What is deep work? A guide to working less and producing more.
Do you have a favorite author who has published numerous books? Ever wonder how they do it? John Grisham is such an author and I have read many of his books.
As a writer, he impresses me, not only because he has published more than 40 books in 30 years but by the immense quality of every work. Each one was thoroughly researched, beautifully plotted out and consistently captivating.
I recently learned how he accomplishes this, even though at the start of his writing career he was actually practicing law. He made scheduling time to write a non-negotiable by waking up at 5 a.m. to write every single day. The goal was to write one page.
Why do you think this worked for him? Which strategies did he apply and could those be adapted to help others achieve similar things? Well, in this tutorial on how to deep work, I will let you in on the success secret of John Grisham and countless other high achievers.
When you have read this tutorial, you will understand the principles of deep work and have an idea of how to apply the strategies in your job, studies, or projects. Work less, get more done. You will be surprised by how much you can achieve following a deep work workflow.
What is Deep Work? – An Overview
John Grisham’s daily 5:00 AM ritual is a “thing”. It's a concept he probably called discipline, and it was key to his success and can be yours too. It’s called DEEP WORK. To athletes, it’s being “in the zone”. It’s how Bill Gates coded his groundbreaking software, how Serena Williams dominates in tennis, and it's going to be your key to crushing it in your life’s work.
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. – Cal Newport, Author of Deep Work
Deep Work – 6 Basic Principles
Be a something – Consider the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none”. You can be good at many things, but to be excellent at anything requires protective focus. The more you focus on one thing, the less time you have for other pursuits. You become awesome at that thing. Perhaps you are mediocre at others, but you’re ok with that. That is mastery.
Time is valuable – When wasted, it cannot be recovered. When spent wisely, the exchange produces value. Hence, use, structure and manage your time precisely.
Deep work strategy – Whether you have time to spend or waste or not, we all have different schedules and routines. Find the best deep work philosophy that suits your lifestyle.
Deep work routine – Knowing how to deep work also involves decisions about location, duration, special requirements and measuring key parameters to evaluate your work.
Distractions steal value – They steal time. They steal attention. They steal energy. They steal momentum. They steal productivity. They are thieves that come to steal, and they never leave any valuable in exchange.
Multi-tasking is a myth – The human brain can only truly focus on one thing at a time.
Let’s look at each of these in some more depth. Learn how to best free up and manage time, reduce distractions, focus on one task and become good at something.
Deep Work – 6 Techniques
1. Be a Something
What are you? As opposed to the philosophical question of WHO you are, this is simply a question of what cognitively demanding tasks to focus your time and energy on.
What should the world know you for? Consider the people we looked at earlier on. Each of them is a SOMETHING:
1. John Grisham is an AUTHOR. He might be a good cook, play a decent golf game, and know how to sketch enough to play quarantine games, but he is not a CHEF, a PRO GOLFER, or a SKETCH ARTIST. He is an AUTHOR. Indeed, he was once a LAWYER, and so he is a master at writing legal dramas. That’s what the world knows him for.
2. Serena Williams is a PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYER. She may also know how to sew, have a good singing voice and a green thumb. But she is not a DESIGNER, a SINGER, or a FARMER. The world knows her for TENNIS.
3. (Your Name Here) is a/an ____________.
“You don’t get in life what you want; you get in life what you are.” – Les Brown
It’s not inferior to be “good” at more than one thing. You just can’t master more than one thing at a time, because you would have to divide your focus, and mastery requires protective focus. Indeed, you can and should equip yourself with supportive skills.
John Grisham may good speaking skills to help promote his books, Serena Williams might build teaching skills to share her gift in schools with children – but those skills should be food for your “SOMETHING”.
If you’re unsure about your SOMETHING, then set aside time to discover this. Figuring this out and committing your mind and heart to it will give you a great deal of clarity about what value you can offer the world. Your SOMETHING should not be what others want you to be. It should come from inside you.
Ask yourself: If I didn’t have to think about money, what would I gladly wake up every morning and do all day to serve mankind?
2. Deep Work and the value of time
Time is the most valuable thing on earth. Have you sought an appointment with a high achiever? You may have encountered such things as speaking to an assistant, getting an appointment that does not take your schedule into account, and a confirmation request.
