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Last Updated on November 5, 2021

What Is Deep Work And How It Helps You to Stay Focused

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What Is Deep Work And How It Helps You to Stay Focused

“Deep work” was first coined by Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, in a 2012 blog post.[1] He went on to expand upon this idea in his 2016 bestselling book, appropriately titled Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

What exactly is “deep work”? According to Newport himself:

“Deep work refers to a 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.”

Put more simply, it’s being able to stay focused on your most important and demanding tasks. When you’re able to do this, you’ll end up working smarter, not harder every day. More importantly, you’ll have a more meaningful life.

How Deep Work Helps You Focus

There are many benefits of deep work. Here are my favorite ways deep work can help you to become much more productive and effective with your time and your work.

Unimportant Distractions Are Gone

How often have you received a text message saying, “Did you get my email?” Checking emails is one of the biggest time wasters there is. Just looking at a message like that takes your focus away from what is important.

The refocusing time is estimated to be anywhere between three and twenty-one minutes. Turning off your notifications stops these unnecessary interruptions and allows you to focus on your work without the effects of attention residue.

Quiet, Deep Work Time Allows You to Think

When we allow all these distractions to enter our life, we find there is little to no time for thinking. And yet, thinking is an important ingredient if we want to produce quality work.

Giving yourself time each day for deep work will allow you to think clearly and begin producing better quality work.

Beginning to Feel More Fulfilled

When you start spending more uninterrupted time on important work, you will find you feel more fulfilled. This is a result of you getting important, fulfilling work done and reducing the amount of time you spend on unimportant things.

Making Fewer Mistakes

When you are constantly distracted from the work at hand, you will make more mistakes. When you allow yourself to stay focused on one task, you will make fewer mistakes because you are not having to stop and start a piece of work.

Requiring Less Time to Do the Work

Of course, when you are making fewer mistakes, you spend less time doing the work and revising. This allows you more time to do more quality work.

When you are completely focused on the important work, you will find you get a lot more done in each session. Just two hours per day focused on work that really matters will dramatically improve your output.

Deadlines Are Easily Met

When you schedule deep work on your calendar each day or week, you can confidently plan out when you will do the work that has deadlines.

Knowing you will have periods of uninterrupted time to work on a piece of work will give you the confidence you need to meet the deadline.

Less Stress

When you know you have the time to do the work without any interruptions, you begin feeling less stressed about what you have to do.

A great example is writing this article. I have a deadline, and I have scheduled two sessions of deep work to get it written and edited. I feel no stress, as I know I will complete it on time.

The Quality of Your Work Will Improve

The problem with allowing distractions into your work time is that you are not fully focused on the work. By giving yourself total focused time on a piece of work, you will naturally improve the quality of it.

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Having Time to Deal With Distractions

One of the fears people have about scheduling deep work is they will miss out on something important. The reality is that it is unlikely, and even if there was something important, you will still see it after your deep work session.

People Will Respect Your Time More

Ever noticed the people in your office who do all the chatting are the ones always complaining about how little time they have to do their work? While it may seem those people are popular, the reality is people are not respecting their time.

When you start doing undisturbed deep work, people will begin respecting your time much more.

Improved Self-Discipline

One of the peripheral benefits of practicing regular sessions of deep work is you will find your self-discipline becomes stronger. Self-discipline is the foundation of achieving so many things in life, from your goals to improvements in your health and relationships.

Improved Work-Life Balance

Many of the reasons we find it difficult to maintain a good work-life balance is because much of the work we have to do is done in fits and starts. When this happens, there is often the need to do catch-up work in the evenings or on the weekends.

Deep work prevents this from happening because you work on the important work in a focused state, leading to more of your work being completed well within the deadlines.

How Long is Deep Work?

At this point, you must be wondering how much time you must dedicate to deep work? Cal Newport suggests that one should book deep work session for an uninterrupted 90 minute timeframe.

However, realistically this would not be achieved at the very first instance. You can start slowly with the time stretches that you can manage but keep a target of 90-minutes, as suggested by Cal Newport.

The maximum time that you can dedicate each day for deep work is 4 hours. The prime reason behind this is the fact that humans find it difficult to have focused attention residue beyond this limit. So, you can comprehend that the evening time would be best for your deep work sessions since you can plan uninterrupted sessions.

