In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport tables the idea that we've lost our ability to fully focus on the tasks in our lives that require dedicated brainpower and move our lives forward most effectively. With the well-documented changes to our attention span and concentration brought on by the internet age, we're finding it harder than ever to enter flow states that provide us with unparalleled powers of production.
We've always given the humble goldfish a hard time for its attention span—but now researchers suggest we're lagging behind it.
We've flocked to life hacks and task managers, useful as they are, to try and resolve this deficit, but without much success. We've inundated ourselves with meaningless busywork in an attempt to gamify our productivity and regain control of our minds.
Newport suggests a path forward for regaining that ability to concentrate and enter flow states. Once we have that ability at hand, we can make real progress toward our most valuable goals and improve our happiness. We even become safer. Whether the tool of your craft is an arm saw, chef's knife or guitar, immersed focus means there's less risk of an accident on the job.
The concept of deep work has become a hot topic in productivity circles. In a niche full of fluffed-up or downright bad ideas manufactured for pageviews, we should treat everything skeptically. But much like Carol Dweck's work on growth mindsets versus fixed mindsets, Cal Newport's concept of deep work, and his advice for achieving it, is worth paying attention to—now more than ever.
As defined by Newport, deep work involves activities performed in a distraction-free state of concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. Deep work creates new value in our lives and the lives of others, improves skills and specifically tackles activities that are difficult and require skill.
The dualism to deep work is shallow work, which has always been a temptation—but is now more prevalent than ever.
Shallow work, long known in productivity literature as busywork, doesn't take a lot of brainpower and can provide easy checkmarks on your to-do list for the day. Think dealing with email, filling out reports, checking your business Facebook page notifications and cleaning up the files on your desktop.
Not all bad things, per se, and necessary evils in some cases—but not things that create new value or require focus and skill. We get to distract ourselves from the daunting, difficult task on our radar, with none of the guilt of scrolling through cat pictures on Reddit to do so.
Engaging in deep work has many benefits. At the end of the day, it comes down to this: you move your life forward, and you enjoy your life more.
It provides us with a space in which to tackle the valuable, creatively demanding tasks that we know could benefit our careers, bank accounts and futures. These are the tasks that are proactive and lack a sense of inbuilt urgency, and can languish on our task lists until we simply delete them, feeling a little embarrassed.
Deep work improves our powers of focus in all areas of life. By exercising our concentration with intention, we counteract the forces of distraction in the modern world and make it easier to switch into a high-output state of mind when we need it.
Practicing deep work makes you happier and more fulfilled. In the process of deep work, we create space for creation, protected from those distracting forces. The torrent of modern distraction is anxiogenic, and by eliminating it and directly dealing with the jobs causing anxiety, we have space for peace.
After the process of deep work, we've tangibly built momentum towards our goals, and that's fulfilling on the deepest levels. When we break to rest and restore ourselves, we know that we've earned our leisure and can be present in it. Finally, the cat pictures don't come with that nagging guilt.
Preparation is essential to deep work—and we should do it before it's time to work deeply. Preparation puts us into a proactive state, and being organized means our thought processes can run uninterrupted by overly-caffeinated anxieties about responsibilities left undone or unplanned.
1. Schedule your time. Build this practice into your weekly review, perhaps on a Sunday, preparing for the week ahead. Estimate how long you'll need for each task—and then schedule less time for it, to create a sense of urgency.
Break down your scheduled goals into actionable plans. Turn the nebulous, high-level task—the expected output—into the definable steps that it'll take to create that output. This reduces the amount of thinking, and therefore resistance, in our way when it's time to get into the meat of the task.
2. Plan your downtime, too. Treat rest and recovery the way a weightlifter does: an equal part of the task, just as the work itself is. Your brain needs time to digest, think ahead and be inspired by life—and to cement your new learnings in your mind. Determine the end of your workday in advance, and end work at that time. That's a radical notion these days, but you'll come up with strategies to get things done just by adjusting to this stipulation. Conversely, by building compensation into your schedule, you can be assured that you'll use it.
