Do you ever feel like you were busy all day but hardly got anything done? Like the hours slipped away because of emails, meetings, and random tasks? This kind of busyness is often mistaken for productivity, but is more accurately defined as shallow work. To avoid this trap (that alllll of us fall into), it’s important to cultivate an intentional work strategy focused on creating real value in an increasingly distracted world. Not to mention a sense of fulfillment and meaning in your professional life! Enter: The Guide to Deep Work.
“Your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to.”
Deep Work is a concept and book by Cal Newport (this is the third book of his I’ve read in the last couple of months— I can’t get enough of his insight!) Let’s compare Newport’s definitions of shallow work vs. deep work:
Shallow Work: non-cognitive, logistical or minor duties performed in a state of distraction
These tasks require minimal cognitive effort— things like email, social media use, meetings, web browsing, etc.
Deep Work: the act of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task
This kind of work enables you to learn new, complex skills and produce truly valuable work at a faster rate. Deep work also creates a deeper sense of meaning and fulfillment professionally.
What’s the problem with shallow work?
To sum it up in one word: distraction.
- When you switch from Task A to Task B (ie. checking your email inbox while also trying to write an important report) attention residue lingers on the original task. Essentially, you may think you’re focusing on the report, but your mind is still going back to that email you just read.
- Interruptions delay the total time to complete a task….. significantly.
- Shallow work takes away our time to focus on the work that matters most to us. Research shows that our brains can’t actually multi-task (aka do more than one task at the exact same time). You’re either doing deep work or you’re doing shallow work.
Okay, let’s get into it! This actionable guide to deep work will help you build your deep work practice and increase your productivity in a meaningful way.
Step 1: Make two short lists— one is for deep work activities, the other is shallow work activities
These lists should encompass the main areas of your professional work. Your deep work list should be the activities that matter most to you professionally. Your shallow work list should include activities that you need to get done, but don’t necessarily move the needle in your professional life.
Examples of needle-moving work may include actually writing a chapter of a book if you are an author or creating a new design if you are a graphic designer. Activities such as email and social media may support your overall work, but they aren’t *the work* itself.
Once you have your two lists written down, let’s take a look at Part Two of The Deep Work Guide: the four deep work strategies.
Step 2: Select a deep work strategy.
- Eliminate shallow obligations completely.
- Spend each working day on high-value activities, and say no to everything else.
- Example: Choosing not to use email. Ever. (As you can see, this is quite the extreme strategy… I imagine not a lot of people can pull this off.)
- Dedicate clearly defined stretches of time to deep pursuits and stay open at other times.
- The minimum amount of time dedicated to these “deep pursuits” is one full day, but usually much longer.
- Example: A professor that spends the fall semester teaching and the remainder of the year focused on research.
- Develop rock-solid routines that ensure a little bit gets done on a very regular basis.
- The minimum amount of time dedicated to these deep work periods is 90 minutes.
- Example: Waking up early 5 days a week to work in your home office before anyone else is awake/before you have any other obligations.
- Fit deep work in wherever you can in your schedule.
- What most people say they’ll do, but most people fail to execute. The ability to switch your mind from shallow to deep mode as quickly as this strategy requires is very difficult.
- Example: When your child goes down for a nap, you enter deep work mode. If a meeting is cancelled, you use that time for deep work.
While options A and B sound lovely, and D seems like an ideal plan if I developed the discipline, C is the best fit for my life currently. But I realize that this isn’t just going to happen naturally— I need to be intentional about it. Which brings me to Part Three of the Guide to Deep Work…
Step 3: Create effective rituals.
Select a distraction-free work zone. Try to be consistent so that your brain associates a specific area with deep work time.
Determine how long you will commit to deep work. Be specific. Start small and work your way up to longer sessions.
Figure out how you’ll work once you start. Get into the nitty gritty here— are you allowed to have your phone nearby? Is your work area a designated technology-free zone? Will you listen to music? Will you drink something specific?
The idea is to create boundaries that set you up for the most success possible. Boundaries decrease the likelihood of distractions popping up and shallow work getting the best of you. Essentially, eliminate anything that requires willpower. You don’t want to drain your mental energy on anything that is not deep work.
