11 Oct 2021

Deep Work: rules to stay focused

by Joan

In today’s world of remote work, most managers’ biggest concern is making sure their staff remains focused. For many companies, it’s hard to let go of in-office structure and trust their staff to stay focused on their jobs from home.

Truth be told, distractions can be a part of any workplace. Some employees have found working from home to have fewer distractions than working in the workplace. Professor Cal Newport, a renowned author, and computer sciences expert, saw a need for deeper focus at work even before the pandemic struck. Now, with so many people working remotely, his concepts are more relevant than ever.

According to Newport, “deep work” refers to,

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

In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport articulates that anyone who masters the rare skills of deep work will thrive.

This indispensable guide will walk you through an overview of the fundamental steps for deep work practices.

How to practice deep work 

You’ve probably experienced what it’s like to be distracted during work hours. Sometimes the distractions can come in the form of something unavoidable, like a family emergency. However, most distractions are as niggling as wondering when you should take your next break or what’s happening on social media.

Now, keep in mind, there’s a method to the madness. Deep work isn’t based on an archaic belief that you should work around the clock, staring at your computer screen whether you’re productive or not. Instead, deep working is more like meditating to train your mind into a better way of focusing: kind of like a superpower you need to hone to achieve greatness.

If you like your profession and enjoy your career path, deep work is structured to help you love what you do even more. If you’re passionate about your projects, diving deeper and getting more creative on the job can have massive benefits, giving you a sense of true fulfillment.

In an interview with Lex Fridman, Newport relates serious professionals to olympic athletes. It takes a deep work ethic for olympians to reach their full potential. However, these athletes are following their dreams and passions in life: striving for the next level of their abilities. If your passion is your work, it’s important to push yourself to new heights, new discoveries, and new capabilities. 

According to Newport, “our brains are stingy when it comes to expending energy;” you can’t just switch from shallow work to deep work overnight. Instead, achieving deep work takes steps to train your mind: get into “the zone.”

This article runs through ten deep work steps others have used to reach new heights and advance their careers.

Define Your Goal

One way or another, your goal is to achieve deep work. However, why? What do you want to achieve?

Famed computer scientist Donald Knuth says, “I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.”

In this example, Knuth is following two passions: his love for computer sciences and his love to share his knowledge. In his book Deep Work, Newport also quotes acclaimed science fiction writer Neal Stephenson:

“The productivity equation is a nonlinear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.”

In Stephenson’s case, his goal was to write efficiently and well. To achieve his goal, he unknowingly transitioned to deep work concepts. Stephenson set aside strict timeslots to focus on his work with no interruptions, honing a new skill: a new level of focus.

Aside from having an overarching goal, you also need to approach every deep work session with a goal in mind. If you don’t have a challenging enough goal, you’ll become distracted wondering where to begin or how to stay focused throughout your entire deep work session. Your daily goal doesn’t have to be elaborate, but make sure you have a starting point with something to achieve.

Create deep work time

In his teachings, Newport emphasizes that the rigorous scheduling of deep work time is meant to give you the hours you need to drill into your passions.

Some people restrict themselves to their office, others shut themselves into an isolated hut with no internet and minimal physical distractions. One way or another, to truly follow deep work practices, you must cut yourself off from any and all distractions for a set period of time in your day.

What you do with the rest of your time outside of that window is up to you: work in a coffee shop, have meetings with colleagues, catch up with your clients… What’s important is that your mind learns when and where it’s supposed to focus in a distraction-free environment.

How long should your daily deep work time period be? That’s entirely up to what works best for you. Some highly-driven deep workers can go full workdays at a time: eight or more hours. However, less avid people deep work for as little as 90-minute intervals, which “works better with the reality of human nature.”

In the words of Newport, “work can produce extreme productivity, but only if the subject dedicates enough time to such endeavors to reach maximum cognitive intensity — the state in which real breakthroughs occur.” Give yourself enough time to achieve breakthroughs.

With more and more companies switching to hybrid work practices, many employees now have some flexibility to apply deep work practices. They can lock themselves away from the world and not look like the office introvert, all to reemerge with high-quality work produced.

Take advantage of the post-COVID world and see how you can improve your work habits.

Eliminate Distractions

Yes, our brains need regular breaks. However, we need to be trained not to consider breaks in the middle of focused work. Such mundane breaks include snack breaks, social breaks, even walk breaks. That’s not to say any of these breaks are bad, but they simply offer no benefit to your scheduled deep-dive sessions.

In his book, Newport cautions that “if you instead remain one of the many for whom depth is uncomfortable and distraction ubiquitous, you shouldn’t expect these systems and skills to come easily to you.” It’s important to start small and ease yourself into longer and longer periods of deep work.

What’s more, Newport explains that forcing yourself to be focused is a distraction. Instead, he advises his readers to “embrace boredom.” This concept seems like nonsense advice until you know his reasoning.

