‘Deep Work’: What You Need To Know

‘Deep Work’: What You Need To Know

If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive - no matter how skilled or talented you are.
— Cal Newport

Do you ever feel like you’re working hard but getting nothing done?

If your answer to this question is ‘yes’, the good news is: a) You are not alone and b) There’s a solution.

We live not just in an age of information but an age of information overload.

Your brain is poorly equipped to process the large volumes of data the modern world throws at it.

It is estimated that the average person is subjected to 34GB of data every day via computers, phones, advertising etc.

Just 500 years ago, this was about the same amount of information that an educated person would have received in a lifetime.


To prevent itself from ‘crashing’ like a computer, your brain only processes a tiny fraction of this data.

This is because conscious processing is more energy-intensive than any ‘filtering’ that occurs at the subconscious level.

And your body hates to waste energy.

Conserving energy is built into the human operating system because we once needed to expend a great deal of energy searching for calories.

Therefore, given that the brain is the body’s greediest organ, using around 20% of its total energy, reducing the amount it expends on conscious processing is an efficient way to reduce overall energy consumption.

So why is this important?

Because it means that you have a limited amount of attention.

And you must be mindful of how you spend it.

What you need is to create the ideal environment for ‘deep work’.

What is ‘Deep Work’?

‘Deep work’ is a term coined by Cal Newport, who wrote the popular book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

He defined deep work as ‘Professional activities performed in a distraction-free environment that push your cognitive abilities to their limits. Those efforts create new value, improve our skills, and are hard to replicate.’

Perhaps he could have chosen a snappier definition, but you get the point.

Newport distinguishes this type of high-value work from so-called ‘shallow work’, which he defines as ‘low-value work done in environments with plenty of distraction and that generally involves multitasking’.

The author is such a firm believer in ‘deep work’ that he credits this approach with helping him to write a book, raise a family, increase the number of research papers he publishes and teach at a prestigious university, all at the same time.

Why is ‘Deep Work’ important?

Many of us make the fatal mistake of confusing ‘busyness’ with productivity.

This means we get lots of things done, but the completed tasks are of low value and therefore don’t meaningfully contribute to our primary goals.

And it’s a trap because the more shallow work you do, the less time you have for deep work.

Or, as Newport says, ‘If you service low-impact activities, therefore, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities. It’s a zero-sum game.’

If you define productivity as ‘getting more of what’s important done in less time’, deep work allows you to achieve this worthwhile ambition.

It does this by focusing your attention for an extended period on the tasks that really matter.

Deep work is increasingly valuable and rare in today’s world because most people are too distracted to get anything of real importance done.

The Four Approaches to ‘Deep Work’

1. Monastic Deep Work

This is the gold standard of deep work.

As you might have guessed, it requires you to shut yourself off from the outside world, much like a monk. Think of travelling alone to a sparsely populated area with no Internet access, and you’re on the right track.

An example of this would be Bill Gates taking one of his ‘Think Weeks’.

2. Bimodal Deep Work

If you can’t go off-grid for months, this is the next best thing.

Bimodal deep work involves going to a completely different place from where you spend most of your time and working there uninterrupted for an extended period. e.g. Your local library or a spare room in a friend’s house.

In the book, the author shares the example of the writer J.K.Rowling who ensconced herself in a hotel for months to write the final Harry Potter novel.

Of course, she might have found the accompanying bill harder to swallow if it had been her first book!

3. Rhythmic Deep Work

The third approach involves blocking out time in your calendar to do deep work.

You might start with just an hour, extending this to a few hours later on.

So when should you block out time?

Research shows that mornings are the optimal time for most people because that’s when they are most alert.

There’s an added benefit too.

The sense of accomplishment puts you in a good mood for the rest of the day and boosts your confidence.

4. Journalistic Deep Work

As the title suggests, the final way of doing deep work mimics the working style of a journalist, which is to grab any opportunity you have to work without any distractions.

This is perhaps the most realistic option for many people (especially those with young children) and is the method Newport used himself when writing his book.

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