We’re living in an age of constant connectivity. And, in some ways, we’re lucky to be. But it’s also affecting our ability to focus deeply on our work. Whatever our job is, we need periods where we can sit and produce something that isn’t just a reply to an email.
Let’s define deep work:
What is deep work?
Deep work is our ability to focus on a cognitively demanding task, without distraction.
What is shallow work?
Shallow work consists of cognitively undemanding tasks which are often performed in a distracted environment. Newport suggests using a simple test to work out what shallow work is. How many years’ training would a bright recent grad need to perform the task? If it’s minimal you can safely class this as shallow work. The more training they’d need, the more likely it’s deep work.
PART 1: Why is deep work important?
Chapter 1: Deep work is valuable
The book is split into two parts. The first convinces us that deep work is highly valuable, in fact essential, for people who want to become leaders in their field. It gives us:
1 – The ability to master difficult tasks quickly
2 – The ability to produce work to a high standard, quickly
Chapter 2: Deep work is rare
In this chapter, Newport discusses how knowledge workers spend much of their time in a state of constant connectivity, in meetings, on instant messaging services or sending emails. This shallow work gives us the feeling of working, but in fact it produces very little. Because our brain often cannot follow when we switch between tasks, the value of our efforts suffers when we constantly work in this way.
Chapter 3: Deep work is meaningful
Newport sets out to convince us that there’s a sense of importance in deep work. This is a sense we’re often missing in our modern daily lives. Intense focus pushes us to our intellectual limits and leaves no space for negative thoughts. We tend to be happier when we’re doing deep work: “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
PART 2: How to do more deep work?
Rule 1: Work deeply
We’re distracted all day long. These can be both positive and negative distractions, including social media notifications, someone offering you a plate of cookies, a knock at the door, emails – you get the idea. Our limited willpower means these distractions are reducing our ability to work deeply, so we need to balance this with routines and rituals that reduce the willpower needed for us to do deep work. This fits in nicely with a book I read just before this – Atomic Habits by James Clear (more on this later).
There are four ways to do deep work:
Monastic – This involves isolating yourself for weeks at a time, without email or any distractions, in order to really focus on you deep work.
Bimodal – This is the method used by Carl Jung, who tucked himself away in a tower in order to do his deep work for weeks on end. You could also take a couple of days every month.
Rhythmic – This involves creating a routine and rhythm using dedicated times in the day or week to focus on your deep work. This method works well as it doesn’t exhaust your willpower.
Journalistic – Named after journalists who find themselves having to do short, sharp stints of writing and work throughout the day. This method involves finding periods of 30 – 90 minutes during the day, blocking them off and focusing intensely on one thing for this time. This is a difficult method if you aren’t used to it, as it requires a large amount of willpower to achieve.
How to measure deep work?
Whichever method you choose, you’ll need to create a plan to measure your deep work, sit down to decide when you will do your deep work either at the beginning of the day or the beginning of the week, and decide what you will do during this time. Some metrics to consider:
- Words written
- Articles read
- Words edited
- Section of a document you would like to complete
You can keep score of your deep work on a piece of paper, notebook or board by your desk. If we tally the hours of deep work per day, we will want to keep going and not break the streak.
How to decide what to deep work on?
Newport argues that you “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything” (taken from Leadership 101 by John Maxwell). The idea is that you need to work on the very few wildly important tasks that align with your life goals and values. In the example of an academic, this would be producing papers and books. For me it’s writing more content for my business, rather than other people’s businesses. This includes creating a blog, posting on LinkedIn, Instagram and creating whitepapers and talks around topical subjects.
Rule 2: Embrace boredom
We need to train our brains to work deeply, and to do this we need to learn to embrace boredom. Checking our phones and the internet becomes a deeply ingrained habit, and Newport argues that by not allowing ourselves to do this, even when we’re in line at the post office, we’re retraining our brain to get comfortable with boredom and focusing on one task.
How to embrace boredom?
