You probably understand that deep, focused work is necessary to reach your creative and professional potential.
But actually doing that work is a different story!
Most of us are stressed out and overwhelmed. We feel stuck on an endless treadmill where there are always more things to do… and never quite enough time to do them.
It’s easy to confuse “busy” with “productive.” If we don’t watch ourselves, we end up filling our days with mindless reactive tasks instead of the mentally-demanding stuff it takes to truly get ahead.
Cal Newport, an author, MIT computer science professor and popular blogger, offers plenty of good reasons in his latest book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Insights from Newport’s book can help you radically transform the way you approach your work. You’ll quit working each night less exhausted and overwhelmed than before. And you’ll feel satisfied knowing you worked on the stuff that really counts.
Keep reading to see how!
Hard Work, Stress, and Endless Distractions
Most of us are swimming in an endless stream of emails, text messages, and social media notifications.
And for many of us, there are also business meetings to think about. Networking over coffee. Your coworker tapping you on the shoulder and asking if you saw last night’s game.
Sometimes it seems like focusing on what really matters – what it takes to find meaning and move your businesses forward – is next to impossible.
So we work hard. Too hard, sometimes. Opening up our calendars fills us with a sense of dread because we’re… Just. So. Busy.
Then we wonder why we always still feel behind. How come the long hours and frantic schedule aren’t enough to get the results we want in our businesses?
Being Able to Focus on Challenging Tasks Is Becoming Even More Valuable… and Rare
Why do we have such a hard time doing the crucial (but demanding) work it takes to thrive?
According to Newport, it comes down to a combination of things:
First, we invite technology into time that should have been dedicated to focused work, which destroys our focus. We also structure our days in such a way so the less important (and less demanding) tasks get done, but the important tasks don’t. Finally, we don’t train our minds to resist distractions or instant gratification, which limits our potential to excel.
This couldn’t come at a worse time.
In today’s knowledge economy, we’re paid not for manual labor but the expertise and results we generate from our minds. Just as it’s more valuable than ever to use these abilities to the fullest, we are unwittingly limiting them by the way we handle our work.
In Newport’s view, the ability to do “deep work” is becoming more valuable at the same time it’s becoming more rare. If you can do it consistently, it’s like a superpower which very few people have.
Fortunately, we can always improve. You can train your mind to do this deep work, leading to more (and higher quality) output. You can develop a huge edge over your competitors.
What Is “Deep Work?”
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Let’s start at the beginning:
What is “deep work,” anyway?
Here’s how Newport describes it:
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.
Separating Deep Work from Shallow Work
And here’s how Newport distinguishes deep work from the “shallow work” most of us spend too much time on:
Deep Work: Cognitively demanding tasks that require you to focus without distraction and apply hard to replicate skills.
Shallow Work: Logistical style tasks that do not require intense focus or the application of hard to replicate skills
Deep work might include things like brainstorming a new product, writing an email marketing sequence, or trying to identify your unique selling proposition.
Shallow work covers things like taxes, responding to emails, and other administrative tasks.
Why It Matters
The gist of Newport’s argument: most of us spend way too much time on shallow work and not enough on the deep work that truly matters.
That’s not to say you should ditch shallow work completely. Some things, like scheduling or collecting payments from clients, aren’t mentally demanding, so they fall into the shallow work category. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t essential.
The goal is to tip the balance of your working hours so you spend as many of them as possible engaged in deep work. You get the shallow work done when needed, but you don’t invite any unnecessary shallow work in.
You want to focus with great intensity on the demanding stuff, making it the centerpiece of your work instead of something you squeeze in around all the web surfing, texting, and email.
This obsession with focus and deep work is what helped Newport publish almost 50 peer-reviewed academic papers, five books, and build an extremely popular blog. Oh yeah… and the dude is only in his mid 30’s. And he never works after 5:30 pm and hardly ever works on weekends!
How to Do More Deep Work and Transform Your Business
Transforming your workflow to accommodate more deep work will help you learn challenging concepts quickly and produce a higher volume of top-quality output. And you can do this without working more hours overall.
Newport’s book lays out plenty of practical ways to focus on the tasks that really matter and minimizing all the rest.
Here are some of the most valuable concepts to get you started:
1. Doing the Work
Batch Challenging Tasks
Photo Credit: Scott Lewis
By consolidating [your] work into intense and uninterrupted pulses, [you’re] leveraging the following law of productivity: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus).
You know how a workday can feel like a marathon?
