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What Is Deep Work?

Ditch Distractions and Get Productive With a Method Called "Deep Work"

I first heard about the idea of "deep work" while listening to a podcast on my way to work. NPR's Shankar Vedantam interviewed Cal Newport, a computer scientist and Georgetown professor, about his research and insights on the subject.

Newport shared how he manages to get a seemingly impossible amount of work done — including writing books, publishing academic papers, and teaching courses — all while leaving work by 5:30 p.m. and making time for his family and personal life.

I don't have a lot in common professionally with Newport, but his success is undeniable and inspired me to check out his book Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World to learn about how I could be more productive and improve my focus.

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What is deep work?

Deep work boils down to the relatively simple idea that working distraction-free allows you to both improve your professional capabilities and produce higher-quality, more valuable work.

Take a second to think about your work habits. How often do you stop to check social media? Or immediately look up whatever random idea pops into your head? Or answer an email the second you receive it? In the span of writing this intro alone, I've had to resist the urge to do everything from chiming in on a funny group text to looking up recipes for the banana muffins that I would like to make later.

Newport argues that the state of multitasking and constant distraction we live in is seriously affecting our work. It usually feels like there's never enough time to do everything we want to as a result of the daily grind of unfulfilling but necessary tasks. And having fragments of our focus in a million places at once can reduce our ability to contribute our best work in the current moment. Deep work tackles this by saying you can reevaluate your habits to use your time more productively, create more meaningful work, and get better at what you do so you can accomplish more than you ever thought possible.

How can I try deep work?

A lot of the things distracting us aren't inherently bad; they are often a necessary part of our jobs or day-to-day life . . . which unfortunately makes it even more difficult to overcome the habits affecting our ability to concentrate.

Even though it would take some serious effort, I couldn't shake the idea that I was holding myself back by being unwilling to challenge myself to work smarter.

Here are some of the top tips I learned from Deep Work that you can apply to help you crush your goals both at work and at home.

  1. Block off time to focus.
    You probably spend less time than you realize getting down to work without interruption. If you put it in your calendar, it's easier to commit to a distraction-free block of time. Get to work before everyone else or find an hour when you can sit in a quiet place and knock out an assignment or make headway on a project. Set ground rules for that time, like no emails or Twitter breaks. It seemed counterintuitive to me to think I could simply decide when I would do good work. I tend to wait for a good idea (or deadline) to strike. However, the experts say this is a common mistake. We can facilitate inspiration by setting aside time to work hard.
  2. Set boundaries to stay on track.
    In many office cultures, we often try to look really busy so everyone else knows we're working. Newport calls this "busyness as a proxy for activity" — basically, doing lots of stuff in a visible manner but not actually getting a whole lot done, besides feeling more stressed. We all get sucked into situations like scrambling to be the first to answer the boss's email. But stopping what you're doing to answer every message that comes through makes it a lot more difficult and time-consuming to jump back into the task you were previously working on, even if you don't realize it. Rather than having my email always open in front of me, I started trying to wait 30 minutes in between inbox checks. It turns out not all that much can't wait a half-hour for your response. You don't have to be a hermit or risk getting in trouble, but you can take back some control over your workday to accomplish a bigger goal.
  3. Know when to disconnect.
    As we're starting to learn more about the benefits of taking time to disconnect, it's not uncommon to see people "detox," whether it's one day per week device-free or a whole month. Newport takes a different approach. Instead, he says you should schedule time when you are allowed to go online, like during lunch or once an hour. That way you give yourself a break from focusing, rather than trying to take a break from distraction. For this to work, it's crucial that you stick to your rule. This means no defaulting to your phone to kill time while you wait for your friend at the bar or for a meeting to start, unless it's during a scheduled break. Making this a habit gives your brain a workout in resisting mindless distraction, even when you really want to give in to boredom with something more entertaining.
  4. Schedule your free time, too.
    You know that one friend who seems to magically have time for a demanding job and a fabulous social life, plus traveling, volunteering, and on and on, all while looking great and getting eight hours of sleep a night? Well, she's not necessarily any more amazing than you, but she probably does schedule out her time carefully. Just like you plan your workday, plan what you'll do in your downtime. These things don't necessarily have to be productive. You can plan to do relaxing activities like watching a show, taking a bath, or calling a friend, all of which give your brain a chance to relax and recover. But you'll probably find that by paying more attention to what you're doing (and not falling into deep, dark Instagram black holes), you'll free up time to dig in to other interests too, like brushing up on a language app or trying to cook more.

We've all seen or shared the "You have the same amount of hours in a day as Beyoncé" quote on Pinterest or Instagram. But it's only relatable because it's true! I suspect the people we admire most aren't only super hardworking or talented. They also make the most of their time, even when it's difficult to do so. If left unchecked, distractions impair our ability to filter out the noise and focus on building the best version of ourselves. It's not easy to make the changes that Newport lays out in Deep Work. But if you want to take your career goals to the next level, it's certainly worth the effort to try.

Image Source: Unsplash / STIL
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