In a world where we are constantly bombarded with distractions, it has become increasingly difficult to focus on tasks that require our full attention for extended periods of time. This poses a problem for people in the knowledge economy, where success increasingly depends upon our ability to achieve a state of flow where we are fully immersed in what we are doing. This state of complete focus, free from distraction, is known as ‘deep work,’ a practice made famous by the computer science professor Cal Newport, first in a blog post which was then expanded upon in his best-selling book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
In this post, we are going explore some ways to help you do more deep work at a higher quality. But first, a bit more about deep work.
What is Deep Work?
Cal Newport describes deep work as:
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Examples of deep work activities include things like writing, logical tasks like programming, researching — basically highly cognitively demanding tasks where success is dependent upon your ability to concentrate for long periods of times. This is in contrast to shallow work: tasks that don’t require much focus or energy to complete, that are easy to replicate, and can often be performed while distracted. Examples include paying bills, responding to emails, etc.
Deep work is where true value is created. It’s the 20% of work that brings in 80%+ of the value in the knowledge economy. The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare, however, due to the vast amount of distractions we have in our lives. One of the biggest culprits is social media. In an increasingly competitive twenty-first-century economy, the ability to focus on cognitively demanding tasks is becoming a key differentiator.
As Newport writes:
“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.”
If your creative output or professional success depends on your ability to do deep work, here are 10 tips and strategies to do deep work better.
1. Time block in your calendar
Without planning, people simply do not do deep work for sustained periods every day. Of all the tips on this page, this could be the most important. In order to make a habit of getting into the productive deep work zone, schedule time dedicated solely to deep work and treat it like any other non-negotiable appointment. This approach, scheduling your day to include chunks of time dedicated to specific tasks, is known as time blocking (or timeboxing) and is one of the most effective productivity tips you can follow. Try making it the core pillar around which you organize the rest of your day, ideally at the same time daily, to develop the habit of slipping into a state of deep focus.
2. Remove distractions
In order to really focus on your work for extended periods of time, you need to ruthlessly eliminate all distractions. This means turning off all but absolutely critical notifications, finding a quiet place to work where you can work without any potential disruptions, and perhaps announcing to those nearby to only disturb you if something is extremely important.
However, putting your phone on silent or do not disturb mode is not enough. Research published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research showed that merely having your smartphone nearby reduces one’s available cognitive capacity. So try moving your phone to another room rather than keeping it next to you.
3. Set a goal
Before you start your deep work session, take a few minutes to set a goal for what you want to accomplish. Having a specific goal in mind will help keep you focused and on track and help you feel as though you’re progressing towards something. For example, if your deep work sessions are dedicated to writing a book, consider setting yourself a word count goal.
4. Take breaks
It may seem counterintuitive, but taking breaks can actually help improve your concentration. When you take a break, give yourself permission to completely relax and allow your mind to wander. This will help refresh your brain and allow you to return to your work with fresh eyes.
Do not pull out your phone (remember, you shouldn’t even have it on you!) or go to a favorite news source. Try and avoid all forms of stimulating and distracting information. When you’re engaged in deep work, you are usually focused on highly cognitively demanding tasks that require a lot of mental space. Switching contexts can mean that the concepts and ideas that you were holding in your working memory are lost, and building these back up can take substantial effort and time.
Instead, go for a little walk, grab a glass of water, take a few meditative breaths — or do all three — before you return to work.
5. Do deep work in the same environment each time
Doing deep work in the same place each time can help you get in the zone faster and stay focused for longer. This is because you begin to associate that place and time with the purpose of doing deep work. This could be at your desk, a coffee shop, or even outdoors — just ensure that the environment is conducive to the deep work you want to accomplish and is distraction-free. Try to avoid doing other unrelated activities in that space as well so that the only association you have with it is deep work.
6. Take a power nap before you get started
Research has shown that taking short naps can improve cognitive performance quite dramatically. If your deep work slot is coming up and you’re feeling a bit sluggish, try taking a 20-minute power nap. Just make sure not to sleep for too long. Your nap should be 30 minutes maximum, or you may end up feeling groggy.
7. Get enough high-quality sleep
In addition to power naps, making sure you get enough sleep at night is crucial for concentration during the day. Most people need around 8 hours of sleep per night in order to function at their best. The duration of sleep is only a part of the picture. Sleep quality is equal to, if not more important than, sleep duration.
9. Install some distraction-limiting apps.
Working on computers is becoming increasingly common, if not necessary, for many jobs today. Unfortunately, these very devices are the source of some of the biggest distractions we face, usually in the form of social media. You don’t have to quit social media altogether to improve your ability to concentrate, though. There are a plethora of apps available designed to help keep yourself focused while working on a computer. Here are some of our favourites.
10. Create accountability
Having someone else hold you accountable for completing your deep work can be very helpful. If you know that a colleague is expecting an update on your progress, it’s easier to stay focused and make consistent progress. If you’re working for yourself, you can still find someone to help keep you accountable. Look for others working on similar things, use an app such as FocusMate, or join a relevant community for mutual accountability.
Putting it into practice
The ability to perform deep work is necessary for knowledge workers to create value In an increasingly distracted world. By following these tips, you will be well on your way towards doing more deep work of a higher quality. It may take some experimentation to figure out which approach works best for you, but once you’ve got the hang of it, it will become a regular part of your routine, and you will be racking up those deep work hours. Good luck!
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Header image: Nick Morrison