Can everybody do deep work?

Written on December 18, 2017

We’ve posted a few times about deep work, and generally find it to be a practically useful method. But it’s not without its problems.

Who can do deep work?

The deep work theory tends to class immediate communication and availability as features of “shallow” work. But this seemingly alienates a whole group of professionals whose work revolves around helping, supporting and resolving problems.

Some jobs require constant context switching by their nature, but by definition it seems they can never belong to the category of highly-concentrated, productive “deep work”.

These issues raise some important questions: who is deep work designed for? Can you benefit from it? Can your company? Will you need to make huge changes to do it? How will it impact work culture and collaboration? Is it sustainable?

Can a whole company do deep work?

To set about answering them, we decided to try out a company-wide deep work experiment.

The whole Timely team – development, finance, strategy, marketing, customer success and sales – had a go at putting deep work into practice to see if it can work in a company setting and if it’s relevant to all employees.

Here’s how we got on:


How do you focus yourself for deep work?

I’ve been trying breathing techniques to get me focused – and it totally works! I set up everything I need (open the right tabs, get all my materials ready), then close my eyes and spend about 4 minutes breathing rhythmically. Afterwards, I just lock my focus.

So you’re able to resist distractions in that mode?

Unless you mute them, notifications will pop up at some point. But I’m training myself to ignore them and finish the moment I’m in. There’s a time for work and a time for responding.

Do you use any tools to do deep work?

You just need something to keep time and a little self-discipline 😊

No. 1 tip?

Don’t expect to immediately spend a whole afternoon in deep work; you need to train your attention span. Once you’re there, you’ll look at your empty time in a new way: that 30 mins waiting in a coffee shop becomes a deep work opportunity.


How are you finding deep work?

I’m not sure if I can call it that…I mean, I zone out, but it’s not like the programmers. I guess deep work is similar to a method I used to write my thesis, which rewards periods of work with breaks. Over time, work extends and breaks become fewer.

Does deep work offer anything new for you?

I think life before distractions (childhood/school) offered more space for true deep work. While “deep work” kind of rehashes an old concept, it’s set within a whole new context now, so its application means more.

Your role relies on responding to a ton of competing queries simultaneously, so what does deep work mean for you?

My work is fast-paced, but deep work still applies. It means seeing one issue through to resolution – regardless of the multiple sources I need to consult – without being distracted by new ones. The human impulse is to reassure everyone immediately, but that just screws up your concentration.

Final tips?

Minimal house music and repetitive rhythms get me in the zone pretty easily 👌🏽. When my headphones are on, treat me like I'm not in the office.


Would you recommend the deep work concept?

Completely. I love being totally immersed and forgetting about time and place. The feeling of flow is extremely addictive.

What time works best for you?

Mornings, after lunch and evenings. I think early mornings are great for it – all the distracting people are still asleep!

Do you think deep work requires isolation?

It depends on how you deal with distraction. Just seeing people in my peripheral vision is pretty distracting, but having done it for a while I can now focus in public places.

You do take breaks though, right?

Of course. I use a Pomodoro timer (Tadam) to remind me to take hourly breaks. But it really depends on the task: for deep analysis or complex coding, I’ll just go for 2-3 hours straight.

No.1 tip?

Always define what you’re going to do and take one thing at a time. If you don’t, you’ll just jump all over the place without finishing anything.


What activities do you find suit deep work?


How do you balance removing distractions for deep work with being constantly available to answer business-critical questions/provide direction?


Any tips for CEOs wondering if it could work for them?


So, did deep work actually work for everybody?

The overwhelming response from the team was super positive. It was really interesting to see how people with very different tasks were able to take the idea and bend it to their own needs.

Even those performing work Newport would class as “shallow” in nature were able to validate and recognise their own productivity. Newport himself has stated that CEOs, for example, can’t really do deep work – and yet Mathias was applying his version of it with great success.

A flexible tool is a good tool

Adaptability is ultimately a huge win for deep work. The mark of any successful tool, language or concept lies in its adaptability to meet the requirements of as many people as possible.

It’s pretty similar to what we found with our own tool Timely – we created if for a few set purposes, and our users adopt it and apply it creatively in ways we never initially intended.

If your creation is so inclusive that you can create value and enable people beyond your own small definitions, you’re on to something good. Try a mini deep work experiment of your own across a week or so and see how it works for you!

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