work is the same. Deep work isn’t just a skill that the most intelligent, 1% of the population can do. Rather, deep work is a skill that must be consistently practiced to master.

Deep work is like a trainable muscle that, with time and consistent practice, can grow stronger. Newport suggests those just starting out with deep work should start with 60 to 90-minute sessions and gradually work their way up in time.

Don’t know where to start when it comes to using deep work in your life?

Here’s how you can start to practice deep work to produce higher quality work in less time.

1. Choose a Deep Work Strategy That Works for You

First, it’s essential to choose which one of the four deep work strategies will work best for you. According to Newport, there are four scheduling philosophies of deep work: monastic, bimodal, rhythmic, and journalistic.

Monastic

The monastic philosophy involves cutting out all shallow activities to focus on deep work. This is a rather radical approach that focuses entirely on deep work and nothing else for weeks or months on end.

For example, this may entail not checking/responding to your email for weeks or months.

The monastic philosophy is best for individuals in industries where maximizing your output in less time is important. Many scientists or authors may use this approach to focus as much interrupted time as possible on deep work rather than shallow work that produces small results.

Bimodal

The bimodal philosophy involves splitting your schedule based on the amount of work. This would look like an individual spending at least a day or weeks on deep work, and once that is completed, the individual will focus on only shallow work.

This is great for those who have clear, defined goals. This strategy still gives you the ability to focus a great deal of your time on deep work without interruption; however, this approach is more flexible in giving you the ability to do shallow work following your deep work.

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If you do this approach on a weekly basis, you could try to do all your deep work during weekdays, and your shallow work such as responding to emails, using social media, etc. on the weekends.

Rhythmic

The rhythmic strategy involves doing deep work as a daily habit. While the time of day you do your deep work each day doesn’t matter, it’s essential that if you choose this strategy, you stick with it.

Time blocking certain hours, about 3 to 4 hours each day, to complete your deep work tasks is key. For example, you may time block from 12 P.M. to 4 P.M. to do all your deep work tasks.

This strategy is great for those who can and will stick to this deep work habit daily. While it may not be optimal to switch from deep work to shallow work daily, it does provide a sense of flexibility.

Journalistic

The journalistic strategy involves trying to do deep work whenever it fits into your schedule. While this may seem like the perfect approach as you seemingly get to balance deep and shallow work at the same time, it is extremely difficult to do.

This is because constantly switching from deep to shallow work efficiently is hard and oftentimes only works for those who are more experienced with deep work. However, if you have extensive experience with deep work and have a rather unpredictable schedule that would benefit from this approach, consider the journalistic strategy.

2. Establish a Deep Work Routine

A deep work routine is essential to effectively practice deep work. According to Newport:

“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.”

There are 4 components to consider when building your deep work routine: location, duration, structure, and requirements.

Location

Having a go-to space that is quiet, distraction-free, and a reliable area where you can effectively complete work without interruption is essential. The last thing you want to be doing is moving around during your deep work session to get away from frequent interruptions.

A designated space that you can always count on to do deep work will lessen the burden of constantly wasting time trying to find the right area to get your work done.

For example, if you have an office in your home that you can always go to without interruption from your kids, loud noises outside, etc., this is ideal.

Duration

It’s also critical to set the parameters for how long and when you will do deep work. Deciding beforehand how long and when you will work will keep you accountable and ensure you actually complete your deep work tasks.

When allocating time towards deep work, be sure that the time is long enough so you can have time to get into a flow-type state. For instance, if you are just starting out, it is recommended you do at least an hour of deep work. Any less and you won’t see the positive benefits of deep work.

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If you struggle to find plenty of quiet time to dedicate to deep work, consider doing deep work early in the morning or late at night when everyone else is asleep.

Structure

Structure keeps you on pace and involves certain checkpoints that ensure you are on track to accomplishing your deep work in a timely fashion.

Structuring your deep work could look like laying out a subset of tasks you do during a deep work session to guide your concentration and work towards completing an overarching goal. Dividing the work into smaller, more digestible tasks makes accomplishing the goals seem more manageable.

For example, if you were using your deep work sessions to write a book, the structure could be laying out what chapter you’ll write, having a rough outline of points you’d like to hit in that chapter, etc. which will help guide your writing process rather than wasting time figuring out what to do step by step as you get there.

