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Demystifying the concept of deep work

Jan 18, 2022
19 min read

We live in a world that is filled with distractions, where we default to switching between tasks or chores, rather than focusing on any one of them specifically for a consistent period of time. While the satisfaction you draw from many of these distractions could be termed as ephemeral at best, true satisfaction of delivering excellent results in our work can be achieved by staying focussed for extended durations. 

This is where the deep work concept comes in as it highlights the importance of minimizing or ignoring distractions in order to stay focussed on important activities, manage time better and achieve the ambitious goals that you set out for yourself. What’s more, mastering deep work will not only help you at work, but can actually be put to use in our personal lives as well.

What is deep work?

An American author and associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, Cal Newport coined the concept of deep work in a blog post in 2012 and went on to expand on it further in his best-selling book Deep Work: Rules for Focussed Success in a Distracted World, first published in 2016. Newport defines deep work in the following manner:

“Professional activity 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.”

One quick look at that definition is enough to convince most of us that deep work isn’t the form of work that you are naturally accustomed to at the workplace. It also intuitively feels right that overcoming distractions and focusing on the task at hand will prove to be more productive.

The beauty of the deep work concept lies in the fact that it can be applied across different fields. If you are a programmer, then deep work programming helps you to constantly learn new things and crack complex problems. For data scientists, deep work enables analyzing data and making the correct interpretations. Deep work helps writers and designers to ideate better and churn out content that is inherently of greater quality. The boundaries of what can be achieved with deep work is literally non-existent.

Minimize shallow work

Despite the fact that deep work is invaluable, it is to be noted that it can’t be done for hours on end. Newport, in fact, suggests that the upper limit is four hours of deep work per day for even those who have mastered it and have been practising it for a long time. 

Newport therefore emphasises the importance of cognitive work where you are consciously involved in the intellectual activity that defines your work. If you are thinking about how to increase productivity at work, then incorporating deep work and cognitive work in your daily schedule might be your solution. If, however, you avoid being intentional about how you spend time on your activities, then plenty of hours might actually be spent on what Newport categorises as “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.

It is impossible to purge all shallow work as each of us have to spend a certain amount of time performing some amount of it – be it to answer emails, perform administrative work or logistical tasks. What you can do is to minimize the time spent on each of these and bunch them together, so that they can be completed as a single chunk. 

The following books are the best books to increase focus and reduce shallow work as they provide you with strategies that can be employed on an everyday basis:

  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
  • Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World
  • The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World
  • Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results

Deep work’s intrinsic value

While deep work is obviously a great way to be productive, it doesn’t start and end there. This is because deep work often lets you experience the flow state of mind. The concept of flow was recognized and named by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who defined it as a highly focused mental state that is conducive to productivity. Thus, deep work can help you be in a cognitive state that makes you feel good, is rewarding, and often exposes you to the right balance between skills and challenge. 

Even though the benefits of deep work are well established, Newport argues that “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.” This means that it is not only enough to know deep work’s meaning, but also implement it as best as you can.

Concentration and focus

Now that you are aware about the basics of deep work, it is time to understand how to improve focus and concentration and practice deep work in order to get the most out of your potential. Both concentration and focus aren’t a given and are acquired skills that can be developed by practicing consistently over time. 

There are different strategies to focus at work, and not everything might apply to you. It is important to recognize what will help you overcome your personal difficulties and concentrate on work. 

In his 2018 best-seller Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results, American author James Clear talks about priming your environment to make future actions easier. He says that the “central idea is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible” and also to “make bad behaviors difficult”.

Clear clearly explains the idea by taking the example of Oswald Nuckols, an IT developer from Natchez, Mississippi. Nuckols employs a strategy he refers to as “resetting the room”, the purpose of which is not just to “clean up after the last action, but to prepare for the next action”.

Something as simple as setting out your desk before you leave your workplace means that it is ready for you to get started and focus directly on work the next day, as you eliminate the need to do it first thing when you are fresh. Hacks like these help you in time management, allowing you to utilize your more productive hours in creating quality work.

Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson is a leading researcher on expert performers who has pointed out that the major difference between elite performers and others is their ability to sustain intense focus and concentration over long periods of time. Newport mentions the following in his book Deep Work:

Ericsson notes that for a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours — but rarely more.” 

Even though experts aren’t born with the ability of intense concentration, they recognize its importance early and put effort towards enhancing this specific ability. It is possible to start small, say even 15 minutes a day, and work upwards towards that four hour limit. The basic idea, therefore, is that anyone can thrive in an environment that is free from distractions as our brains are not wired to focus on a single problem when we are constantly switching between various tasks. 

Those dreaded distractions

By now, you must have realised that distractions at work are the enemy of deep work. In their 2016 book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, authors Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen highlight the fact that while human beings are very good at goal setting, they are also very susceptible to distractions that interrupt these very goals.