Take note. Deep work allows you to produce better results in less time. Be protective over the quality of your time. Here are some ways successful people protect their time:
- Scheduling. They budget their time carefully.
- Outsourcing. They pay others to handle shallow tasks and chores.
- Alarms. They use clocks, devices or even employees to keep them on schedule.
- Hacks. They minimize the time they spend on shallow tasks.
3. Deep Work scheduling – 4 work philosophies
Above we have seen that scheduling and outsourcing tasks and the need to protect our available time are an important part of working productively. The next step is to bring all those individual factors together to compose one powerful strategy to implement deep work into our work lives.
We already mentioined Cal Newport and his book Deep Work a few times, which is packed with effective strategies to work with intense focus. From that book, I like to introduce four possible work schedules here, with one hopefully suitable for you.
The goal is to implement deep work into your life no matter how much or little time you have. No excuses. The rhythmic philosophy is probably the schedule many of us could implement easily. However, let's stay in order. Afterward, think about all deep work philosophies and choose one that suits you.
1. Monastic Philosophy – If you have one goal, one single determination and you know that only spending your whole heart, time, and resources on it will help you succeed, then the monastic philosophy is the best and also most sophisticated deep work schedule.
Basically, you will determine almost all of your work time to that single task with utmost focus and concentration. The chances you will succeed are high, the likeliness you get distracted low.
However, following such a schedule will likely have an impact on your social life or other parts of your work environment as the most standard answer to upcoming requests will be a simple and dry “No”. There is simply no time available.
It is a very powerful tactic if you can afford it and most people won't be able to do so. However, it is good to know the extreme here as we can better understand the remaining strategies and their impacts.
2. Bimodal Philosophy – Depending on where you live, the cycle and type of weather seasons can vary. The bimodal workflow suits people who want to split and organize their year into seasons, in which projects and activities have their set time and focus.
Winter or rainy seasons might be suitable to allocate deep work for time and resources intense projects, whereas summer or dry seasons allow for relaxation, travelling or other hobbies and less focus-intense activities. Work hard in winter, relax in summer.
In order to successfully implement this deep work strategy, you should be able to organize your year ahead, schedule time and then stick to it. The goal is to reserve large chunks of deep work units. This is a good alternative if you cannot implement the monastic philosophy but still want long and uninterrupted blocks to do your work.
3. Rhythmic Philosophy – If you have children, hobbies or a location-dependent job you may certainly find the above tactics interesting but cannot see a chance to implement them. It might be that you just love your days the way they are, but you want to free decent time to spend on important projects, dreams, goals or work activities.
The rhythmic schedule probably is the one that will suit most of us. We all love our routines and habits, and we often think there is no time for anything else. This philosophy aims to help free time and schedule it for a chosen task of high focus, on a rhythmic basis.
Make a list of all regular activities during an average day. Yes, TV, Netflix, reading news or checking emails and social media, etc. should go on that too. Identify the biggest time wasters. See if you can regulate them. Then schedule blocks of frequent deep work for each day e.g. 7-8am or 8-9pm. The goal is to create a rhythm or a habit that favors deep work. The rest of the day or your work time can be shallow tasks of your choice.
4. Journalistic Philosophy – Do the things mentioned above sound familiar to you? However, you have to travel a lot for work or other reasons? And, there is no such thing as a routine? Well, the journalistic approach is the flexi plan of deep work scheduling.
In general, you try to schedule deep work whenever and wherever you can be it in the early morning hours, late at night or even between meals, meetings and activities. If there is a chance to get things done and fully concentrate on one task without interruption or distraction, you will reserve the time for it.
As you can tell this is a tactic that requires a lot of discipline and determination. You can't afford rainy days and procrastinate tasks as you please. However, it is a chance for those who need every minute and look for a strategy that works. If possible, I recommend applying one of the other methods first before committing to this one.
4. How to build your Deep Work routine
Knowing how to implement deep work is one essential part, creating the best available environment for distraction-free work the other. You may consider the following options.
Location – Ideally you have a place to work without interruption and distraction. If your workplace is too noisy in the sense of distraction, make sure you reduce it to a minimum. Choose a room or location that offers quietness and good light conditions. Use technology such as noise-canceling (headphones, walls) to reduce or get rid of sources of noise.