Claire Evans, time management and productivity coach says that the time one can allocate to deep work entirely depends on an individual’s personal needs.[2] Some people have a focused attention span of two hours, while others may only manage 20 to 25 minutes free from distraction.

It is best to start with a limited time frame initially and then build up every week.

In her own words,

“Schedule your deep work time into your calendar and block it out. Make it as non-negotiable as your commitments with other people because you need to take it seriously if you want it to be effective.”

9 Grounding Rules For Deep Work

But how can you do deep work more effectively? You can start by following these 9 rules to stay focused.

1. Understand How You Work

If you want to implement deep work into your life, you first need to choose the scheduling philosophy that fits best with the way you work and live. According to Newport, there are four scheduling philosophies:

  • Monastic: This is where you focus almost all of your time on deep work, such as high-leverage activities. As such, you eliminate all other distractions, like social media.
  • Bimodal: Here, you divide your time between deep work and shallow work on a weekly, monthly, or annual basis. For example, you may spend an entire week only on high-leverage activities, but the following week would be devoted to tasks like checking emails or updating slide presentations.
  • Rhythmic: This is where you split your daily schedule between deep and shallow work, like doing your deep work in the morning and saving shallow work for late afternoons or evenings.
  • Journalistic: In this approach, you fit deep work in when you have availability in your schedule. One example would be when a meeting gets canceled — you could now slot that time for your deep work. Another would be to kill endless meetings, they don’t help

Experiment with each if needed. The rhythmic philosophy is probably the most realistic for the majority of workers. Unless you’re writing a book, most of us can only focus on deep work for so long or put off certain responsibilities to a later date. Also, it’s the easiest and most effective technique because you can schedule your deep work around when you’re most productive.[3]

2. Establish Deep Work Routines and Rituals

After determining how you work best, you need to realize that we all have limited willpower. That means you have to have the discipline to stay completely concentrated and focused on the task you’re currently working on.

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The best way to achieve this is to mentally prepare for deep work, as well as create an environment that encourages you to remain focused. As Newport explained in his 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.”

Deep work forces you to decide what work is important and what work would have the biggest positive impact on your projects. When you begin practicing deep work regularly, you start to focus more on the high value work and less on the low value work.

Here are some ways to develop those routines and rituals:

  • Ccreate morning and evening routines that will set you up for success, such as reviewing your calendar in the morning and meditating at night.
  • Set rules for diving into your deep work. For example, when focused on deep work, you close your office door and turn your phone off until it’s time for a break.
  • Work in an environment that’s distraction-free and comfortable — Don’t park at a busy coffee shop with the intention of getting deep work done.
  • Determine how long you want your deep work session to be. The human brain can only focus for so long. While this varies from person to person, a survey conducted by Toggl found that most people can only focus on a task for one to two hours.[4] Start small, with 15-minute sessions, and work up to longer sessions.
  • Take note of anything that helps support deep work, such as specific refreshments, music, white noise, or tools. Make sure you have these available.

3. Prioritize Using the 4DX Framework

In Deep Work, Newport highlights the 4DX framework described in The 4 Disciplines of Execution. Although this was developed by business consultants to be used for companies, it’s also useful in helping individuals work on what matters most.

  • Focus on the Wildly Important. This is a limited number of critical and essential goals that your Deep Work hours should be reserved for.
  • Act on the Lead Measures. Two metrics are used when measuring your success: lag and lead measures. Lag measures are your output, such as how many blog posts you wrote today. Lead measure is the time spent engaged in a state of deep work, making progress toward your most important goals.
  • Keep a Compelling Scoreboard. Have a visible tracking system, such as Seinfeld’s “Don’t break the chain” productivity secret.
  • Create a Cadence of Accountability. Hold yourself accountable by committing to daily or weekly reviews to see what you’ve accomplished. You can also use this information to plan for the following week.

4. Embrace Boredom, and Take Breaks

This may sound counterproductive, especially in such a fast-paced world, but it’s perfectly fine to get bored. In fact, Newport says that:

“To succeed with deep work, you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.”

