Deep Work: How to Become More Productive using Deep Work Concepts

Over the weekend I read a fascinating book: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World* by Cal Newport.

I’ve written before about the dangers of distraction that come from our smartphones and even published a poem about it by a good friend. This book further explains why our smartphones are making us dumb and dumber.

I should preface this review by saying that this is not a fun book. The writer is a college professor and as such writes like one. I have read other nonfiction books such as Stumbling On Happiness* by Daniel Gilbert which are both profound and fun to read. This book is a bit too dry to be fun to read. Another criticism of the book is that the author uses himself as a case study of one, tying his impressive academic output to deep work. I’d have preferred more people included in the case study.

That being said this is still an important book and even more so an important concept. In this article I will explain the concept, and suggest some ways to implement it.

What is Deep Work?

What is deep work? Deep work is work that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their max and which is performed without distraction. It typically results in some sort of productive product or output, although it can also result in some new learning or new skills. Deep work takes place during long sessions of uninterrupted high intensity, focused work.

How does this compare with shallow work? Shallow work is typically logistical in nature, is not particularly cognitively challenging, and often produces little or no real output. Email is a great example of shallow work. Reshuffling your to do list is another example.

Although the author doesn’t make this distinction, I would add two more categories which would be shallow play and deep play. Shallow play is all of those things we do which are basically mindless. Checking Facebook, surfing channels on TV, reading a thriller novel — all are examples of shallow play.

Deep play, in contrast, requires us to use our full set of abilities. Learning a new language, playing a musical instrument, practicing tai chi, improving one’s golf game — these are all examples of deep play.

Why is Deep Work Important?

Why is deep work important? Deep work allows you to reach your maximum cognitive capacity. It also allows you to produce extremely high-quality outputs, and to learn important and significant new skills.

The author talks about types of work and those who will thrive in the future economy. He makes the point that three types of workers will do well. One type is those people who control and own capital, such as venture capitalists. Another type is those who can work with machine learning and intelligent machines. The final type is the superstars in almost any field. It is this third group who will most benefit from learning how to do deep work. The capability for doing deep work is what distinguishes the superstar from the merely average worker.

Learning How to Do Deep Work

How can you train yourself to do more deep work?

This is a challenge. Deep work is hard! Shallow work is easy. The biggest challenge to doing deep work is that so many of the forces in our current environment push us in the direction of shallow activities. All the apps on our smartphones push us into the shallows. (With the exception of reading apps.) Email pushes us towards the shallow. Surfing the internet, looking at YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, — all of these push us towards rapidly shifting attention and shallow focus.

And since most of us work on an internet connected computer, even if we try to do deep work it’s all too easy to get distracted or to avoid by jumping to something shallow.

Worse yet, we have zero tolerance for even a few moments of boredom. What do you observe when you see people waiting in line? You see everyone looking at their phones. Nobody just stands there thinking. We have trained our brains to instantly shift to mindless activities whenever we are bored or restless, instead of thinking about the deeper issues in our lives.

Even while writing this article, there were several moments when I remembered something that I forgot to do and checked my email to see about taking care of it. Looking back on these episodes I realized that I had run into a difficult point in writing this article. Instead of staying focused, I avoided the difficulty by switching to something shallow and meaningless.

Deep Work in Action
Deep Work in Action

Avoiding Crashing in the Shallows

It is so easy to go into the shallows. Our days disappear into a haze of shallow activities. Even when we are productive, it is still all too easy to be productive in a shallow way. I will answer 10 emails — shallow. Let me check the headlines — shallow. Time to update my to-do list — shallow. Now let’s straighten up my desk — shallow. We check off to-do items with great joy even when they are completely shallow and unimportant. We forget to ask ourselves if each productive activity can really alter our world or the world at large.

The biggest challenge of deep work is training yourself and your brain to be able to achieve long periods of focused concentration. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes feel like the internet has broken my brain. It is all too easy for me to jump from website to website.

