6 Ways to Master ‘Deep Work’ and Produce Things That Matter

“The successful man is the average man, focused.” — Unknown

If you’re anything like me, you know what it’s like to lose focus.

You set important goals at the beginning of the week. You wake up each day excited to tackle these goals, and then, before you know it, it’s 5pm and you never got around to the important things.

Why? Because every time you’re about to start working on something you feel the need to ‘just check’ your email, or the news, or Facebook, or any other distraction that keeps you from accomplishing what you set out to do.

And you’re not alone. One of the most valuable skills in our economy — focus — is becoming increasingly rare and difficult to achieve. The result is that more of us are wasting time and failing to get important things done, which can ultimately keep us from living the life we want.

Why ‘just checking’ doesn’t work

Most of us are aware that multitasking doesn’t work. People can’t actually do more than one task at a time. Instead we switch tasks, which only increases our brain’s cognitive load (mental effort) and actually reduces our productivity by up to 40%.

So we’ve transitioned to the ‘Single Task — Just Checking’ method. We focus on a single task, but every five minutes we have a 30 second distraction ‘check in’. Or as Michael Hyatt likes to say, we enter the distraction zone — the place we go to avoid hard work.

The problem is that changing your attention from one target to another leads to attention residue — meaning you’re still thinking of a previous task as you start another one — which has a severe negative impact on your cognitive ability (i.e. the mental skills you need to carry out tasks).

In short, these ‘distraction check-ins’ are making you less productive and less effective.

They’re also promoting what Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, calls shallow work.

Deep work is what produces things that matter in the world.

According to Newport, there are two main types of work:

  • Shallow Work: Tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on).
  • Deep Work: Tasks that are deeply immersive and cognitively demanding and require focus without distraction.

Remember when we talked about distractions and ‘check-ins’? Well our distraction-filled world tends to promote shallow work over deep work. When we’re inundated with distractions it’s easier for us to keep ‘busy’ with simple tasks.

And there’s a reason. Shallow work is attractive because it’s easy, which makes us feel productive.

But this type of work is ultimately empty and provides little intrinsic value.

“We cannot find real satisfaction in efforts that are easily replicable,” Newport says, “nor can we expect such efforts to be the foundation of a remarkable career.”

Deep work, on the contrary, is what happens when you are immersed in “cognitively demanding activities that leverage your training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push your abilities to continually improve.”

You probably know the feeling of deep work: it’s when you are fully absorbed in a problem that stretches you just beyond your skill level, allowing you to move into a state of flow — a state of complete immersion in an activity. Deep work is a skill, that when practiced and cultivated, makes it easier to enter a state of flow.

Moreover, practicing deep work and focusing on only one task eliminates attention-residue issues, which means your output is stronger, cleaner, and just plain better from a lack of distractions.

According to Newport, deep work is what produces things that matter in the world.

Deep work generates three key benefits:

  1. Continuous improvement of the value of your work output.
  2. An increase in the total quantity of valuable output you produce.
  3. Deeper satisfaction (aka., “passion”) for your work.

Deep work is essential for career success.

Deep work is also essential for career success because it’s what allows you to master new intellectual skills and produce creative breakthroughs. And unlike shallow work, these are skills that are unlikely to be automated in the future.

Thus spending more time practicing deep work makes you more valuable in the long run.

Indeed, according to Newport, shallow work keeps you from getting fired. Deep work is what gets you promoted. If you’re not doing the deep work, then you’re stuck in the plateau, mainly reacting to your environment. Practicing deep work means choosing important, long-term (not just urgent) tasks to focus your full attention on.

Main takeaways:

  1. Deep work is a skill that must be practiced. If you don’t prioritize and fight for it (and try to practice it daily, even for 5 minutes), you won’t be able to do it. Focus is a muscle, the more you use it the easier it becomes to practice deep work.
  2. Own your deep/shallow work ratio. Ask yourself, what is my desired ratio of Deep Work to Shallow Work? Now measure the time you spend doing either. Once you have an idea of how much time you’re spending on each, you can take actionable steps to change this (re-align priorities, talk to your boss, etc.).
  3. Deep work is NOT focusing on a task and then ‘just checking’ Facebook every 5 minutes. Deep work IS a sustained period of focus with zero distractions. There’s a big difference.

How to practice deep work

  1. Awareness & Monitoring- Think about your ‘to do’ list. Can you isolate 1–2 deep work tasks to focus on?
  2. Establish a Ritual — Deep work is energy intensive and our brains aren’t quick to expend more energy. Therefore, it helps to cultivate a ritual (and setting) that transitions you from normal shallow work to the deep variety. For example, when I enter deep work, I switch my phone on airplane mode, put on my headphones, listen to a ‘focus’ playlist (here are a few I recommend) and set my Tomato timer* (25 minutes) to signal to my brain that I’m entering ‘deep work’ mode.
  3. Schedule Distractions — Instead of scheduling time to focus, schedule 30 -60 minutes each day to focus on distractions (email, social media, etc.).
  4. Eliminate Distractions, including ‘Just Checks’ — Use tools such as Freedom to silence the noise.
  5. Get Used to Boredom — The hardest thing about practicing deep work is embracing boredom. In order to get better at deep work you need to detach from distractions and the desire to be ‘busy’. That means practicing not checking your phone every five minutes when waiting for the bus or a friend to arrive at dinner. If your brain is addicted to distraction then it can’t concentrate when it needs to concentrate.Breakthrough is on the other side of boredom.
  6. Set up a Reward — According to Gretchen Rubin, the best types of rewards are ones that take you deeper into the habit. Therefore, a good reward for deep work could be a new set of headphones, or a subscription to Spotify which has excellent Focus playlists.

*The pomodoro (tomato) timer is a time management technique that breaks down work into intervals of about 25 minutes.

Remember, our focus is one of the most valuable tools we have. By practicing focus and deep work we are cultivating important skills that can help us transform our lives, or at the very least, get the important things done.