Deep Work – What it is and why it matters

books and coffee cup

It’s not news that we’ve become caught up with checking our phone, staying up to date with our friends’ lives on social media and getting bitesize information rapidly.

Sadly, this doesn’t help our concentration, and the pursuit of constant entertainment reduces our ability to cognitively perform. We need information now, and fast, and we get angry when a webpage takes more than 2 seconds to load.

Buffering giphy
This little thing can cause so much anger.

So, what is deep work?

Deep work is an activity where your mind focuses on a mentally challenging task without distraction. It allows you to grasp complicated information and produce better results more efficiently.

It’s practically a superpower in our digital ‘instant gratification’ world. Many people have lost the ability to do deep work, as they’re multitasking in the blur of our social media-driven digital world.

Cal Newport, the author of the most well-known book on the topic defines deep and shallow work as the following:

Deep work:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skills, and are hard to replicate.

Shallow work:

Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Why does deep work matter?

I was often getting distracted when social media really started taking off. It’s not to say that I’d lost the ability to do deep work, but I was definitely in a place I didn’t want to be.

Thankfully, I was able to recognize it, as I knew I’d done deep work before and I was aware of how I used to be able to focus. My ability to focus on one thing solely was deteriorating.

I saw the potential harm this multitasking may do to my ability to fully focus in the future. I understood the root cause – multitasking and social media – and consciously decreased my screen time, stopped switching between tasks, etc.

Reading can be deep work

I can’t really imagine what people would do who’ve never even learned to focus on one task for more than 30 minutes. They can’t fathom how it feels to focus solely on one task, and the feeling of gratification once it’s done. It’s a problem the younger generation (but not only them) certainly has to face at some point.

The statistics show that for many people social media and email consume half (!) the workday. Generation Y spends the most time on social media during work-time (1.8 hours). But they’re also not happy about it and wish they’d spend less time checking their inboxes etc.

How often do you interrupt your work to check your “inboxes”?

Pie chart of checking inbox. Constant inbox checking reduces the amount of deep work
Legend to read the infographic above.
Source: FastCompany


However, even something as simple as reading a book can be deep work. It definitely requires deep focus. I experienced this with one of my favorite books of all time – Jordan Peterson’s ‘12 Rules for Life’.

Every time I sat down to read it, I knew I had to focus hard to ‘get it’. The book is not the easiest read for a non-native reader, and therefore it required extreme focus. After reading for about five minutes, I recognized that I was in the deep work zone and it felt SO satisfying.

Deep work guarantees satisfaction, helps to differentiate the important from the non-important and raises productivity.

Deep work requires deep focus

In order to do deep work, you need to truly commit your entire focus to it. I’d suggest taking a minimum 3 hours a day where you completely ignore your phone (turning all sounds and notifications off helps, obviously). Just focus on a task you want to get done.

Something that’s helped me to increase my attention span, focus better and do deep work is not checking my phone first thing in the morning. I’m not sure why it helps, but my guess is that you give your brain time to wake up, before you start feeding it with loads of information.

I nostalgically remind myself of the good old days where I just woke up and had nothing else to do but brush my teeth, get dressed, eat and go to school. Something just feels so liberating about not getting the latest news pop-up on your phone constantly.

Man throwing out phone from car window
This would feel good.

Cal Newport writes in his book ‘Deep Work’ that we should try a challenge of consciously staying away from social media for 30 days. After 30 days, you should evaluate the following:

  1. Was it impossible for you to stay away or were you greatly inconvenienced?
  2. Did anyone care?

Besides these enlightening questions, he also lists a couple of things which help you get better at deep work. I’ve practiced all of them, and I can guarantee it increases your ability to focus, be efficient and experience cognitive challenges.

Distance yourself from social media

The first thing you can do is turn off all the notifications on your phone. This has been EXTREMELY helpful. No, my friends don’t need a response in 2 seconds. If it’s urgent or an emergency, they’ll call me.

I’d even advise you to delete all the social media accounts that don’t add to your quality of life. Of course, everyone defines ‘quality of life’ differently. However, I’m sure we’d all agree that having (deep) discussions with our friends face to face is a more rewarding and efficient way to speak than typing.