Duration – Thinking of deep work as a form of sport is a good way to understand the efforts involved. It requires a lot of physical and mental resources. Take running as an example. You need to train for weeks to be able to run a marathon but eventually, you will reach your goal. Similar principles apply to deep work. Schedule a specific duration for any block of intense focus and expand it as you grow stronger. Start with 15-30 minutes and gradually expand to 3-4 hours. Don't forget to recover.
Structure – Let's get serious. What is allowed during deep work? If you take it the strict way you may agree with me that everything not related to help reach your session goal should be restricted or banned for that time.
However, the theory is only as good as you can actually apply it to your life. Make it doable and decide beforehand if you can take snacks, have to turn off all media devices or which rules apply to internet usage.
The most important aspect though is to agree on how you will measure your output or success. It is recommended to use quantitive indicators, e.g. words written, pages read or paragraphs edited to name a few examples from the perspective of publishing. Each industry, job or task will have its specific KPIs (key performance indicators). Know and use them to measure your success rate.
Requirements – Be gentle to yourself. Distraction-free work does not mean the absence of pleasure. You will still have needs and preferences. Fulfill them and get everything prepared ahead. This can be your favorite snack, drink, music or a specific ambiance. Ensure you feel comfortable and all essential requirements are prepared. You are now ready to start. But, hang on, there is something to important be talked about those sneaky, tempting or innocent-looking distractions.
5. Distractions steal value – Limit them.
How much time do you spend daily on social media? (You knew that was coming!) Put your perception of the QUALITY of that time aside and consider the QUANTITY exclusively.
The general consensus is that the average person spends just under 2 ½ hours on social media each day.
The issue – The sum of the time you spend is not the problem, rather, it is minutes of time spread out over a day that make the difference in the quality of your work sessions. Going deep and staying there long enough to produce value demands sustained attention.
The reality – Consider a one-hour work session. You hear a notification. Someone mentioned you in a comment. You quickly check. Meanwhile, other notifications come. You might scroll through a few more posts and answer notifications. The “just checking” moment has now become 7-10 minutes. The distraction, plus the 15 minutes to recover from it means 22-25 minutes, or 30-40% of that session spent outside of optimal focus and production. That’s tax – the government takes 30-40% of your pay of the top!
Your caring phone – In his TEDTalk, Cal Newport likened the phone to a slot machine. Think: colors, lights, bells and whistles. You decide the volume of your distractions based on your activity. Are you thirst trapping? That means 1000’s of notifications daily. Just a family-and-friends habit? That can still mean a few hundred pings. Add in texting apps, and your phone never SHUTS UP!
Ok, but what to do now?
These are some ideas I grabbed from an article entitled “Our Minds can be Hijacked: Tech Insiders Who Fear Smartphone Dystopia“, and my own habits:
1. Keep your phone on silent habitually, and turn off all notification lights. This is how you deprogram yourself. The likes and notification are the “feedback loop” that is designed to create addiction. Check when you choose, not when the phone demands.
2. Shut off notifications. Sometimes I use my phone in my work, however, I turn any messages and notifications off. No exceptions. This is how I protect my time and focus.
3. Do not disturb. Simply use this setting on your phone or for app settings and you will have a lot more time and motivation to focus deeply on a task.
4. Power down at the same time every night, at least one hour before you go to bed. Even with DND, my morning alarm rings, but the phone stays in another room. I use my last waking hour for reading print literature, writing or planning on paper with pen or pencil (remember those?), thinking or praying. Blue light exposure (as from device screens) is said to negatively impact sleep.
And, what about family, friends and partners?
What is the best way to manage the sweet distractions of loved ones? Well, the best practice is isolation (room, flat, relocation) which would allow you to work fully undisturbed.
A library is a great place (under normal circumstances). Barring that, you can designate space at home. Just say you need to “go deep” and would be grateful if they would hold questions, hugs, kisses, requests, etc. until you come out again.
Communicate and tell them how long and keep your word. Children and adults alike find this simple to honor, especially if you tend to their needs beforehand so they don’t feel neglected. This also eases your mind so you can focus.
Grand measures. If you have more work to do and you need a separate place to maintain deep work principles, you may consider going on a one-week work vacation. Some people (e..g. J. K. Rowling) even rent an apartment or a hotel to finish important bits of a project.