Imagine this: you’re sitting in a dull office waiting for brilliance to kick in. You have no phone, no tablet, and have eliminated any and all other distractions. The space is uncomfortably dull. We need to reprogram ourselves to be okay without distractions; to be okay without checking social media or the internet every time we’re bored.

Rather than thinking “I need to stay focused… stay on track,” simply accept that you’re bored. Stick to your rigorous regime until your mind is okay without distractions and opens up to deep work instead.

To truly achieve deep work you must eliminate distractions. Here are some key tactics to do so:

  • Be okay with saying no. If a teammate schedules a coffee meeting during one of your scheduled deep work sessions… if your child wants a ride to their friends… if your dog wants a walk, it’s okay to say no.
  • Unclutter your desk. Devices as complex as your mobile phone or as simple as a fidget spinner are enough to ruin your entire deep work session. Clear them out of sight until you’ve reached your day’s deep work goals.
  • Divert distractions. Make sure others in your space know when you’re unavailable. This can be done through verbal instructions, repetition, or signage. Have a look at Joan’s Home solution.

Check out our blog for more tips to work effectively from home.

Employ a rigid schedule

Deep work doesn’t require you to “press your nose to the grinder,” as the saying goes. However, it does require you to challenge yourself to be productive and focused in stints. Newport refers to these stints as “fixed-schedule productivity.”

Ideally, you’ll have a plan for every hour of the day. For example, you work on one project for 90 minutes in one day with a clear goal for how far in that project you’ll be when you’ve finished for the day. The rest of your day can be filled with shallow work, including replying to emails or attending meetings. Then, you plan to unwind after 5:30, making sure that you’ve achieved realistic goals throughout the day. Additionally, this end-of-day routine gives you freedom to plan your next day, keeping the schedule just as rigid.

If you take a break in the day, make sure it’s scheduled so your mind isn’t taunting you to take them all day long. Also, leave and return from your lunch break as planned without dallying.

Newport shares a narrative of doctoral candidate Brian Chappell as an example. When Chappell was first introduced to Newport’s theories of deep work, Chappell was only half committed to the regime. Instead of setting aside regular time periods for deep work, he used an ad-hoc structure for 90-minute intervals of deep work. However, when he went to a dissertation boot camp, Chappell saw better results. He was able to write an entire thesis chapter in a single week: much less time than the entire year another chapter took him. After his boot camp stint, Chappell adopted a rigorous routine to keep his thesis progress on track.

This structure may sound rigid and require a ton of willpower, but that’s only until you transition into the swing of training your body and mind to enter deep work naturally. Ease your way into a schedule and add more hours and deep work time as you see fit.

Have zero social media

Social media during work hours is a trap that our brains are all too happy to step into. In all, some studies estimate that around 28 percent of our days are spent on social media. Newport refers to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, and other social platforms as the “why not” approach. In theory, these platforms are so at-the-ready on our mobile devices that our brains wonder: “Why not? Why shouldn’t I?”

We feel “justified” in using a network tool if we can see any benefit to our day through using them. The problem is, the benefit doesn’t relate to your work or help you focus on your job. The one main benefit of social media — staying connected with friends, family, and fans — can come at the cost of many downsides that you’re missing. Your focus suffers and you’re handicapped, only able to ever achieve shallow work practices.

If you want to truly thrive in your workplace, you’re going to have to rethink your approach. Wean yourself off of social media during work hours until you can stay off it altogether.

Furthermore, staying off social media can help with your after-work activities too. All of those life problems you’ve been struggling with, the blog you wanted to write, the recipe book you wanted to put together… train yourself off social media and you’ll likely get a lot more accomplished with your on-the-side projects.

Maintain deep work rituals

It’s important to set up patterns and systems that lull your mind into deep work. For example, engrain some sort of ritual that initiates your deep work efforts: drinking a coffee, playing study music, taking your shoes off, putting a “do not disturb” sign on your door, etcetera.

Charles Darwin, for one, began his day with rituals when he produced his best work, rising promptly at seven in the morning, leaving for a short walk, eating breakfast alone, and returning to his study for 90 minutes.

Such rituals condition your brain to sink into deep work when you begin them. What’s more, these rituals shouldn’t only be about preparing you to enter deep work, but to train your brain about what to expect after deep work too.

Newport uses Jerry Seinfeld as an example. To produce his best jokes and comedy, Seinfeld began a regime of writing every single day. Every day that he wrote, he would mark the day with an X on his calendar. Newport explains that “the goal […] is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep.”

Newport details three key steps for adopting a rhythmic philosophy:

  • Decide where you’ll work and for how long. Have a consistent location that you reuse every time you settle down for deep work.
  • How you’ll work once you start to work. Set rules in place that keep you from fidgeting or opening yourself to distractions (for example, leave your phone elsewhere).
  • How you’ll support your work. Make sure your brain gets the support it needs for operating at a high level for a period of time: rest, food, etcetera.

Ultimately, you need to create your own rhythm. Consider this: if you hear a wrong note in your favourite song, you’ll notice. You know the song so inside and out that the wrong note will throw you off. The same concept goes for deep work. Develop a reliable rhythm that your mind can rely on and be lulled into a deep sense of focus.

