I remember when no one would dare allow a cell phone to be seen—or heard—in most work or office settings.
Today, it’s almost a given that people have their cell phones within arm’s reach on their desks, buzzing (or worse, beeping) periodically throughout the day. Meanwhile, our laptop screens are bombarded by Outlook alerts for incoming emails. With every notification comes the expectation that we’ll respond, and quickly.
While responding to these notifications often feels like productive work, we all know they sometimes (okay, maybe often!) get in the way of productivity.
So, how do we dodge the constant flurry of distractions that invades our workdays? Is it even possible to complete a project start-to-finish and give it our full attention?
Author and computer science professor Cal Newport offers a philosophy that can transform the way we approach our work. In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he argues that interruptions are actually inhibiting us from reaching our highest potential and engaging in “deep work.”
What is deep work, anyway?
Deep work, according to Newport, is defined as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” Further, he writes, “These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
By contrast, shallow work is not cognitively demanding and is easily replicated. In his book, Newport cites a 2012 McKinsey & Company study that found that the average knowledge worker spends more than 60 percent of the week communicating electronically and searching on the Internet, and almost 30 percent of that time is reading and answering email. Newport argues that our work culture has pivoted toward this shallow work instead of the uninterrupted, deep thinking that drives significant contributions to society.
Why does deep work matter?
Deep work enhances our ability to master difficult tasks and produce at a high level, both in quality and speed, Newport writes. He explains that deliberate concentration is the only way to learn and cement a new, complex skill in the brain.
Furthermore, switching between tasks isn’t as seamless as we tend to think. When we switch from Task A to Task B, a residue of attention remains on Task A, inhibiting our ability to focus exclusively on Task B. Therefore, switching between tasks actually impedes cognitive function.
And the benefits of deep work go beyond our professional contributions. By completing more meaningful tasks at work, the dread of a daily grind is replaced by a renewed sense of purpose. Deep work “maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life,” Newport writes.
To work at our best and to thrive professionally and personally, we need to work for extended blocks of time without distraction.
How can we incorporate deep work into our daily routines?
It was easy to do deep work when I worked at a daily newspaper, an organization which depended on the valuable and creative high-level work of multiple people. Much of my day was devoted to writing articles after planning, researching, and interviewing. My deadlines were inflexible and meeting them was not optional. Every day, our crew of reporters, photographers, graphic designers, and editors contributed their work, and every day, we filled the newspaper—365 days a year.
Since my time in a newsroom, I’ve tried to incorporate that mentality and level of production in other work environments. I’ve found that the key is cultivating practices that align with Newport’s principles while pulling up the weeds of ineffective work habits.
Here are some strategies for adding deep work into your day.
01. Use a timer.
Block chunks of time to immerse yourself in deep work. The Pomodoro Technique advocates twenty-five-minute slots interspersed by short breaks, but twenty-five minutes may be too short to facilitate the sustained concentration on a project that deep work entails.
Newport recommends a break after a full hour of undivided attention to a task. But he warns against turning your attention to another task, such as reviewing emails, during that time off. So set a timer for an hour of deep work. Then take ten or fifteen minutes to go on a short walk or have a snack.
02. Plan, plan, plan.
Advance planning and organization are essential to succeeding at deep work. Time won’t magically appear; you have to carve it into your schedule. Consider the meetings on your calendar. Shouldn’t making headway on your projects matter just as much as your meetings?
Mark off blocks in your shared digital calendar or your paper planner. Mark yourself as busy in any instant messaging software your team uses. Close the door or put on your headphones. Outside of urgent requests or messages from your boss, stay focused. Protect the boundaries you’ve built.
03. Limit or eliminate notifications.
Newport warns that making a habit of working amid distractions is “potentially devastating to your performance,” and constant attention to emails, instant messaging, and meetings is “depth-destroying.” In other words, these tasks are the antithesis of engaging in deep work.
Keep your phone on silent or store it away. Check your settings on your email client, and disable desktop notifications for emails; instead, check email at specific times during the day. Just one notification can severely interrupt a solid workflow.
04. Commit one hour.
There’s an initiative you’re excited to research, analyze, or implement. You’ve just received a book about a niche topic in your field you can’t wait to read. There’s a backlog of online training courses you want to take that would directly benefit your daily work and enhance your professional development and growth. But months go by with everything untouched—and if you don’t make a change, the time will continue to pass.
Commit to one hour a day or a few hours a week to that item that’s been eternally put on the back-burner. Leverage the resource of time that you have, and dive in, distraction-free. If you can’t schedule an hour ahead of time, be conscious to take advantage of opportunities for deep work as they come.
05. Collaborate with your team.
As you transform your approach to work, be transparent with your team and your supervisor. Explain the value of deep work, and bring them into the process when appropriate. “You can push each other toward deeper levels of depth, and therefore toward the generation of more and more valuable output as compared to working alone,” Newport writes.
If your boss is hesitant about your scheduling long periods of deep work into your calendar, ask if you can try out the new approach for a month. Over time, your heightened levels of productivity and improved quality of work are likely to impress.
Deep work is powerful, but it demands a change in habits and a transformation of thought. As a half-marathoner, I’ve experienced how everything during a long-distance race can hamper your willpower and concentration, including hunger, mental and physical exhaustion, and the distraction of other people on the course. To succeed, it’s imperative to focus on the finish line.
Similarly, harnessing the power of deep work depends on our acknowledgement that uninterrupted time is inextricably linked to our capacity for professional growth and personal fulfillment.
Above all, the commitment to deep work, writes Newport, is “a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.”