3. Prepare your body and mind in this downtime. Read good, time-tested books to give your mind the intellectual protein it needs to form new ideas. Exercise will directly help you with deep work. Start a meditation practice. Grab Headspace, which has a free beginner's course, and commit to just ten minutes a day. You might be called a trend-chasing hipster, but that's fine—we know that it works. Much like deep work itself, meditation will exercise your capacity for concentration—and if your mind is just too unsettled for deep work right away, it'll train you to put your anxieties aside and give you the leg up you need.
1. Calibrate your environment. When it's time to engage in deep work, turn off the music, the 'background' TV and your phone. Enable Do Not Disturb on Slack.
Sometimes a little Mozart or house music really does help us get into the swing of things, so if you must, get it out of your system when you clear your inbox and build the momentum there. If you need an alternative to put some space between yourself and the buzz of your home or office, try Brain.fm.
2. Use your own space—not a communal area. If you need it, use an app like Freedom to limit your online excursions. Create an environment where the task at hand is the focus, and the only thing you have to focus on.
3. Review the task you've scheduled. Absorb the plan, and set a time limit on doing so. More planning than is necessary is another form of busywork. Once your time limit expires, it's time to create.
4. Don't justify breaks. If your bladder is on the precipice of bursting, that's sure to be a distraction, so deal with that. Otherwise, keep at it. Set your work timer somewhere visible. You're using the urgency to kickstart your entry into a flow state, and once there, you won't notice the minutes passing by.
5. Don't try to multitask. Deep work is about dogmatic single-tasking. You've set aside time for a specific task, so use it for that. Watch out for multitasking within the task—complete each component sequentially, just as you planned.
Newport tells us that we need to embrace boredom, and put all of our energy and focus into this task until we've achieved our goal for the session. This will be difficult at first, but persevere, deny yourself dopamine-seeking temptations and exercise the muscle of concentration. Calm the monkey mind down by thinking of the superhuman powers of production you'll have in a month or a year's time.
As we've mentioned, and as you'd know, modern life sets up many obstacles to focused, fulfilling creative work. We'll look at a few of these obstacles and how you can deal with them, but you should also examine your own days and account for distracting activities common to you.
1. Banish social media. During deep work, you shouldn't have social media open or allow yourself to check it. Newport takes things a step further. He believes, rightly, that social media at any time is not conducive to a deep work lifestyle. The benefits are few and far between, it's engineered to take up as much of your time as possible and it's addictive. It trains your mind to remain in a reactive, distracted state at all times. If you want to regain control of your mind, you need to take the ultimate stand and turf it out of your life altogether.
If your profession doesn't allow you to completely quit social media (be honest with yourself), automate it as much as you can. Use scheduling tools like Buffer and clever integrations, such as by tweeting favorited items from your RSS reader.
2. Get a handle on notifications. This applies to your phone, your computer, your smart speaker and everything in between. Rethink your approach to notifications, and modify your notification settings to suit. The most common approach is to eliminate notifications from all apps, other than calls and text messages. Perhaps there are other kinds of notifications that are legitimately useful for you, and that's fine. If notifications reminding you to get up and move are improving your quality of life, leave them on. Learn to love Do Not Disturb mode and batch process your communications.
3. Set expectations with those around you. You can control many things—but not other people. Make sure that others know you shouldn't be interrupted for anything short of a medical emergency during your deep work time. When they inevitably do, ensure they're left unwilling to repeat the mistake. I'll leave the methods to you.
4. Don't skip your planning sessions. A lack of planning leaves you reactive, subject to the whims of your mind and environment at the time. Weekly reviews allow you to go into the week proactively, and feeling self-assured. It's boring, but like broccoli, it's good for you—so do it.
In retrospect, the preparation for and execution of deep work seems blindingly obvious. It's essentially the practice of setting aside time for a task, eliminating distractions during that time and doing the work. With our minds stuck in a hyper-excited state, we've lost touch with this deceptively simple approach.
But here's the thing about simple approaches: they work. Execution, as ever, is the hard part. Deep work provides no quick and easy dopamine fix—at least not until it's over. The more time you spend looking for magic bullets, life hacks and Adderall prescriptions, the more time you spend kidding yourself. And that's time lost forever.
Plan to start, and then start.
We've got lots of great information for business owners. Check out our advice on setting up your home office and getting a restful night's sleep. Both of these articles will help with your pursuit of deep work.