Distractions can broadly be defined as both internal and external events that interrupt us from working towards one of our goals. The urge to keep checking social media feeds, fidgeting with our smartphones or even repeatedly checking our email inboxes all fall under distractions that are internally driven. A co-worker stopping by for a chat when you are deep in concentration and the need to attend a meeting where your presence isn’t required are all examples of external types of distractions

It is important that you steer clear of distractions and prime your environment in such a manner that it fosters focus and concentration. In The Distracted Mind, the authors outline four proven methods that help people ignore distractions, thereby allowing individuals to better manage their time. These include:

  • decreasing anxiety,
  • decreasing boredom,
  • reducing digital distractions and accessibility to information,
  • and increasing our meta-cognition about the harms of distractions. 

Deep work techniques

While some of us have never learnt how to do deep work in the first place, others might have forgotten how to concentrate deeply on a single task. Learning how to do deep work is a skill that you can keep getting better at by putting in the necessary effort. Practicing deep work puts the focus on being intentional at every possible instant and concentrating on high-impact tasks. From choosing the right approach to executing a grand gesture, there are a number of deep work techniques that enable all of us to get better at it and employ it as and when possible. 

Time management in your daily schedule is an integral part of how you execute deep work on an everyday basis. Based on your schedule and work preferences, it is necessary that you pick a plan that best fits your needs. Newport has outlined four different approaches or philosophies in his book that will help you decide how to schedule your deep work. 

Choose your approach

It is instrumental that you recognize that each of these techniques have their pros and cons and they have to be evaluated carefully from a personal standpoint. Naturally, some techniques might work better than others based on an individual’s lifestyle. Consider each of these in depth and start off with that which you feel would work best for your needs:

  • Monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling: This is the most dedicated form of deep work that completely eliminates shallow work and involves spending all your working hours on a high-level task that requires all your focus. Even though it corresponds to the lowest level of context switching and highest potential for reward, this technique might be unrealistic for those required to perform a variety of work.
  • Bimodal philosophy of deep work scheduling: This technique involves dividing your time between long stretches set aside for deep work and the rest set aside for any other work that you deem appropriate. While this philosophy is a more flexible version of the monastic philosophy, it still requires you to arrange your year, months, or weeks into larger chunks of deep work.
  • Rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling: If you know what is going to come in each day’s work and your schedule is fairly static, then the rhythmic philosophy might be ideal for you. Knowing how each day pans out allows you to establish a regular habit where you can block out 1-4 hour chunks to concentrate at the same time every day. This allows you to get into a daily rhythm, while using the rest of the time to perform necessary shallow work.
  • Journalistic philosophy of deep work scheduling: Nearly the opposite of rhythmic philosophy, journalistic philosophy is for those constantly on the move, with little to no regularity to their days. This technique is the most flexible as it allows you to fit in blocks of deep work whenever your schedule permits it. It is, however, the most demanding as well as you need to be constantly vigilant about how your time ebbs and flows, making room for some deep work, even if only 15 minutes. As this method requires you to switch into deep work mode at will, it requires you to be experienced at it, making it unsuitable for beginners. 

Build a ritual

We had earlier mentioned priming your environment to enhance focus and concentration. Expanding on that idea, you can build a deep work routine or create certain rituals that allows you to get into the mental framework necessary for the task.

There is a growing body of research that suggests that our brain remembers certain associations, learning and even expecting the same combination in the future. Thus, the idea of creating a ritual is to trigger our concentration at will by indicating to the brain that it is time to focus. 

When creating a deep work ritual, it is mandatory that you keep in mind the location, duration, structure and requirements for executing the routine. Choosing a space that is distraction free and setting it out so that it is ready whenever you need to use it provides for a conducive work environment. Deciding on when to work and how long allows you to be on top of your deep work routine. The structure guides your concentration and includes the rules that you put down for your deep work sessions and the parameters by which you judge your success. The requirements, meanwhile, are the materials that you might need to support your deep work routine, be it a specific type of music, food, or beverage. 

Perform a grand gesture

There might be times when you feel that your day-to-day attempts at deep work are inadequate for achieving your goal. For such scenarios, Newport suggests enacting a grand gesture, which he defines in the following way:

By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task.”

A classic example of this method is Bill Gates’ famous “think weeks”. Gates retreats to a cabin in the woods for two weeks, twice a year, doing nothing but reading and thinking big thoughts on the future of Microsoft, his Foundation, tech and medicine, among other things. The method enables him to prioritize deep work and has provided for a number of innovations. 

While most of us might not have the luxury to do what Gates does, you can still perform a grand gesture that is grand by your own means. This could be as simple as working from a different setting for a week or so if your workplace or home doesn’t motivate you enough, or spending an entire day on one task instead of executing it over days or even weeks. Any radical change in your schedule can thus be seen as a grand gesture.

What is your work style?

We’ve seen what deep work is, we’ve listed techniques on how to do deep work to increase your focus and concentration, and we’ve also spoken about avoiding distractions and minimizing shallow work. One idea that is often repeated is the fact that it comes down to you as each individual’s method and ability to perform deep work differs from one another.

What type of work environment do you prefer? What are the traits that are relevant to your workplace? What is your mindset in the office? Answers to these questions and more enable you to discover your work style. 

Once you determine your work style, it is much easier for you to tailor your daily schedule such that the focus is always on deep work. And once the emphasis is on deep work on a daily basis, you will be able to harness the most of your own potential and succeed in all your endeavours

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