- Use the internet at set times during the day. Set these out before your day begins. This initially didn’t sit well with me, because I thought I needed it to research what I’m writing. But I simply set aside time to load up the webpages I need, and then during the deep work hour I am purely writing. This is the same for email, I now realise I only need to check it 3 times per day.
- Focus on activities that actually provide rest, rather than mindlessly scrolling on our phones in the evening. These include exercise, walks, reading or spending time with family and friends.
- Try productive meditation. When you’re physically but not mentally occupied e.g. showering, commuting, walking use this time to work on a well-defined problem. It helps you to learn to hold things in your working memory, as well as solving big problems in your work.
Rule 3: Quit social media
If you’ve watched The Social Dilemma you’ll already know that social media platforms are designed to be addictive and time consuming. The apps trade our attention for money from advertisers.
How to quit social media?
You need to make sure the benefits outweigh the costs. Newport suggests you:
- Get very clear on your personal and professional goals
- Write a short list of the specific things you need to do to achieve these goals
- Assess each of the sites/apps you spend time of and whether they measure positively, negatively or neutrally against these goals
Another method you could try is:
- Delete all of your social media apps and don’t visit any of the sites for 30 days. It’s very important you don’t tell anyone they’re doing this, unless they ask.
- Re-download the apps you realise were having a positive effect on your life after 30 days, but put thought into your downtime and use the apps effectively.
I was quite scared of reading this chapter, as I’ve just started an Instagram page, and I find LinkedIn very helpful for my business. So I’ve slightly modified this part to suit my own needs.
Rule 4: Drain the Shallows
Shallow work, as we discussed above, is anything that is cognitively undemanding and is often performed in a distracted environment.
How to reduce your shallow work?
- Schedule your whole day. Include breaks, and don’t stick to the schedule too strictly. The aim is to get you thinking: what is the best way to spend my time? As often as possible.
- Decide how much time you want to spend on shallow work and schedule these time blocks into your day.
- Schedule overflow blocks to complete work you didn’t manage to finish during the allocated time. As you continue using this method, you should get better at blocking off the right amounts of time.
My thoughts on Deep Work
This is one of the only books that managed to convince me I don’t constantly need to be available in case my clients call. In fact, only checking my email 3 times per day has helped me produce better work, and communicate better with our clients.
After reading Atomic Habits recently (another blog post), I realise I need to implement the plan slowly to form lifelong habits. I’ve started with the tasks I think will really impact my life and work, and I will then re-read the book in a few months’ time and possibly implement more.
Implement the rhythmic and journalistic deep work system
Every morning, I wake up at 5.45am, sort out my dogs and chickens, and then fit in an hour of deep work from 6.15-7.15am. This time is dedicated to writing for Proof Content, not for any of my clients. I then schedule in another hour during the morning, and usually one during the afternoon. The second and third hours will normally be dedicated to client work (writing or editing).
Schedule my day
I hate routines and schedules – I love being a business owner because every day is so different. But this schedule doesn’t need to conflict with my freedom. I have permission to change the schedule at any time during the day, and in fact I usually do 3-4 times every day. But this has really helped me to focus my mind on ‘what’s the best way to spend my time?’ And it shows me just how much of my time is spent on shallow work.
Limit the internet
I have limited my internet use to:
- In the morning, after my first deep work hour
- Around lunchtime
- At the end of the workday
- After I have cooked and eaten dinner
During these times, I prepare articles I might need for research, check and send email, schedule meetings, check LinkedIn, check Slack, check Instagram and talk to my family and friends over Whatsapp. I don’t feel less connected to anyone, I simply feel like I’m spending my time on what’s really important.
Keep a tally
I love to write lists and visually see my productivity, so I’m keeping a tally on an old envelope and am aiming to keep my three hour per day deep work habit going. I think we often tend towards shallow work because we love feeling like we’ve accomplished quick tasks. So the little tally you get for completing an hour of deep work helps with this.