What does it take to thrive in the digital age? The key, according to Cal Newport, is deep work. Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University and a New York Times bestselling author. In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he makes a case for why the ability to work on a single task, with unbroken concentration, is a rare (and valuable!) skill — one that has the power to give you a significant edge.
But, as you’ll quickly learn, deep work isn’t just about focusing better or getting more things done. It’s a practical philosophy for people who want to access their genius and creativity — and channel them into something great. Whether that be a book or business, whatever your next big idea, we’ve condensed our favorite Deep Work insights to help you achieve your dreams.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- What deep work is and how it’s different from the way people typically conduct their work
- Why deep work is essential for almost anyone (but especially knowledge workers) who want to prosper in today’s economy
- How to apply deep work principles to your life starting today
Ready? Let’s dive in.
What is deep work?
In the pages of Deep Work, Newport defines deep work as: “Professional activities 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.”
Deep work examples include:
- Developing a business strategy
- Analyzing complex data
- Writing a book
- Learning how to code
- Reading a dense research paper
Newport often refers back to Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology. Jung himself engaged in a good bit of deep work, although the term ‘deep work’ wouldn’t be coined by Cal Newport until many years later.
Deep work vs shallow work
Deep work is vastly different from the way most knowledge workers (whose primary capital is their ability to think) conduct their work. Many of us spend most of our days doing shallow work, which Newport defines as: “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
Shallow work examples include:
- Checking email
- Sending Slack messages
- Managing your calendar
- Scheduling travel
- Rote tasks
As Newport points out, the use of email is necessary for many office workers. But we tend to give digital communication too much importance, and thus, too much of our time.
What’s more, the negative impacts of shallow work go beyond wasting our time. Shallow work can actually weaken our ability to perform deep work.
“To make matters worse for depth, there’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow is not a choice that can be easily reversed,” Newport shares. ”Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.” Talk about a double whammy.
To sum up the differences between deep and shallow work:
- Deep work requires deep concentration; Shallow work can be done while distracted.
- Deep work is cognitively demanding; Shallow work isn’t challenging in the same way.
- Deep work creates new value; Shallow work creates little-to-no new value.
- Deep work improves your skill; Shallow work doesn’t (and in some cases decreases your ability to perform deep work).
- Deep work yields results that are difficult to replicate; Shallow work yields results that are easy to replicate.
How to do deep work
In Deep Work, Cal Newport gives the reader an actionable plan to start integrating deep work into their lives, which he lays out into four rules:
Rule #1: Work deeply.
Rule #2: Embrace boredom.
Rule #3: Quit social media.
Rule #4: Drain the shallows.
This article won’t dive into the specifics of each rule. Instead, we’ll share eight actionable steps you can take today, starting with:
1. Pick your approach
Emma prefers to work by focusing intensely on her most cognitively demanding tasks for two hours each workday morning, then spending the rest of her day answering emails and Slack messages and attending meetings. Alex, on the other hand, dedicates entire months, a few every year, to working in total focus, and the rest of the year, engaged in social living like most. Which one is performing deep work? Answer: both of them.
According to Newport, there’s more than one way to set up your deep work schedule. He offers four philosophies to deep work scheduling. He encourages readers to pick the one that makes the most sense for you. Everyone’s lives are different, so we need more than a one-size-fits-all approach.
Here are the four philosophies of deep work scheduling and what each is about in a nutshell:
- Monastic: The monastic approach is the most ‘extreme’ method of deep work scheduling. It involves total commitment of one’s time and efforts toward deep work.
- Bimodal: A bimodalist alternates between periods of deep work and shallow work. Each period may last months, weeks, or days, but they’re never shorter than a day.
- Rhythmic: The rhythmic philosophy is all about scheduling deep work sessions at regular intervals and turning into a consistent practice. Unlike the previous bimodal approach, deep work sessions don’t last for more than a day; they usually look like an hour or two of deep work everyday.
- Journalistic: In this approach, you fit in deep work whenever you can. As Newport shares, this philosophy isn’t for the deep work novice, as it takes a lot of skill to be able to slip into deep work at the drop of a hat.
2. Be aware of attention residue
Sophie Leroy, a business professor at the University of Minnesota, first presented this idea of attention residue in her paper, “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?”
Through her research, she found that when a person switches from one task to another, a bit of their attention remains on the preceding task. In other words, the person isn’t able to give their full attention to the task at hand because the previous task has claimed a piece of their focus — attention residue. This lost focus reduces the person’s ability to perform on whatever task they’ve picked up on.
Newport shares Leroy’s advice as a possible explanation for why deep work is essential for high performance. One way we can turn Leroy’s research into invaluable advice is to simply be more mindful of what we turn our attention to throughout the day. Every single time we give our attention to something, that thing chips away at our ability to focus.