D. The End-Goal
What is the parameter you will measure your success by after you complete each deep work session? If you are planning to implement the Rhythmic Strategy like me, what will you have accomplished at the end of that 90-minute period of uninterrupted work?
Now that you’ve outlined the specifics of how you’re going to work once you’re in deep work mode, let’s get into the final step of this guide.
Step 4: The 4 Disciplines of Execution
01. Focus on the wildly important.
Take a look at your two lists you created earlier. Determine which on your deep work list is of *utmost* importance. Direct your effort toward those activities during your deep work hours.
02. Act on lead measures.
Most people set goals based on the end-result they’d like to achieve (lag measure), rather than an even more specific goal that gets you to that result (lead measure). For example, a company may set the goal of 1,000 sales this month instead of creating 3 new products this month. You can’t reach your sales goal if you don’t create amazing products first. So focus your deep work hours on something you have direct control over and can act upon each day.
03. Keep a compelling scoreboard.
Keep track of how many hours you spend in deep work mode and keep this tally visible to stay motivated. This is also helpful in understanding how long it truly takes you to accomplish something.
04. Create an accountability system.
If you don’t have an accountability buddy, commit to regularly reviewing your progress. Take a look at all that you have accomplished (and things you’d like to continue moving the needle on) and adjust plans accordingly. It’s also helpful to see how much more effective intentional, focused work time is compared to distracted multi-tasking.
Final Tips + Thoughts on Deep Work
- When you allow your conscious mind to rest, you enable your unconscious mind to take over + sort through challenges, often leading to new insights!
- Downtime recharges the precious energy needed for deep work by restoring your ability to focus and concentrate.
- Let’s face it, the type of “work” most people fill their time with after they’ve already worked a full 8- or 10-hour day is uuuusually not that important… Your capacity for deep work in any given day is limited. After a full work day, you’ve probably maxed out.
- Create a *shutdown ritual.* Review all your incomplete tasks, create a plan to complete/revisit later, and do something every day that signals to the brain that work is complete for the day. It could be as simple as shutting your laptop and saying a word or phrase out loud, a sun salutation, anything you want to close the working chapter of your day! Make it enjoyable + doable. My shutdown ritual usually involves a walk outside or workout.
Tips on Focusing + Training Your Concentration Muscle
- This is so not the norm in society, but is essential to sharpening our ability to concentrate: Schedule in advance when you go online, and avoid it altogether outside these times. Resist the urge to “quickly look something up” when you are not during a scheduled time of internet use.
- Set up specified times to check your email inbox. Ie. 10am, 1pm, 4pm
- Impose time limits on yourself. For example, give yourself one hour to complete a task you would typically think takes two hours. You may be surprised how efficient + focused you are without distractions and with this added pressure of a time constraint. View these races against the clock as so focused you are utilizing every neuron in your brain to complete the task at-hand. Start out by implementing a session like this once a week and gradually increase the frequency.
- Integrate productive meditation into your days. During a time when you are occupied physically, but not mentally (showering, driving, walking the dog) focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem. This strengthens your distraction-resisting muscles.
- Eliminate digital tools that are not adding substantial value to your life. Which apps/technologies increase your stress + anxiety and take away your time while adding very little benefit to your life? This is an entire topic in itself (check out my blog post on a digital declutter or Newport’s book, Digital Minimalism, to learn more), but essentially— “digital minimalism is a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”
There are even more deep work tips we could cover, but these are the steps + strategies that I found most valuable from Cal Newport’s book. Ultimately, I hope this guide to deep work will help you cultivate a work strategy that leads to more value and fulfillment in your life. I hope it inspires you to take one small step— whether that’s setting up a distraction-free desk, creating a shutdown ritual, or waking up 30 minutes earlier this week to prioritize the work that is truly meaningful to you.
I’d love to hear what steps you take, so tag me on Instagram or leave a comment below (during a shallow work time period, of course!)
If you enjoyed this post you may also like….. Zen Habits: 5 Practices to Cultivate a More Calm and Grounded Life or How To Do a Digital Declutter in 10 Steps!