For example, if you were waiting in a food truck line, don’t have your phone glued to your face. Instead, accept the boredom and use this unproductive time to do some deep thinking. This is a type of meditation that asks you to focus your attention on a single problem. The trick is learning to return your attention to a specific problem when your mind starts to wander.

Additionally, you should schedule breaks throughout the day for distractions like social media or chatty co-workers. These breaks help your brain rest and recharge for your next deep work session. This way, you’re not fighting against them — you’re simply scheduling them at certain times so they don’t interrupt your focus.

5. Purge Shallow Work from Your Life

According to Newport:

“Shallow work is non-cognitively 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.”

In other words, this is busy work.

You don’t want to spend too much time on these tasks. For example, instead of spending a bulk of your day with administrative tasks and scattered meetings, block out specific times for these activities, like having all of your meetings on Tuesdays and only checking your inbox three times a day. Better yet, if you have the resources, delegate or outsource your shallow work.

6. Go off the Grid

You don’t have to go to the extreme and literally disconnect from the outside world. After all, you may still need to be somewhat active on social media for your business. But the idea here is to unplug during deep work hours, so you can remain 100% focused.

The easiest way to do this would be to turn off your phone. If that’s not something you’re comfortable with, put it on airplane mode or do-not-disturb mode. You could also turn off notifications for email or social media or log out of them completely. I’ve found a lot of success by removing social media apps from my phone.

7. Get on the Same Page with Others

Perhaps the most disruptive force distracting you is other people. They’re not doing this to be malicious; they just don’t know that an innocent knock on your door can break your concentration.

Let your co-workers know when you don’t want to be disturbed by closing your door and placing a “Do Not Disturb” sign on it. I share my calendar with my employees so they know when I’m available and when I’ve blocked out time for deep work.

I also do this at home. My family knows not to contact me at the office until it’s time for my breaks, unless it’s an emergency. At home, if I need to do a little work, they also know not to interrupt me in my home office unless I’ve signaled I’m available.

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8. Stop When It’s Time to Stop

It’s a guilty pleasure, but I enjoy the movie “Kingpin.” In one scene, Woody Harrelson is helping to build a barn, and the lunch bell rings. He stops immediately and goes running to get his grub. Needless to say, the others can’t hold up the barn, and it collapses.

But it does illustrate a good point: When the lunch bell rings, it’s time to stop working. This is important for deep work because it can motivate us to stay focused. If you only have an hour to complete a task, you don’t have time for anything else. More importantly, deep work is only effective when you set parameters, like starting and ending points.

Consider setting an alarm, even if it’s just an old-school timer that gives you a five-minute warning. This enables you to wrap things up and not go over that allotted chunk of time.

9. Know the Outcome

Let’s say you have plans to go to a concert after work with some friends. Knowing this, you might have packed a more casual outfit and made plans to meet your friends at a restaurant near the venue. Depending on how late you’ll be out, you might plan on going into work a little later tomorrow. Even if you had a couple of hiccups along the way, like getting stuck in traffic, you know the outcome of the night: You’re going to see an awesome show with friends.

The same mentality is true with deep work. When the brain knows the outcome of what you’re trying to achieve, it will remain focused on that activity until it’s completed to your satisfaction. The idea behind deep work is straightforward: Be more intentional with your time by focusing on the things that push you closer to achieving your goals. It encourages you to be more protective of your time, even if that means quitting social media and saying “no” to requests.

4 Steps to Use Deep Work to Ignite Productivity

1. Use Time Blocks on Your Calendar

The first step to taking advantage of deep work is to block time out on your calendar. To do this, review your calendar for the next day, and identify where you will have one or two hours free for focused work[5].

Time blocking

    Ideally, one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon is what you are looking for, but be flexible. If you have a relatively free morning and back to back meetings in the afternoon, then block time only in the morning.

    2. Find Your Best Time

    Some people are naturally morning people, and others are naturally night people. To really get the benefit of deep work, schedule your deep work sessions when you are at your best.

    For me, that is early in the morning. I do all my focused work between 6 am and 8 am where possible. I’ve found that between 6 am and 8 am, I am also less likely to be disturbed, and there are not likely to be any meetings at that time.

    3. Find a Quiet Place to Work

    If you stay in your normal work station and try to do your focused work, you are going to be interrupted by someone or something.