Don’t multitask

In the words of Newport, “context shifting kills the human capacity to work.” The challenge of deep work isn’t simply to focus but to focus without distractions. 

Bouncing between ideas, work, distractions, and anything other interruption during your focus time can be exhausting. By midday, you’ve lost the energy to focus on anything at all.

Sophie Leroy, a business professor at the University of Minnesota, analyzed the effects of multitasking. In her findings, she found that the problem resides in switching from one task to another: your attention doesn’t immediately follow you to task B. A trace of your attention will remain on task A, resulting in poor performance with task B. On the other hand, if you had continued focusing on task A, your focus would have grown deeper and deeper, leading to high-quality work.

Tasks as seemingly harmless as checking your inbox or going to the bathroom can have negative impacts on your ability to focus. In fact, Newport believes deep work should omit all forms of distractions including your work’s email, phone, and instant messaging systems. Shut it all down: anything and everything you don’t need for your deep work session. One single distraction can waste your entire deep work structure.

Take Notes

Brilliance is fleeting: make sure you leave a paper trail of what you work on during your deep work sessions. Notes will also prepare you for next time, helping you jump back to where you left off.

There’s a balance, however. Take notes your way: if you need to share them, you can transcribe them after. If you spend your deep work session wondering if someone else can read your notes, you’re distracted — you’ll have thrown off your entire deep work session and have a less productive day.

Throughout his book, Newport’s memorable stories include examples of authors and scholars. At one point he even goes so far as to measure the positive impacts of deep work by how many dissertations a professor releases in a year.

Brilliance comes from keeping track of your ideas and thoughts. Great men have changed the world, changed science, or changed the way we function as a society, from mere scribblings on paper.

Track how much deep work you do

Deep work can be measured in more ways than one. Some scholars measure it by how many papers they have published per year; some authors measure deep work with how many words they write per day.

However, everyone who practices deep work should measure their sessions by hours. How many consecutive hours did it take you to achieve a breakthrough? Did you need more time? How many hours did you deep work in a week? Do you need more time to reach your goals?

One hype word these days is “analytics.” Every day, companies scrounge up analytics to help them understand productivity and how to improve it. The same goes for you too. By knowing how much time you spend practicing deep work and what your output was, you can learn how to tweak and adjust your deep work sessions to achieve your goals.

Take Regular Breaks To Refill Your Energy

Don’t underestimate the power of resting alongside your deep work sessions.

In Deep Work, Newport cites an experiment from the journal Psychological Science. In the experiment, one group of subjects were taken on a walk to a wooded path in an arboretum. Another group of subjects was taken on a walk-in a bustling city. After these walks, the subjects were united and given a concentration-sapping test. The results found that the subjects taken to the arboretum scored 20 percent better than those taken into the city.

This study was based on the concept of attention fatigue resulting from the subjects’ intensity of focus. Concentrating requires “direct attention,” which is exhaustible. You can restore your ability to concentrate through resting or changing activity.

If you think about it, there are many recent studies demonstrating employees need regular rest throughout their day. As a result, many groups have deduced that shorter periods of work between breaks improve productivity. This concept is true if you’re content with shallow work. However, to achieve deep work, Newport suggests intense focus spurts of at least 90 minutes.

Don’t let work emails or messages interrupt your downtime: “only the confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge.”

Conclusion

Although this article might seem like a novel full of complicated information, it’s linked by three very basic concepts: plan and stick to your deep work schedule, eliminate all distractions, and recharge to repeat.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Condition your mind the same way an athlete conditions their mind and body to achieve the best results. We all have a desire to be good at what we love. Many of us wouldn’t mind being remembered and esteemed to boot.

Did you know…

Face it: the best place to get uninterrupted peace and quiet for deep work is, more often than not, out of the office. Well, you’re in luck: thanks to COVID, most of us are out of the office. Still, not all homes are quiet. Some homes need a little restructuring to be ready for deep work practices.

You could shoot your housemates a text telling them you’re busy… except you’re not allowed a cellphone during your deep work sessions. Instead, how about an intuitive wall mount that displays your availability and work schedule?

Joan’s home solution is specifically designed to help you focus at home. The device offers work-from-home employees three key resources:

  • Clear signage demonstrating your availability, diverting visitors when you need peace and quiet
  • Your schedule for the day, helping housemates know when they can interrupt you
  • Other custom content, fostering a purely-you feel to your home office

What’s more, Joan displays are virtually wireless, only needing a charge every three to twelve months, depending on your device. Joan’s system works seamlessly with your calendar tools, syncing to your schedule over Wi-Fi.

“My kids love Joan Home. In fact, when they use my ‘home office’ for a call of their own, they expect the same level of privacy and I do when working. It’s a big stress reliever for everyone. They also know when I’m done with my workday, and I know they will not interrupt.”

– Matt Mayfield, Telekta

Visit our website to learn more about Joan Home or get in touch with our knowledgeable team.