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What is Deep Work?

When’s the last time you checked social media? Or were distracted by an incoming email alert? Or answered the siren call for your third frothy coffee of the day mid-task? It’s a wonder we ever get anything done!


But that’s life as we know it – teeming with distractions. You’re lucky if you get 20 minutes to think straight on that *very important project that must be completed today.*


Thankfully, author and professor of computer science Cal Newport has a solution: "deep work".


The concept is straightforward – working for a sustained period (typically around 90 minutes) without distraction, leading to a state of high productivity and, in theory, better results. Newport suggests genuine deep work can only be sustained for a maximum of four hours in a single day (even by expert practitioners); a feat that can be achieved by structuring your schedule around it.


So-called "shallow work", by contrast, is where many of us fall foul: casual workplace chatter, long-winded and unimportant email threads… even a preoccupation with the less important elements of a task can be considered shallow.


So far, so logical. But how is deep work achieved in reality?

An image of author Cal Newport alongside a copy of his bestselling book "Deep Work - Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World."


Rules rule!


Newport outlines four rules for deep work in his 2016 book of the same name:


1) Work deeply:

Deliberately sideline all distractions for a set period to allow you to focus relentlessly on a single task. This might involve working in a quiet room, putting your phone in flight mode, or investing in a "do not disturb" sign. Schedule your day into 30-minute blocks (determined at the start of each day) and set mini targets within them (i.e. write a minimum number of words every 30 minutes). Not desk-bound? Perhaps a gentle stroll will help those creative juices flow. As Nietzsche said: “Only ideas won by walking have any value.”


2) Embrace boredom:

You’ll know from my video on the effects of dopamine that we’ve become enslaved to chasing our next hit. But that needs to change if we’re to achieve states of deep work. Our brains need re-training if we are to reach – and sustain – long periods of deep engagement without immediate, tangible rewards. Newport states:


“If every moment of potential boredom in your life – say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives – is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where… it’s not ready for deep work.” 


Stretches of "boredom" in our daily lives allow our brains to process and further develop the thoughts pertinent to deep work. If every "bored" minute is sated with a quick check of Twitter (does anyone actually call it X?!), the sports results or celebrity gossip, the opportunity for our brains to cultivate insightful and original ideas may be lost.


“At this point, there should be only one possible way to get the deep task done in time: working with great intensity – no email breaks, no daydreaming, no Facebook browsing, no repeated trips to the coffee machine.”


I like to think of it as a challenge, and a form of meditation. How long can I sit in a quiet room without reaching for my phone / laptop / TV remote / magazine. Try it for ten minutes, and you’ll soon see why Newport’s book is so popular.


3) Quit social media:

I hear what you’re saying – “c’mon Mike, be reasonable – that seems a bit extreme”, but for many of us it’s exactly what is needed. The very deliberate obsessive, compulsive nature of social media sites means they are a particularly pernicious form of distraction. They demand your active participation for as long as possible. While it might seem harmless to keep social media and email tabs open in your web browser, the pop-ups on your screen are enough to derail your focus.


Now, I’ll admit I have no plans to quit social media altogether, but there are simple steps to minimise temptation: activating app limits on your iPhone or imposing “downtime” for a set period every day. Many reformed smartphone addicts swear by the grayscale hack, whereby you switch your screen display to fifty shades of grey to curb your compulsions. Give it a go. The results might surprise you.

A cartoon image containing tips on how to reduce screen time. One says "Delete apps", another says "Turn off notifications".

4) Drain the shallows:

AKA stripping away everything from a typical working week which is not deep work (unnecessary meetings, lengthy email chains, office politics – even the much-loved watercooler chat about the latest series of The Bear). Newport writes:


“Many knowledge workers spend most of their working day interacting with [...] shallow concerns. Even when they’re required to complete something more involved, the habit of frequently checking inboxes ensures that these issues remain at the forefront of their attention [...] A workday driven by the shallow, from a neurological perspective, is likely to be a draining and upsetting day, even if most of the shallow things that capture your attention seem harmless or fun.”