    Try to find a quiet place to do your work. In an office, find a meeting room where you can work undisturbed. Alternatively, if you are permitted to do so, do your deep work sessions in a local coffee shop or at home.

    What you are looking for is a regular place you can do your deep work that will allow you to go into focused work mode quickly. Using the same place will put you in the right frame of mind as soon as you sit down and start.

    4. Decide What You Will Work on the Day Before

    This step is crucial, because if you do not plan what you will work on before you sit down to do deep work, you will waste valuable time looking for something to do.

    I recommend you take 10 minutes before you finish for the day to make a decision on what you will work on during your focused work time.

    An additional benefit in doing this is you give your subconscious brain time to develop some creative ideas for the project you are going to work on.

    10 Examples of Deep Work

    Are you still wondering if Deep Work really works or if it has any negative impact? Here are some examples to help you gain a better insight about Deep Work and how it has benefited famous personalities:

    1. Tim Cook

    Tim Cook, one of the most successful personalities known worldwide as the C.E.O. of Apple, starts his work day before 4 a.m. Do you wonder why? Here is what he said in an interview. He says that early morning is free of distractions, and therefore it helps him keep better control and plan his work strategies.

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    2. Bill Gates

    The founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, calls it “think week.” He spends two weeks alone in his cabin in the forest each year. He makes sure to spend this alone time twice a year to stay with these thoughts and declutter his mind by keeping himself secluded from the outside world. At this time, he remains completely disconnected from his family, friends, and work. Gates spend this time reading and thinking.

    If you are wondering how this could help, let me just tell you this – Bill Gates came up with the plan for Microsoft Tablet P.C. during one of this “Think Week.”

    3. Albert Einstein

    Scientist Albert Einstein was an introvert and preferred his time spent alone. But his reasons for doing so were intriguing. He said,

    “The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulate the creative mind.”

    4. Warren Buffet

    Warren Buffet, one of the richest people in the world, is an introvert. He prefers to spend time in solitude frequently. One of the major benefits he gained from doing so is that he got all the focus required to become an expert.

    Many people panic and make hasty decisions that lead to peril. However, Buffet can act wisely in such instances since he has developed this ability to think clearly when others can’t.

    5. Susan Cain

    Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says that the ability to spend time in solitude and think clearly while doing is one of the biggest reasons behind Warren Buffet’s success.

    6. Jeff Weiner

    EO Jeff Weiner schedules 30 to 90 minutes every day to do nothing. He uses this time to allow himself to process what’s going on around him and think.

    Weiner says,

    “At first, these buffers felt like indulgences. I could have been using the time to catch up on meetings I had pushed out or said ‘no’ to. But over time, I realized not only were these breaks important, and they were absolutely necessary for me to do my job. The buffer is the best investment you can make in yourself and the single most important productivity tool I use.”

    7. J.K. Rowling

    J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, disappeared completely from social media when she penned down the series. Do you think this cognitively demanding task would have been possible hadn’t she adopted digital minimalism or digital absence? The straightforward answer is no!

    8. Sir Richard Branson

    Sir Richard Branson believes strongly in having a to-do-list. He prefers to prioritize his time using his calendar schedule

    9. Michelle Obama

    Michelle Obama is ruthlessly efficient and keeps her work and family life organized by scheduling everything on her calendar.

    10. Elon Musk

    Elon Musk always plans his day the night before. He says,

    “I know what needs to be done (long term and short term), and I schedule the next day accordingly. Everything is on my calendar. I have a simple rule: I don’t work on it if it’s not on my calendar”.

    Bottom Line

    The ability to focus is a valuable skill if you want to achieve your goals and become successful. Practicing deep work and truly mastering this skill will make you free from distraction and benefit your work, your career, and your life. All you need to do is decide when you will do your deep work.

    If you continue to practice and adjust these rules so they work for you, deep work can help you work smarter and become more fulfilled. Staying focused is hard in a world of distractions, but it most certainly pays off.

    Featured photo credit: Ben White via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    More by this author

    John Hall

    John Hall is the co-founder and president of Calendar, a leading scheduling and productivity app that will change how we manage and invest our time.

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