Dive into Deep Work to Boost Productivity, Efficiency and Creativity
Technology has made distraction an epidemic and has undermined our ability to immerse ourselves in challenging work.
Websites and apps offer easily accessible bursts of novelty and dopamine surges. They condition our minds for distraction and undermine our attention spans.
Do you wish you could get your brain back on the leash and focus better on your most important work? Do you want to spend a few hours every work day in an undistracted push towards your goals?
Cal Newport knows how you feel.
Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He's only 36 years old. But he has published six books and more than 60 peer-reviewed papers, despite holding down a demanding job.
His big idea is that producing at a peak level requires working on a single task for extended periods with full concentration.
Newport's book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, outlines how you can more efficient and produce better work by learning to:
- focus more intensely and for longer
- resist distractions and reduce your desire for distraction.
Deep Work vs Shallow Work
Newport provides two important definitions:
Deep Work: professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.
Shallow Work: noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.
Shallow work includes meetings, routine administrative work, and checking and responding to emails.
Shallow work can be easily performed by a recent graduate with just a few months experience in the workforce. It doesn't create much new value and it's easily replicated. Yet many experienced knowledge workers build their days around such tasks.
In contrast, sessions of deep work require a state of unbroken concentration and "create new value, improve your skills, and are hard to replicate."
The Value and Difficulty of Deep Work
Deep work is essential to producing your best work.
It lets you do more work in less time. It helps you quickly master hard things and valuable skills, and rapidly produce high-quality material.
But deep work is tough. It's like a workout for the brain that stretches your mind and improves your abilities.
Unfortunately, our brains have a bias for instant gratification and for easily performed actions.
Shallow work and the distractions provided by technology are undemanding and deliver quick (but trivial) rewards. But it takes patience and foresight to reap the benefits of deep work.
The temptations of busywork and pointless meetings have always been with us. The introduction of email, social media and infotainment websites has made matters worse.
Multitasking and repeated diversions hinder effective knowledge work.
When you switch from one task to another, your attention doesn't make a smooth transition. A residue of your attention lingers on the previous task. This hinders your ability to shift into a state of deep work.
Distracted and intermittent spurts of effort produce poorer work and don't lead to breakthroughs. They are also inefficient, because even brief interruptions significantly increase the total time needed to complete a task.
Newport argues that:
The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
Newport says this makes the capacity for deep work "the superpower of the 21st century".
Even experts can only manage up to four hours a day of deep work on a regular basis. But the payoffs are substantial.
- More work – your productivity will rise.
- Better work – the quality of your work will improve.
- Improved efficiency – the ability to focus will give you more free time. Newport sticks to a strict 5.30pm finish to his working day with no weekend work.
Newport says this has worked well for him.
Three or four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration can produce a lot of valuable output.
Retrain Your Ability to Focus
To boost your ability to perform deep work, you must spend less time on shallow activities and learn to concentrate and resist distraction.
But building this capacity for intense focus is difficult and time-consuming.
You must be patient and persistent.
Let's look at Newport's key tips for building a professional life focused on deep work.
Target What's Most Important
If you try to do too much, you will achieve less.
Focus your attention, energy and intensity on a few very important things. Identify a few ambitious outcomes and dedicate your deep work hours to these.
Fixating on something important to you creates strong motivation that helps you resist distractions.
Embrace Boredom and Curtail Social Media
To train your focus and keep on task, you must break your dependence on distraction, in and out of the workplace.
That means you must embrace boredom.
If you check your phone every time you get bored, you'll weaken your ability to concentrate and resist distractions.
Conversely, if you successfully resist tempting distractions, you'll learn to spend time pondering ideas and work problems.
When considering distractions such as social media, don't just look at the benefits.
You must also consider the opportunity costs.
Facebook might help you keep track of friends, but it also takes you away from meaningful work. Is the trade-off worth it? Are you getting diminishing returns from too much time on Facebook?
Try to quit social media for 30 days to see if you really need it and if it makes a positive difference in your life. If you stick with social media, try to minimize its use by keeping it in brief well-defined blocks.
Deep Work Modes
The best approach for most beginners is doing deep work during the same hours every day before starting other work. This is the "rhythmic" approach to deep work.
More experienced people can take a one or two-day deep work sabbatical every week, alternating with days of shallow work (bimodal approach).
Some people can minimize, or even eliminate, all other forms of work and distractions. This "monastic" mode is almost a form of retreat from the outside world. Newport concedes it is too extreme for most people.
Only very experienced people can do deep work opportunistically in unscheduled bursts (journalistic mode). But once you have cultivated the ability to do this, it can be very useful.
Doing Deep Work
Good routines and environmental changes will minimize the willpower needed to achieve deep concentration.
Newport makes several detailed suggestions.
- Schedule your day in 30-minute blocks. Plan each block at the beginning of the day.
- Don't treat focus as a special period in your working day. Schedule distraction and treat it as a break from focus. Segregate Internet or email use to well-defined periods to minimize the costs of task-switching.
- Work in a quiet place and at a quiet time. If you can't manage this, invest in noise-cancelling headphones.
- Reduce distractions. Disable all call and message notifications. Don't respond instantly to emails. To reduce the risk of long, meandering email chains, make your responses process-focused. Suggest next steps that take you from the status quo to the desired outcome.
- Drain the shallows – take a good look at your tasks and identify which ones are deep and which are shallow. Minimize shallow work, then schedule well-defined blocks for the shallow work you can't avoid.
- Measure the time spent in deep work. Aim to gradually increase your total minutes of deep work per day.
- Use a shutdown ritual at the end of the day to help release your brain from work mode and into downtime mode. Check your email one last time. Review your to-do list and make a to-do list for the next day. Plan how you will resume any incomplete tasks the next day.
Reward and Restore with Real Downtime
At the end of a working day, you're no longer productive and you need time to recharge.
Newport finishes at 5.30p.m. every day. He advocates doing no evening work. Don't even check work emails or make plans. Shut down all work-related thinking.
You need to switch off to remain highly productive.
Downtime recharges the mental drive needed for deep work.
It also lets your subconscious mind sort through complex challenges. This can deliver insights and creativity the conscious mind would fail to achieve.
Having real downtime will keep you fresh and inspired for the next day's stint of deep work.
Focus for Deep Work
I developed Focus to boost the productivity of people working on Mac computers.
Focus can block browsers, games and distracting apps and websites. But it can still allow access to your to-do list, project management and productivity apps.
You can use Focus to block specific websites. Or you can use the allowed sites (whitelist) feature to access a few sites and apps while blocking the rest of the Internet.
The program also includes features designed to set schedules, track productivity and enhance motivation.
Focus helps me transition quickly to a state of distraction-free concentration. And it helps keep me there.
It boosted my ability to perform deep work.
But of course, I still had to work hard to develop strong powers of concentration.
As Cal Newport notes:
- More than four hours of deep work a day isn't sustainable in the long term, even for experts.
- It's amazing what you can achieve in those four hours.
It's worth putting in the work to develop this superpower.
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