We have no wifi, talk to each other, pretend it's 1995 sign

I’ve turned off all the notifications on my phone, erased my Facebook news feed with this extension, and for quite a while I quit Instagram (I’m back now for blog marketing purposes and I already feel it disturbs me). It’s a good thing I’ve never really used Twitter and I’m not planning to start. I haven’t felt like I’m missing something.

New ‘screen time’ trackers on most smartphones provide a good reality check, allowing you to see how long you spend looking at your screen every day. When you add up just an hour of screen time every day, it becomes 365 hours a year, which is 15.2 days(!). That’s A LOT of wasted time.

Phone in a box which says "unplug"
Add this to your corridor. Source: Cadesandbirch

Set yourself a strict period of time when you work

If you set a rule that you won’t work during weekends, you’re more motivated to get everything done during workdays. It limits burnout and keeps you focused on your work.

It’s so easy to grab your laptop during the weekend and start answering emails to get a little bit of work done. I’m guilty of it too. You can still do deep work at the weekends, such as reading a book or focusing on other mentally challenging things, just not your work.

Set yourself a goal, like “I’ll finish this task in 90 minutes” or “I’ll spend 2 hours every morning on the most challenging task at work”. This forces you to work hard to achieve it and keeps distractions away. You can also hold monthly or weekly reviews of your tasks and see how much you were able to achieve.

Use driving, exercise, cleaning or other repetitive tasks to figure out huge concepts.

I usually listen to podcasts when I walk to work or back from work. It’s about a 20-30 minute walk, depending if the streets are like an ice rink or it’s summertime and they’re clean. The emphasis in the first sentence is on “usually”. Meaning there are many times where I decide to just walk with my thoughts.

Man falling on slippery ice
Actual footage of me walking to work with current weather

During this time (when I don’t fall), I think about complex things, how to solve a specific problem at work or what should be the focus of my next blog post. This allows me to create an order in my mind, which later allows me to be more efficient when executing the task. I’ve already thought about the key things without any distractions. Now I only need to execute them.

Limit your shallow work and notice it

Checking emails, taking a quiz on Buzzfeed, going over a report not related to your work – these are examples of shallow work.

Or as Cal Newport says:

“non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

Cal Newport

It might feel great to get these tasks done, but in the end, they add very little or nothing at all to your life. Essentially, you shuffled some papers instead of laying bricks to build a house.

Newport says that in order to differentiate between shallow and deep tasks, you can ask how hard (or easy) it would be to teach the same thing to a smart, recent college graduate. Even though your job might require you to perform shallow work, you should limit the amount.

Related articles:

Embracing boredom increases your ability for deep work

Out of boredom, new ideas are born. Look at children for example – when they’re bored, they invent all sorts of stuff. They start inventing new games, new ways to play ‘lava’ in the house, etc. At least, that’s what I did when I was bored as a kid.

I’ve noticed that when I’m bored, my mind starts to wander to all sorts of places it hasn’t been too often. I notice the surroundings better, and I’m more aware of myself and my thoughts.

When you finish a hard task at work, don’t grab your phone to “reward yourself”. Instead, take an actual break to relax. Look out of the window or go for a walk.

Dog watching outside the window and falling asleep

Checking the news, or social media is not relaxing. Your mind is bombarded with new information and it keeps your brain busy, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

I often take my dog to work with me, and we have a small break every lunch, where I just walk for about 10-20 minutes to take a full break from work. When I return, I’m fresh and ready to focus.

If you’re going for a meal during the weekend, just leave your phone at home. I’ve done it so many times and I always feel fresh after spending several hours without any digital distractions.

Conclusions

Deep work is the cornerstone of productivity. Shallow work makes us become digital creatures who are never satisfied with our performance but always up to date with non-important news. If you want to perform better at anything, make sure you focus on one thing for more than 3 hours at a time.

I highly recommend Cal Newport’s book on deep work. Even if you don’t struggle with setting your focus, it gives highly valuable productivity tips. 

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keyboard and earphones with how to do deep work sign

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