This concept comes from Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport, in his book “Deep Work.” There are wide applications to the ideas he presents, including their usefulness in the workplace. Deep work is “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. High quality work produced = time spent x intensity of focus.” He draws a distinction between this and something he calls shallow work, defined as, “Not 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.”
Shallow work is unavoidable. Sending emails, checking smartphones, or even responding to coworkers’ questions in-person are all forms of shallow work. Deep work is a cognitive state that is difficult to enter without deliberate effort. In the workplace, employees should have opportunities to perform more undistracted deep work and less shallow work. Unfortunately, many office environments have become too disjointed, and finding the time to focus is becoming increasingly difficult.
He posits that performing deep work is becoming increasingly rare globally and will be considered a precious talent in the future. In essence, deep work allows the mastery of highly complex tasks with the ability to produce at an elite level. Below are ways to implement deep work in the workplace effectively.
Make it a Habit
Newport emphasizes that individuals must be ruthless about scheduling deep work sessions. You have to move past good intentions and take action. Regular deep work scheduling allows the individual to enter a deep work state more quickly in the future, requiring less willpower to maintain a state of unbroken concentration.
Identify the where, the length, the rules, and the support of your deep work sessions.
- The Where: Identify areas where you can work completely undistracted. If your desk is prone to constant comments from coworkers, this may be a better spot for shallow work. Office environments that provide quiet areas can be an excellent resource for employees that want to focus deeply.
- The Length: Try to never begin a deep work session without an end time in mind. As part of the scheduling process, identify a specific end time without keeping it open-ended.
- The Rules: Make it a ritual with rules that you follow in each session. Do you need the internet to do your work? Or can you turn it off? A good rule for almost everyone is to silence unimportant notifications on your phone. Also, find ways to measure your productivity through each session. How many pages did you write? How many reports did you make it through?
- The Support: Support your effort to work deeply by preparing for the session. Maybe you need a cup of coffee to start each session. Ensure you aren’t going to be disrupted by hunger and ensure you have access to the right food to maintain energy. Proper deep work sessions can require a lot of energy, and you will need adequate rest.
Execute Like a Business
It is not difficult to create a strategy. The difficulty comes in the execution. Make sure that each session has a small number of important goals to accomplish. Newport references “The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals,” by Chris McChesney, Jim Huling, and Sean Covey, a book which tells us to focus on the lead measures instead of the lag measures. The lag measures are the overarching goals we want to achieve, be it weight loss, revenue, etc. The lead measures predict the likelihood of completing the lag measure. Lead measures are the activities that support the lag measure, such as diet and exercise or making sales presentations.
It is crucial to record the hours of deep work you are completing each day and identify the days that produce tangible results and solve a problem. This helps create a cadence of accountability around your goal. Create a weekly review of what you accomplished and make plans for the work week ahead.
We now live in a world of distractions. Distractions cause us to lose focus on our tasks whether we like it or not, and refocusing the brain back into deep thought can be time-consuming. This becomes especially true when we encounter multiple distractions in a short period. This is also true of task switching. Stay focused on as narrow of a task as possible at a time.
Companies need to consider the advantages of allowing employees to work remotely into the future, as in some cases, remote work can provide fewer distractions than a workplace. This is not true of all workplaces, nor is it true of all homes, but understanding the individual circumstances can make for more informed decisions.
It is hard to view the brain needing rest the same way our muscles would, but without quality rest and downtime, our minds never have the time to recharge. Studies have found that we can be fully focused for around 4 hours a day, depending on the individual. After that, our ability to concentrate decreases. Make it a habit to shut down all consideration of work issues until the following day. Do not check your email while eating, do not strategize about the upcoming week, and do not recount the previous day after you have decided to shut down for the day.
For our workaholic culture, this can seem like a lazy, unrealistic way to live, but we have to remember that deep work allows us to be incredibly efficient with our time. By practicing deep work principles correctly, you will be able to accomplish significantly more in a day than you would have before, letting distractions occupy your time and checking emails scattered throughout the day.
We should be equally as ruthless protecting our downtime as we are in scheduling our deep work. Rest is the fuel that allows you to go deep. It will enable you to foster new insights and creative ideas and recharge for the following day. Evening work is almost always not important and instead is low-value, shallow work. Quality downtime does not involve a Netflix binge session either. Allow your mind to have a digital detox regularly.
These downtime practices come with their exceptions. Depending on your work, it could be imperative to be responsive to a client late into the evening. If this is a regular occurrence in your life, make sure that you have adequate downtime scheduled in other areas of your day, and stay away from screens for a sufficient amount of time before falling asleep.
Show your employees the value of deep work. The ability to work deeply is a tool for any professional. Becoming extremely efficient with work time removes tasks quickly, destresses individuals, and allows for more time to think creatively.