Requirements

You’ll also want to make sure you have any and everything you could need during your deep work session at your disposal. The idea here is to limit the number of times you need to get up to grab something, as this is a form of interruption.

For example, if you are planning on doing a 4-hour deep work session, you’ll likely get hungry or thirsty. Therefore, have a snack and beverage beside you during your session so you can easily grab it without interrupting your deep work session.

3. Perform a Grand Gesture

Newport defines a grand gesture in deep work as:

“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.”

A grand gesture heightens the novelty of a deep work task so you can work more effectively on the task as you’ve raised a certain level of importance to it.

Bill Gates’s “think week” is a great example of performing a grand gesture.[2] Gates’s “think week” involves him spending a week alone in his cottage (twice a year) to think about the future of Microsoft. This essentially raises the importance of the task, in Gates’s case the future of Microsoft, to think more deeply and more efficiently about the work than trying to integrate it into your routine.

4. Prioritize with the 4DX Framework

Newport’s 4DX framework, short for the 4 Disciplines of Execution, follows 4 major principles to effectively complete deep work.

Focus on the Wildly Important

This principle involves you focusing on the most important tasks first. Sometimes, when you have too many goals or tasks that need to be accomplished, you can end up wasting time figuring out what to do when, and spending too much time on certain goals that aren’t as important as others.

Therefore, laying out which are the most important goals you need to achieve first helps you spend more time and energy on the things that matter most.

Act on the Lead Measures

This principle involves dedicating your time, energy, and focus to actionable steps at achieving the measurable goal (known as lead measures). Therefore, by focusing on lead measures, you aren’t wasting valuable time on lag measures (i.e. customer satisfaction, revenue, etc.).

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Rather than wasting time wondering why customer satisfaction may be low for a given product, you may work to enact steps to help improve customer satisfaction such as improving your product quality, providing customer support, and more.

Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

It’s important for everyone on your team to be on the same page when it comes to tracking goals. This keeps the team accountable for whether you are on track to hit a goal, or whether you are falling behind. This principle is like a running deadline to ensure you are continuously meeting and hitting goals within a reasonable time frame.

Create a Cadence of Accountability

Accountability for the status of your goals is important. This principle keeps track of your progress toward achieving your goals by constantly making it a habit to evaluate and redefine your goals.

For example, this could look like having a weekly meeting with your team to discuss last week’s progress towards achieving a particular defined team goal.

5. Embrace Downtime

Last but not least, scheduling downtime is essential for deep work. Our brain needs mental reprieves like naps, meditation, walks, and other forms of downtime to ensure it is functioning at its best by restoring your brain periodically.

Quality sleep is a key example of downtime where you can maintain your brain’s ability to create new memories while also making it more able to concentrate and respond in the morning.[3]

Try scheduling downtime by blocking off certain segments of time in your calendar. It’s important to have the right balance of downtime, not too little or too much. This is because research has found that both having too much or too little time are linked to lower subjective measures of well-being.[4]

Aim to have anywhere from two to five hours of downtime each day.[5] This doesn’t mean sitting on the couch watching TV for five hours. Consider exercising or socializing during your downtime.

Hacks to Maximize Your Ability to Practice Deep Work

Want a headstart to maximize your ability to practice deep work?

Two hacks to enhance your ability to do deep work include:

  1. Schedule Your Day with a Strategy –  To eliminate time wasted and increase your productivity, it’s essential you schedule your day using a proven strategy that works. Consider using the Full Life Planner to learn how to optimize your life to get more done to execute and maximize your results.
  2. Practice Mindfulness to Train Your Focus Muscle – Mindfulness is another important component to enhance deep work. Mindfulness allows you to re-energize and refocus your mind to make better decisions, faster. Designed for busy people that constantly are making numerous important decisions, consider using The Mindful Focus Toolkit to improve your deep work.

Conclusion

Deep work is like a superpower that helps you produce your best work in less time. While deep work sounds great in theory, consistent practice, routine, and discipline are critical to mastering deep work to elevate your focus and work performance.

Just because you run a busy life doesn’t mean you have to compromise on your quality of work or downtime.

Now that you have a comprehensive guide to deep work, try incorporating deep work gradually into your daily life to efficiently produce a higher quality of work to reach your greatest potential.

Learn More About Deep Work
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
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11/29/2022 03:45 pm GMT

Featured photo credit: Ben White via unsplash.com

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Reference

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Leon Ho

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