Are you flicking through your inbox during calls? Multiple pings on your instant message chat? Easily distracted? Well this post is for you.
In an increasingly distracting world, it can be hard to retain our attention on one single thing which is no way to get ahead in today’s information economy. We tend to pursue activities that are markers of busyness rather than productivity which will stop you from achieving your ambitious goals.
To be truly exceptional at the work you do, you will need to adopt a different strategy entirely.
Disclaimer: this does not apply to all roles especially CEOs.
Introducing ''Deep Work''
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. In contrast, shallow work tends to be non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted
The concept was coined by Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and a New York Times bestseller author, in his book, Deep Mind: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Newport argues that we should all strive to limit shallow work and train ourselves to maximise our potential by focusing on deep work. He believes the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming valuable in our economy. Those who practice deep work and embed it into their routine will thrive.
Why should you care about Deep Work?
1. Deep work is valuable
A distraction-free work session maximises the amount of productivity you can squeeze out of a certain amount of time. It can allow you to master a new skill faster and leverage your current skills to produce absolute best outputs you’re capable of.
2. Deep work is rare
Although deep work is important, with the rise of connectivity and social media, it has become increasingly uncommon as our attention is fragmented.
Newport claims ‘’we spend our day on autopilot not giving much thought to what we are doing with our time.’’ We prefer to indulge into shallow activities that save us from the short term discomfort of focusing and planning rather than deeper work.
Think of your open office plan at your workspace. It brings opportunities for collaboration but also lots of distractions. A phone going off in the background. Your colleague talking loudly next to you on a Zoom call.
Our attention is pulled left, right and centre which is why we often fall victim to behaviours that are easiest in the moment.
3. Deep work is meaningful
Practicing deep work reinforces meaning and depth in our daily routines and naturally eliminates shallow activities. It helps create a deeper satisfaction and value with our work as we step into a flow state.
My Corporate friends, you may be reading this thinking ‘’Cool, deep work sounds great in theory but it will be hard for me to implement in my fast-paced job where I have client demands.’’
It’s true we live in a culture of connectivity that expects us to read and respond to emails and comms quickly. A study by Harvard Business School found employees spend 20-25 hours monitoring their inbox outside the office.
Now you might argue that this behaviour is necessary for many fast-paced businesses.
However, BCG ran an experiment where each member on a client engagement would not answer emails at all one day per week with no connectivity to anyone inside or outside the firm. The firm did not lose any employees, clients or negative ramifications. In fact, client output and employee satisfaction and communication improved.
For this reason, Newport tells us to prioritise deep work > constant interruption.
How can you start practicing Deep Work?
1. Work deeply
The easiest way to start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit within our working life. Create a routine by defining the following beforehand:
Bulk and prioritise your tasks into ‘’deep work’’ and ‘’shallow work’’.
Identify the time and place in your calendar when you will conduct both deep and shallow work.
Limit the number of resources you will need to carry out the activity (E.g. Laptop, no email inbox and no phone)
Add time blocks for lunch or relaxation breaks. Not every block needs to be dedicated to a work task.
I tend to use 2-3 hours a day every morning, five days a week, for uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration to produce a lot of valuable output. Followed by a lunch break and 1 hour of shallow work.
2. Embrace boredom
We spend majority of our time surfing the internet which is an open can of worms for deep work flow interruption. We expect and request distraction. We urge to check our phones at any moment of “potential boredom”.
Studies show that we can deeply focus for 3 to 4 hours per day, so if you do your best during deep work, you are not missing out on not working deeply during the rest of the day.
To help protect your deep work time, learn to take breaks from focus rather than distraction by:
Schedule procrastination time in advance when you will want to grab your phone, scroll down your social media or use the internet freely, and then avoid it altogether outside these times. Yes you heard me, you are allowed to procrastinate!
By restricting our access to the Internet, we learn to resist those urges and over time, we will rewire our brain to focus during longer periods of time.
3. Quit social media
Social media fragments our time and ability to concentrate which makes it difficult to improve your ability to work deeply.
If social media supports your craft, then use it. Identify the main success factors for your professional and personal life and adopt a tool only if the positives outweigh the negatives.
Attempt to stay away from using social media for entertainment purposes. Put more thought into meaningful activities during your leisure time, i.e. if you find yourself scrolling down TikTok for the free comedy, why not book yourself to a comedy show instead?
If social media does not help you achieve your goals, then quit!
Start your deep work practice today! You can find further deep habit methods here.