Newport argues that you’re probably better off treating it like a series of sprints – complete with time to rest in between.
If you know you’re only going to do one task for X minutes, without interruptions, it’s easier to focus and find a state of flow. Newport recommends at least 90-minute chunks, but that might be too overwhelming at first. You can build up the length of these time chunks as you practice “flexing your focus muscle” and improve your ability to concentrate.
Don’t even try to multitask with your deep work. Do one task for a set amount of time, and don’t stop until your time is up!
Eliminate All The Distractions You Can
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Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking.
Some distractions we can’t help. An upset client calls. You have to take your daughter to the doctor. And so on.
But how many other distractions are we inviting in?
Even with the best intentions, it’s hard to stay focused with the TV on or your Twitter feed pulled up. Most of these are habits so deeply ingrained we don’t even think about them… but they can totally derail our efforts to focus on what matters.
Some distractions are inevitable. No one’s perfect. But if you take an honest look at your work environment and plug all the cracks where attention might leak out, it’s amazing how much easier it is to focus.
Schedule Your Deep Work Time (and Protect It!)
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Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs; it’s instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time…
One of the most common mistakes is trying to squeeze in our deep work around our other obligations. We end up frustrated, and wondering how the day passed us by.
That’s why Newport urges you to proactively schedule your deep work time… and do everything in your power to protect it. Block off the time, and honor it like you would a doctor’s appointment. Treat yourself like your most important customer or client!
Newport also recommends setting aggressive deadlines. He says to shave off about 20% of the time you estimate a deep work task will take. This forces you to push yourself, remaining intensely focused, without being unrealistic.
Track How Much Time You Spend Doing Deep Work
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People play differently when they’re keeping score…
Scheduling your deep work time is great if you have the discipline and accountability to see it through.
But many us make big plans and struggle when it’s time to execute.
So Newport recommends not just scheduling your deep work time, but tracking how much time you actually spend doing it each day. This could be something as simple as a chart or Excel spreadsheet. It doesn’t really matter as long as you keep it somewhere where you’ll see it often.
Tracking your deep work time helps hold you accountable. It keeps you from lying to yourself. And it’s actually very motivating to start a streak and watch the hours pile up.
Consider Pulling the Plug on Social Media
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In aggregate, the rise of these tools, combined with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers.
This suggestion, to either seriously limit social media or eliminate it completely, is probably Newport’s most controversial advice in Deep Work.
You might not want to cut the cord with Facebook or Twitter, and that’s okay: this is ultimately a very personal decision. It depends on how you use the platforms and the benefits you get out of them.
Newport urges us to judge the objective benefits we get from social media accounts. If the pros outweigh the time investment, great. If they don’t, there’s no reason to stay on a platform just because millions of others are.
2. Training Your Mind to Focus
One of the coolest things about Newport’s book is his guidelines about how you can train yourself to focus more effectively – even when you aren’t working.
Here are a few ways how:
Photo Credit: Jae
To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.
What’s the first thing you do when you’re stuck in line at the grocery store and start feeling bored?
Maybe you whip out your phone or flip through one of the magazines by the checkout.
These things seem so small and unimportant we don’t even think about them. But do them enough times throughout the day, and you train your mind to seek instant gratification the moment your attention wanes. This can translate into a harder time focusing when it’s time for deep work.
Newport recommends a simple exercise to fight this. Just try to notice these little moments when you feel bored, and don’t give in to the temptation to stimulate your brain that instant. Get comfortable with boredom. The payoff? A better ability to focus.
Try Productive Meditation
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Productive meditation trains your brain to focus by thinking of a single problem you want to solve in your business, and doing your best to hold that problem in your mind. You simply bring your attention back to that problem whenever you notice your mind start to wander.
Newport recommends productive meditation whenever you’re doing something where you’re engaged physically but not mentally. This could be when you’re taking a shower, walking, jogging, and so on.
It doesn’t just improve your ability to concentrate. He also says these meditation sessions lead to some of his most creative ideas and insights.
A Recipe for Fulfillment and Top-Quality Work
Ranging across all kinds of creative and professional fields, the top performers seem like geniuses.
How do they produce so much great work? Especially when they seem less stressed out and overworked than the rest of us?
The answer is simple. They’ve found ways to focus intently on the work that matters – the deep work – and minimize all the other distractions.
Even if you feel hopelessly scattered right now, you can turn things around! You can train your mind to quickly learn challenging concepts and produce more (and better) work than ever before.