Practical tip: Use headphones! If you use music, play instrumentals. Lyrics can distract by evoking unrelated thoughts and memories. The better the headphones can cancel out noise, the better they will help you stay deep until you’re done.
6. Deep work – Multi-tasking is a myth
As a parent, I am often credited for my ability to multi-task. I once believed that multitasking was a virtuous display of one’s value to be as useful as possible by maximizing time and energy. However, as we have learned deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. One task.
Is multi-tasking a habit for you? Multi-tasking became my habit because my perception of value was quantity over quality, which in retrospect is preposterous! Think about an item from a 99 cent store. Were you looking for high value when you spent one dollar?
3 Ways we commonly “multi-task”:
1. We often perform one main task while half-performing others that don’t need full attention, thought, or energy. Sure, we want to save time.
Example: Cooking and laundry. The cooking is the main task, while the machine is washing the clothes. Nevertheless, clothes will sometimes sit waiting for the next step because you cannot get away from the kitchen when the machine stops. You shift focus to the clothes, but you had better turn off the stove! In essence, you are not truly multi-tasking, because you must focus on one or the other in a given moment.
2. We are used to performing two or more shallow tasks simultaneously. They knowingly don’t get our full attention, but at least they are still getting done.
Example: Texting and playing an RPG. You respond to the texts when messages come through the dropdown and get back to the game. Things get intense in the game and you have to move right now. More messages, your attention shifts, the enemy opens fire, you’re not ready! Another multi-tasking fail.
3. We do one task with your hands and another that just involves your eyes and ears.
Example: Watching a lecture and cleaning up. You think to yourself: I am a multi-tasking genius! I got this room cleaned, and I got the lecture done also. Score! Pump the breaks, though, Rudy. The room might be clean, but how much of the lecture do actually remember? What about the part you missed when you were uber focused on getting caked up dust out of that corner behind your bed?
Without having taken any notes or truly focused on it, how much did you really retain from the lecture? If you were cleaning, you were not seeing notes, charts, diagrams or other visual aids your lecturer put onscreen for you.
Reminder – One principle at the heart of deep work is to focus on one thing. The only true multitasking there is involves totally mechanical, involuntary “tasks”. What?
Well, can you breathe and brush your teeth at the same time? You rock!
Take away – Today, take note of the way you prioritize and execute tasks. If you discover that you have a multi-tasking habit, then tomorrow, resolve to isolate and focus on each task. Witness the difference in quality you get!
Deep Work – Summary and Conclusion
What is Deep Work? Deep work values quality over quantity. The quality of your one SOMETHING wins over the number of skills you are good at. The quality of your time expenditures over the number of things you can cram into an hour or the number of hours you spend on something.
According to this concept, supported by much real-world evidence in the lives of thousands of successful individuals, this is the key to mastery and producing value that can’t be duplicated. Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day. The difference between shallow and deep work can mean the difference between mediocre and epic.
Learn about deep work – Resources
I have not invented the concept of deep work, but I have read many articles and, of course, the book by Cal Newport. I encourage you to do the same and search for other articles that cover the topic. below is a list of media that helped me get involved.
Websites & Blogs
- Cal Newport – Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016)
- Cal Newport Blog – Study Hacks
- Ambition & Balance by Doist – Complete Guide to Deep Work
- Arindam Basu – Notes from reading Deep Work
- Ivan Kreimer – How to Use Deep Work to Ignite Your Productivity
Deep Work Book Summaries
Employ deep work – One more thing
Always try to create or access an optimal environment for your work. In the book A Beautiful Mind, the story of American mathematician John Nash Jr., we read about Nash’s experience at Princeton University and the Fine Hall building in the late 1940’s. He described it as “the most luxurious building ever devoted to mathematics”.
It was designed in every detail so the mathematicians would not want to ever leave. Additionally, the department head hand-picked every professor and student and carefully cultivated a relationship with the physics department. When Nash arrived, it was the ideal environment to achieve mathematics mastery. He was surrounded not only by amenities and resources but also by like-minded individuals and potential mentors 24/7.
To conclude this tutorial, find or create such an environment, apply many of the deep work techniques you learned here consistently, and soon, you will begin to produce huge value in a short period of time and reap great benefits.
The world will compensate you in exchange for the value you deliver to it.
Get involved – Have you tried to apply the techniques of deep work at your job, at university or at your own projects? What is deep work for you? Let us know in the comments below.