The No-Nonsense Guide to Deep work

How to get more quality work done, in less time

Photo by Paige Cody on Unsplash

Let your mind become a lens, thanks to the converging rays of attention; let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your mind as a dominant, wholly absorbing idea. — Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges

When the nurseries closed due to Covid-19. I had to find a way to get my work done in four hours instead of eight. Deep work was the answer.


What is Deep Work?

Cal Newport came up with the phrase “deep work.” But he was not the first person to discover the concept. For example, psychologist Carl Jung bought a stone house where he went to write, poet Henry David Thoreau spent his time in a cabin in the middle of the woods, as does billionaire Bill Gates today. To think and work. They didn’t call it deep work, but they used the practices that Cal Newport defines as,

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.

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration” is the key phrase here. We don’t need to move out to a cabin to do deep work, we can bring the cabin to us.


Why You Should Care

As a knowledge worker, you need to perform at your best every day, all year round. It gives you a competitive advantage and brings more satisfaction. We’re constantly distracted by our colleagues, email notifications, and phone calls. We focus exclusively on our work in a single block of time — a free-of-distraction block of time lets us produce work that matters.

People who incorporate deep work produced more quality work in less time.

You have more time to think. And by thinking more, you make fewer mistakes, and the quality of work goes up.

Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made an effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming

Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

How It Helped Me

I work from home, but after my kids had to stay home, I had to rethink how I organize my time. I knew about deep work. I had implemented some of the rules to my day, but not on the scale I did after lockdown. After applying a few changes, I got more things done in less time. I was able to do all my deep work in the morning so that I can stay with kids in the afternoon.


What Did I Change?

Remove digital noise

I start working earlier. I turned the notifications off for email and Slack. I disable all the badges and labels and popups. Because I start work earlier, I don’t feel guilty about not checking my emails or Slack.

Stay in one context

I work on the tasks within the same context. For example, bug fixing or implementing new letter templates. I don’t switch between fixing one bug and then working on templates next and then back to bug fixing again.

You might work on one big task or a few smaller ones, it doesn’t matter. But you shouldn’t work on something that Newport calls “shallow work” in your deep work time:

Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.


Willpower is Not Enough for Deep Work

The first changes that I made are the obvious ones. But sheer willpower will not keep you to stay focused for long. You also have to think about the environment. Where you work and what surrounds you makes a big difference. This might be more difficult for some than others, but it’s an essential part of deep work.

A few things you should focus on

Noise

Unless you are working in a quiet cabin in the middle of the woods, or your room is soundproofed, you need to think about removing noise from your environment.

Whether it’s screaming birds outside your window or kids in your house, you need to invest in good headphones — ideally, noise-canceling ones. I can’t stress enough what difference it will make to your focus.

What you listen to is up to you, but I would recommend something that you can listen to in the background, without thinking about it.

The view

Yes, the view. You don’t need a picturesque landscape for deep work. What you need is a view that doesn’t provide distractions. You should face a wall. Or even a window but without too much going on behind it. One thing that you don’t want is to face a room where things are happening — where TV is on, or someone is constantly walking, or your cat is playing.

Comfort

How you sit and look at the screen matters. It might not matter when you check your emails in the evening on your sofa, but it matters when you need to focus. You don’t want to change your position every ten minutes.

Even if you can sit on your sofa with a laptop, it’s not good for your back and neck muscles. You need a desk and a comfortable chair. I’m not going to talk about ergonomics here, but you should be aware of the right setup.

Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Be Aware

One last thing.

If you succeed in removing the disruption, find the right place to work, and work on a task for an extended period — you will get tired. There’s only a limited number of hours anyone can focus in this way.

But what if it’s just lunchtime and you still have a few hours to go? Then, do the shallow work. Work that doesn’t need too much focus and is non-cognitively demanding. Like replying to emails or scheduling things for the next day.

If You Want to Learn More

The best source on deep work is the book Deep Work. Newport also wrote a book about Digital minimalism which is more about how you can remove distraction from your digital life. You should also check out his mailing list or podcast where he shares practical advice about deep work.

I’d also like to mention book Willpower Doesn’t Work by Benjamin Hardy. It’s about how you should look at your work environment and what to do to get the most out of it.

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