Newport cites the example of Jason Fried and his company 37signals, whose pioneering attitude towards worker productivity lends credence to much of the thesis of Deep Work. Fried is an exponent of the four-day work week, feeling that there’s less work to be done if "work" is engaged with on fewer days: “When you have fewer hours you usually spend them more wisely.”


That makes a lot of sense. Urgency is a tool that – when wielded carefully – can bring about incredible results. Picture the last time you had a hard deadline. Perhaps you were delivering a project for the Big Boss, and your whole team was counting on you. I’d bet good money that you surprised yourself with your output. Now imagine that’s just a regular Thursday afternoon before you clock off for the week. I expect you’d go into the weekend feeling pretty good about yourself, and all thanks to engaging in deep work – whether your brain knew it or not! 

Give me a break!


One example of deep work cited by Newport centres on a young Bill Gates and the frantic two-month period in which he wrote a BASIC programming language to get his first software project up and running. 


Gates was said to have worked with such intensity that “he would often collapse into sleep on his keyboard in the middle of writing a line of code. He would then sleep for an hour or two, wake up, and pick up right where he left off”. Gates’ friend and colleague Paul Allen (not to be confused with Patrick Bateman’s archnemesis) referred to this as “a prodigious feat of concentration”.


While many of us may be inspired by Gates (in my early 20s I went through a phase of coding 24 hours a day while experimenting with polyphasic sleep), working with such intensity isn’t conducive to a healthy lifestyle.


Structured – and regular – breaks are essential. But here’s the trick…


“Don’t take breaks from distraction. Instead take breaks from focus.”


If your work dictates you spend ten minutes of every hour answering queries from colleagues on Slack, then schedule that time in blocks. I’d go so far as to schedule my lunch break. I know from personal experience that once I’m in "the zone", hours can pass me by without realising. I fall too deep into deep work, if you will. The important takeaway here is to stop giving yourself permission to aimlessly flit between "deep" and "shallow" work. If you engage in shallow work – or eat a sandwich – do so deliberately.


Deep work will feel uncomfortable. Your cognitive functions will be challenged. You’ll reach the limits of your understanding and abilities. Perhaps you’ll feel you’re missing out on the office banter.


Newport also advocates for rules and behaviour around email etiquette that might make the "people pleasers" among us feel uneasy. Embracing deep work means not replying to all your emails, only those that are strategically relevant… and becoming comfortable with that.


A cartoon of an individual sat at a desk, distracted by their phone rather than working on their computer.

So, is it worth it?


Yes, if you value producing more work of higher quality. Also worthy of note is the positive impact employing periods of deep focus can have on your work / life balance. Newport finishes work at 5.30pm every day, and advocates for no evening work – no emails, no planning… nada. The result? In 2014, Newport “became a deep work machine”, writing a seventy-thousand-word book manuscript as well as publishing nine peer-reviewed papers.


But not all roles allow for such a finite end to the working day. I’m on call more often than I’m not and need to be available to tackle any out-of-hours emergencies. But the key word here is "emergency." Does the work I routinely do after-hours meet this criterion? Perhaps not… 


Newport writes:


“If you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to e-mail, or put aside a few hours after dinner to catch up on an approaching deadline, you’re robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration. Even if these work dashes consume only a small amount of time, they prevent you from reaching the levels of deeper relaxation in which attention restoration can occur. Only the confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day to follow.


“Put another way, trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had instead respected a shutdown.”


So, adopting a shutdown ritual is a must: one last check of emails, reviewing your to-do list, and making a new one for tomorrow. At the very least it encourages your brain to switch from "work mode" to "downtime mode", even if circumstances dictate a reboot to work mode a few hours later.


On that note, I’m well overdue some downtime. Why not join me? Put down whatever device you’re reading this on, go forth and embrace the boredom!


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