One way we can help ourselves is by getting our most cognitively-demanding tasks done in the morning when our attention is fully restored from a good night’s sleep. And structure your morning routine to minimize what your brain encounters up until it’s time to work. You might wake up before anyone else wakes up in your house, avoid your cell phone, don’t immediately turn on the news, and get right to work.
Another way is to reduce attention residue is to switch tasks less often. Clockwise is a free tool that helps you stay in the zone by moving your meetings together to open up long blocks of Focus Time for you and your team.
3. Minimize friction
One idea that Newport comes back to again and again through the course of Deep Work is that of ‘minimizing friction.’ It’s the idea of making it easy for our brains to switch into deep work mode, or at least, as easy as possible.
To understand this idea better, it helps to think of friction in terms of decisions. Throughout our waking days, we constantly encounter decisions. And with every one, our brain uses a bit of its willpower to make that decision. As you can imagine, by the end of the day, our brains have very little cognitive energy to do hard things. This is also known as the idea of decision fatigue.
One of the solutions to this friction, offered by Cal Newport, is ritual. By creating a ritual that looks the same everyday, you dramatically reduce the number of decisions that you need to make during your day. “To maximize your success, you need to support your efforts to go deep,” Newport writes. “At the same time, this support needs to be systematized so that you don’t waste mental energy figuring out what you need in the moment.”
4. Make a grand gesture
Newport shares the story of author J.K. Rowling, who actually rented out a suite at the Balmoral Hotel, a 5-star hotel in Edinburgh, in order to complete the final installment of the Harry Potter series. He calls this strategy: The grand gesture.
“The concept is simple: 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,” Newport writes. “This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.”
Now, you don’t have to splurge on luxury accommodation to work deeply. But if all else fails, consider driving out to a quiet coffeehouse you don’t typically go to. Or rent a private, pay-by-the-hour room at a coworking space like WeWork. In The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield talks about trading your typical casual attire for something fancy, in order to invoke the Muse. Whatever evokes a sense of novelty, signalling to your brain: Hey, it’s time to get to work.
5. Measure to make progress
Newport draws on The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling to put deep work to practice. As the name suggests, this book is all about execution as opposed to ideation. And in it, the authors stress the importance of using lead measures to track your success on the goal that’s most important to you.
Most people rely on lag measures. However, lag measures are metrics that are determined after it’s too late to make a change. For example, a lead measure for deep work is how many hours of deep work you accomplish per day. A lag measure for deep work is how much you’re able to write at the end of the week. You won’t know your lag measure until the end of the week when your writing is done. However, if you act on your lead measure, you’re likely to hit your goal and stay on track. For this practice, the authors (and Newport) suggest creating a compelling scoreboard, a physical chart to help you monitor your progress.
6. Balance your working life with downtime
Put your laptop away for the evening! Newport gives us three reasons why downtime is necessary:
- Downtime aids insights.
- Downtime helps to recharge the energy needed to work deeply.
- The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important.
7. Embrace boredom
What’s your relationship with boredom like? Can you handle it? Do you see it as a problem that needs to be solved right away?
Many of us have fallen into the habit of tapping through Instagram stories or browsing online stores whenever we feel the slightest hint of boredom. Newport shares that this actually runs counter to our ability to concentrate. He likens it to professional athletes who would eat unhealthy food when they’re not training. What you do when you’re not actively training your mind is just as important when you are.
The truth is: Boredom isn’t bad! It’s the way that we respond, or rather react, to the boredom that usually gets us. Instead of quickly distracting ourselves, Newport suggests filling this time with productive meditation.
“The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.” Indeed, you might do this to some degree in your life already. I mean, who doesn’t experience the occasional shower epiphany! Point is: Try to do it more often and with intention, concentrating your mental energy on that “single well-defined professional problem.” That way, your boredom isn’t for naught.
8. Quit social media
And he doesn’t just mean take a digital detox. Newport invites us to take an honest look at our relationship with social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Which of these sites/apps, if any, do we truly need? The best way to answer this question with total clarity is to quit your socials cold turkey, then see which you can or can’t do without.
Deep work is more than a set of time management hacks. It’s a work philosophy and a valuable skill to cultivate. If you’re one of the many knowledge workers burdened by the busyness of your working life, then deep work is definitely a way through.
Deep work is a must for accomplishing a cognitively demanding task, but even the best of us find it difficult to schedule long periods of time into our calendars. That’s why we created Clockwise, an intelligent calendar assistant that frees up blocks of time in your schedule, while optimizing your meeting times with your co-workers.