What Is Deep Work? Unlock Your Mind's Fullest Potential

3 months ago   •   5 min read

By Colton Hicks

Our economy rewards professionals who master hard things and produce at an elite level.

These successful professionals are always creating value at work. They adapt quickly, improving at a fast pace. And their results are difficult to replicate, giving them a competitive edge. What's their secret?

They've cultivated the ability to do deep work.

What Is Deep Work?

Deep work involves uninterrupted, focused work sessions.

It's a simple concept, but requires self-discipline to master.

Flow state is a byproduct of deep work. And professionals who focus on depth produce higher quality output.

This concept was coined by Cal Newport and is outlined in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He defines it as:

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push our cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Newport embodies this ability to concentrate. Only ten years after graduating college, he produced a massive amount of value: publishing four books, earning a Ph.D., writing multiple peer-reviewed academic papers, and being hired as a tenured professor at Georgetown University.

The best part? He rarely worked past five or six p.m. during the workweek.

This deep work philosophy isn’t new—Carl Jung, Mark Twain, and other prominent figures valued concentration throughout their careers.  However, Newport stresses the urgency of learning deep work in today's society, as people are easily distracted and drawn towards shallow work.

Deep Work Vs. Shallow Work

Whenever you finish your workday, do you ever think to yourself, "I didn't accomplish much..."

It's common. And it suggests you did too much shallow work and not enough deep work.

Shallow work leaves you feeling reactive, unfulfilled, and captive to your workday. Despite appearing urgent, these tasks will rarely be high leverage. Examples include emails, text messages, responding to notifications, sending slack messages, managing your calendar, scheduling meetings and trips, rote tasks, and other administrative work.

Here's the difference between deep work and shallow work:

  • Deep work creates significant value, while shallow work creates little value.
  • Deep work sharpens your skills, while shallow work hinders you from developing your abilities.
  • Deep work is mentally stimulating, while shallow work is mentally exhausting.
  • Deep work requires sustained concentration on a single task-at-hand, while shallow work involves distractions and multi-tasking.
  • Deep work creates results that are hard to replicate, while shallow work is easy to replicate and fails to give you a competitive advantage.

Successful professionals strive to maximize deep work while minimizing shallow work throughout the day.

How To Do Deep Work

In a world full of distractions, deep work is vital.

In Newport’s words:

“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.”

Newport goes into detail in his book about how to cultivate deep concentration at work. Here are a few powerful steps to get you started:

  1. Choose your deep work strategy
  2. Schedule deep work in your calendar
  3. Remove distractions

Choose Your Deep Work Strategy

Newport shares four deep work philosophies that you can apply in your work and life. Pick the one that best suits your lifestyle and work preferences:

The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: This is the most extreme deep work philosophy. It aims to maximize impact by completely eliminating distractions and shallow work from your professional life. This person will say "no" to most things so they can solely focus on deep work throughout the workday. This will be unrealistic for the average worker who handles multiple responsibilities.

For instance, famous computer scientist Donald Knuth maximizes deep work by not having an email address, forcing people to send him a letter to his postal mailing address. His assistant sorts through all the letters and keeps the ones most relevant. Knuth will then review them in a big batch every three months or so.

The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: This is less extreme than the monastic deep work philosophy. Instead of completely eliminating distractions and shallow work, the bimodal approach only seeks this elimination during specific time periods (on a yearly, monthly, or weekly basis).

As an example, Bill Gates famously conducts "Think Weeks" twice a year, spending a full week reading and thinking by himself.

The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: This philosophy takes deep work sessions and turns them into a regular habit. Though this may fail to give someone the intense level of deep thinking found in the monastic and bimodal approaches, the rhythmic approach is more realistic for the everyday professional. It involves consistently scheduling deep work into your calendar and getting things done on a routine basis.

The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: This approach involves fitting deep work wherever you can into your schedule. It involves rapidly transforming a block of time into depth.

This isn't recommended for beginners. The ability to identify blocks of time in your schedule and swiftly transform them into deep work opportunities requires experience and vigilance. For instance, this person can identify 30 minutes of free time between work projects and deeply concentrate on writing a book.

Choose the deep work strategy that enhances your productivity. And feel free to experiment with different approaches to see what works for you.

Schedule Deep Work In Your Calendar

Once you’re clear on your deep work philosophy, how will you ensure it gets implemented?

Schedule it on your calendar. This is also called “timeboxing.”

Timeboxing simply means planning to perform a task within a specific time frame. It uses time constraints to facilitate clarity, focus, and creative thinking.

The monastic or bimodal approach to deep work will likely require more upfront planning. Perhaps you’d book a trip to the mountains once every quarter. Or you’d hire an assistant to eliminate shallow work from your workload.

If you prefer to work in a rhythmic or journalistic way, then it's helpful to have routines for deep work. This involves carving out focused time in the morning, afternoon, or evening. If your schedule is unpredictable—and you choose the journalistic approach—then you’ll likely timebox deep work sessions whenever you can (and often last minute).

Bottom line: when you carve off time for deep work, timebox it.

As a general rule, the average person cannot do more than four hours of deep work each day. Schedule your day accordingly.

Remove Distractions

It’s impossible to accomplish deep work when you’re distracted.

We're swamped with people fighting for our attention—text and app notifications, emails, advertisers, and meetings. Rather than reacting to these situations, we should establish boundaries in advance so we can concentrate on what’s important.

The following strategies can be used to establish boundaries and remove distractions when engaging in deep work:

  • Turn off computer notifications and close all the tabs you have opened.
  • Hide your phone or turn it off.
  • If an idea or task pops into your brain, quickly jot it down in a notepad or a distraction-free application. You can review it later.
  • Block your meeting availability so people can't schedule calls during your planned deep work sessions (e.g. you can select your preferred meeting availability in your Undock account settings).
  • Batch emails and low-impact tasks at a future time.

Your focus is a precious resource. Guard it with your life.


Next Steps

With deep work, you can harness your mind's fullest potential and create a life full of productivity and meaning.

Implementing deep work in your life is challenging when you're always dealing with back-and-forth emails, scheduling headaches, and your availability isn't customized. If you want to eliminate scheduling hassles and focus on deep work instead, we can help!

Join Undock, it’s free!

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