in Personal Development

On Deep Work

Deep work, as defined by Cal Newport, refers to “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”

Be honest, how many hours of deep work do you do per day? I’m guessing the answer for most people is between zero to an hour.

When you think about this, isn’t it a bit sad? We probably spent more time doing deep work in high school and college while studying than we do in our jobs, where we’re supposed to work.

A large part of this, I believe, is due to the typical office environment. The printer is humming at a hundred miles an hour; your co-workers across from you are discussing the latest episode of Game of Thrones; your colleague beside you is having a heated argument with a client on the phone; the talking heads on the flat-screen wall TV are rambling on about Trump’s latest tweet; your boss comes up behind you and asks you how your weekend was…you get the picture.

Why is deep work important? Deep work is what leads to creation: art, writing, music, code – meaningful output of any kind.

Shallow work, characterized by constant distraction and little conscious effort, leads to emails. Hundreds of emails that ultimately produce little value.

Consistent shallow work is more detrimental than first glance though. Studies have shown that people who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. “Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate.”

I see this all the time. I’ll be in a meeting with someone, their phone pings alerting them of an email, and they simply can’t help but glance down. We could be in the middle of an important discussion and their entire train of thought goes out the window – just like that.

If you’ve ever looked back on your day and wondered what you actually accomplished, the solution is to schedule deep work into your day. Block out at least an hour in your calendar and lock yourself in a room with no WiFi. Resist the urge to check your phone or email or surf the Web. Focus on the task at hand.

When I engage in this kind of deep work, usually using the Pomodoro Technique, I’m always surprised by how much I can get done in a short period of time. After a while of doing this, you realize that most people simply do not work as hard as they think they do. Time spent at work or doing busywork is by no means indicative of how much actual work gets done.

Key takeaways:

  • Start scheduling periods of deep work into your day. Start small with just a 20-minute block of absolutely focused work, and slowly increase it.
  • Schedule research and Internet time later, when you’re not doing deep work. A quick tip is to write [TK] in places where you need to come back to later and find it with a Ctrl+F. Few words naturally have TK in them.
  • Be OK feeling ‘bored’. Like Louis CK says, resist that urge to pick up the cell phone when you feel that ping of boredom. This will help deepen your focus when you need to.
  • Avoid multitasking as much as possible. This includes doing shallow work in the evenings when you should be relaxing.

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