My only saving grace is that in my work as a psychologist, I have extended periods each day during which I am completely off the Internet and off my phone while working with clients. I automatically fall into a deep work mode while doing therapy. It is one of the reasons I cherish doing therapy. It is like a forced meditation into deep work.

Here is my prescription for how you can learn to do more deep work. First of all, just like any other muscle, you will have to build up your ability to do deep work. If you’re currently doing little or no deep work, then it’s probably best to aim at only doing one hour a day of deep work. Once you get used to doing that level, you can gradually increase it. Newport says that the maximum amount of deep work that anyone can really do is four hours per day. I think this is too much for most people, and a goal of two hours a day of deep work would be more reasonable.

Next you need to set up an environment which minimizes distractions.

You will need to make sure that your smart phone is muted or on airplane mode so that there are no vibrations or sounds. Even better, put your smart phone in a different room. That way you won’t be tempted to look at it. Also turn off any notifications on your computer.

Go someplace which is un-distracting. If you are at the workplace go find a conference room or other quiet space where you won’t be distracted or interrupted. If you are at home you will also need to set up or identify the least distracting space. If your deep work requires using the computer you might even want to disable the Internet temporarily.

Another trick is to have a separate computer for deep work. I have a friend who has two identical laptop computers. One has the normal complement of apps, web browsers, etc., the other laptop is his writing laptop. That one has virtually no apps, except for Microsoft Word. It doesn’t even have a web browser. On the writing laptop he has disabled the network card so that even if there is Wi-Fi, he can’t access it. Basically, that laptop is only good for one thing, writing.

(Another way to accomplish the same thing with only one laptop would be to have two separate Windows or Mac users. Your Writing User would only have the basic tools for writing, while your other user would have all your regular apps. When you are ready to write, you shift to the Writing User.)

Or just go old school. Many years ago, I got several speeding tickets in a row and had to attend two days of traffic school, back in the ancient days where you actually went to a classroom and sat there for eight hours a day. I had 16 hours of listening to a boring instructor drone on about the dangers of speeding. I sat in the back of the classroom with a large yellow pad, and I wrote about 40 pages of a book I was working on. I never could have been so focused in a normal environment. Even now, I sometimes take a pad and pen to a café or library, put on some noise blocking headphones, and handwrite something I am working on. I usually leave my phone behind or at least I power it off.

Time-Structuring Deep Work

There are several different time-structuring strategies for doing deep work.

There is the Thoreau method, where you go to a cabin in the country (preferably with no Internet), and spend several weeks to work on a project. You work, take walks, work some more.

There is the Thoreau-lite method, where you block off a day or two per week and isolate yourself someplace relatively un-distracting and work on a project.

And finally, there is the daily approach, where you set yourself a daily period of doing deep work for an hour or two. Ideally, you would do this first thing in the morning, but some people have also been successful working late at night after their families are asleep.

Mastering Your Gadgets

Some other tips that may be helpful for avoiding distractions.

Turn off all notifications on your phone. All those beeps and vibrations from multiple apps are very distracting. I recommend you turn all of them off, even text messages. If you’re worried about missing important messages, tell people that if they want to reach you urgently they should call you. You can batch your text messages just like email. Look at it before lunch and before dinner and respond accordingly.

Uninstall all of the so-called endless page apps on your phone. This includes Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and all the other apps that require you to pull in order to refresh. You may also want to install reading apps such as Flipboard, Feedly, New York Times, etc.  On your computer, you may want to sign out of similar apps such as Twitter, Facebook, and even email. This requires you to sign in to use them which creates a small speedbump which makes you more mindful.

The key to engaging in deep work activities is spending less time doing shallow activities. We all have a finite amount of time in our days, weeks, months and years. The more time we spend shallow the less time we spend deep. Realize that the shallow is tempting, fun, and easy — but ultimately relatively unsatisfying. If you can learn to do several hours of deep work per day you will be better at whatever you do. And you’ll be better than most people who spend almost no time doing deep work.

Now that I’ve done some deep work in writing this article it’s time for a walk.

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