How to do deep work effectively

Written on December 04, 2017

You’ve read about it, you’ve accepted the hype and now it’s time to give it a go. Dive into deep work with our cheat sheet, showing the 8 steps to get you started.

Before you start deep work

Deep work is hard and takes some effort to get going, but it’s not meant to be a bore – it’s the intense kind of concentration you only get when you’re super into something. Think of your first encounter as a test of your attention, self-control and exploratory abilities. You’ll probably learn something unexpected about yourself along the way.

If you’re trying it out in an office, find an undisturbed space: book a meeting room, block out time in your calendar, turn off your phone, put your headphones on, trigger your out-of-office message and let people know you’re not to be disturbed. Do everything to make sure you have your own undivided attention.

But be realistic – whilst Cal Newport suggests deep work means roughly 90-minute stretches of uninterrupted time, you may not get there immediately. Don’t put yourself off it forever by diving too deep, too fast.

Deep work best practice

1. Understand how you work

Choose one of the “depth philosophies” which best suits your lifestyle and the way you work:

  • Monastic: remove all distractions on a permanent basis (no SoMe, no phone communication, no email)
  • Bimodal: divide your time between deep and shallow stretches, concentrated over days or weeks at a time.
  • Rhythmic: Make deep work a regular habit by scheduling a few hours of it into daily life.
  • Journalistic: switch to deep work whenever free time presents itself.

Unless you’re an academic professor or writing a book, the rhythmic philosophy is probably the most realistic option, especially for getting started.

2. Plan your time

Actively protect that time and schedule it into your working day. Newport likes to do this 4 weeks in advance, but to begin with you’ll probably just want to do it the week before starting.

Decide what you want to prioritize and block off time working deeply to achieve that. It’s a good idea to think about what time of day you are most productive and focused, and save that for your deep thinking. Don’t agree to any appointments or meetings during this protected period.

3. Decide what you want to achieve

Deep working isn’t just for nobel-prize winners of people producing "profound" work. It’s accessible to anyone, no matter what small task you want to achieve. Understand what success means for you and set a challenging deadline to get there.

Ask what you want to achieve by the end of your deep work session and commit to it. Our brains love having a set goal they can focus all their resources on. The more challenging, the more rewarding – and you might identify where your workflow could be improved.

4. Establish rituals

You can’t rely on the force of your willpower alone – it’s fleeting and mood-driven. So create structured habits and rituals to sustain your deep thinking. Decide where you’ll work and for how long, gather everything you’ll need to do that work, remove distractions and catch yourself if you find your attention drifting.

Try deep working for similar blocks of time twice or three times a week. You might want to start with 1-2 hour segments a day, and then gradually work your way up to longer, more frequent stretches.

5. Become unavailable

All communication outside your deep working space can wait until your done. You need to be ruthless to make sure all your attention is focused on your set task. Mute your office communication tools, log out of email, delete your social apps and turn off your phone, if you can face it.

Train yourself to acknowledge and resist your distractive tendencies. Setting up rules on where social media fits into your life is a big one here. You might want to try going without it for a week to see if you actually miss out on anything, or if you absence was even noticed.

6. Know when you’ll stop, and actually stop

The motivation to do deep work only works if you have clearly defined parameters. You need to agree with yourself when to stop and honour that promise. Newport actually uses a spoken shutdown ritual to do this, and chants a “closure phrase” to end each session. (You don’t need to do this).

Always ensure you end deep work in a comfortable place, so there’s no friction or confusion when you pick up work in your next stretch.

7. Assess how you did

Did you achieve what you promised yourself you would? Take an unforgiving stance on this – deep work can unlock new levels of productivity, so if you’re not getting enough out of it reassess your approach. Without reviewing your performance, you can’t improve.

Track how you spent your time and keep a score of how many deep work hours you’ve spent to create a sense of progress and productive pressure. Some people like to set milestones for each weel (e.g. "read X number of pages" or "write X number of words") to keep them working to a set rate.

8. Enrich your downtime

Long stretches of intense concentration should be balanced with quality rest. Make an effort to get more from your downtime, opting for quality, engaging experiences over mindless web browsing. The more you cut this low-value habit out of your free time, the more you’ll see it as a distraction rather than a reward.

Whatever you’re doing, be fully in the moment. Having presence and giving your full attention is essential to focusing for long periods of time. It also just makes you a cooler human to be around!

You’re ready to start your first deep work experiment!

Remember, this is all about making your time accountable: be intentional with what you do and be aware of how you spend it.

Stay focused and enjoy your brain 👊🏼

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