DEEP WORK: THE SECRET OF BUSIEST PEOPLE TO GET THE WORK DONE
Deep work sounds pretty simple in principle, but it takes quite a lot of discipline and thought to repeat continually.
Bouncing between your emails, pointless meetings, and group chat notifications are some activities that waste your time. But we know that you are busy people. Finding time for uninterrupted work may feel utterly unrealistic. But there are methods we can use to optimize what limited ‘deep work’ time we have.
Deep work sounds pretty simple in principle—get some quiet time and focus on a piece of work for a while. But it takes quite a lot of discipline and thought to repeat continually. There's a whole supportive framework behind deep work to ensure you get quality work out of it, whatever your role and responsibilities, whatever you're working on. This article breaks down the basics so that you can start your own very first deep work experiment.
Before you start deep work
Doing deep work is hard and takes some effort to get going, but it’s not meant to be a bore—it’s the intense kind of concentration you only get when you’re super into something. Think of your first encounter as a test of your attention, self-control, and exploratory abilities. You’ll probably learn something unexpected about yourself along the way.
If you’re trying it out in an office, find a quiet space: book a meeting room, block out time in your calendar, turn off your phone, put your headphones on, trigger your out-of-office message and let people know you’re not to be disturbed. Do everything to make sure you have your undivided attention.
But be realistic—while Cal Newport suggests deep work means roughly 90-minute stretches of uninterrupted time, you may not get there immediately. Please don’t put yourself off it forever by diving too deep, too fast.
Block out time
Schedule time on your calendar to work on something. If you’re engaging in a cognitively demanding task, Newport recommends no less than a 90-minute chunk. Once it’s in your calendar, treat that time as an important meeting or appointment. If someone asks to meet at noon and that’s in the middle of your deep-work time, schedule the meeting for another time.
“Be wary of the habit of never being bored,” said Newport. Many of us fall into the habit of whipping out our phones every time we feel a little bit bored. “Your brain loses its tolerance for boredom and lack of stimuli which means when it comes time to do deep work it’s going to have a hard time staying focused,” added Newport.
Improving your ability to focus means training your brain to be a little bored. Try it next time you’re standing in the line at a bank. Reduce the urge to whip out your phone and be ok with being a little bit bored.
Deciding things you want to achieve
Deep working isn’t just for Nobel-prize winners of people producing "profound" work. It’s accessible to anyone, no matter what small task you want to achieve. Understand what success means for you and set a challenging deadline to get there.
Ask what you want to achieve by the end of your deep work session and commit to it. Our brains love having a set goal they can focus all their resources on. The more challenging, the more rewarding – and you might identify where your workflow could be improved.
You can’t rely on the force of your willpower alone – it’s fleeting and mood-driven. So you have to create structured habits and rituals to sustain your deep thinking. Decide where you’ll work and for how long, gather everything you’ll need to do that work, remove distractions and catch yourself if you find your attention drifting.
Try deep working for similar blocks of time twice or three times a week. You might want to start with 1-2 hour segments a day and then gradually work your way up to longer, more frequent stretches.
All communication outside your deep working space can wait until you’re done. You need to be ruthless to make sure all your attention is focused on your set task.
Mute your office communication tools, log out of email, delete your social apps and turn off your phone if you can face it. Alternatively, get AI to auto-enable “Do Not Disturb” mode across your devices whenever you enter deep work.
Train yourself to acknowledge and resist your distractive tendencies. Setting up rules on where social media fits into your life is a big one here. You might want to try going without it for a week to see if you miss out on anything or if your absence was even noticed.
Know when deep work will end and stop
The motivation to do deep work only works if you have clearly defined parameters. You need to agree with yourself when to stop and honor that promise. Newport uses a spoken shutdown ritual to do this and chants a “closure phrase” to end each session. (You don’t need to do this).
Always ensure you end deep work in a comfortable place, so there’s no friction or confusion when you pick up a piece in your next stretch.
Take a deep break
Long stretches of intense concentration should be balanced with quality rest. So once you’ve completed a session of deep work, take a deep break.
These are designed to give you a mental breather without introducing new distractions or stresses, so you can also use deep breaks to create healthy pauses throughout a longer, in-depth work session.
There are many different ways to take a deep break, from going for a short walk and doing something practical to reading an article. The only rules are that the activity you choose should be self-contained, unrelated to your deep work task, and ideally take no longer than 15 minutes to complete.
Whatever you’re doing, be fully in the moment. Having a presence and giving your full attention is essential to focusing for long periods. It also just makes you a cooler human to be around!
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