Deep Work: Focus in a Distracted World

Deep Work: Focus in a Distracted World

Do you ever have the feeling that you're really deep into something and don't notice the time or everything around you? That's called Deep Work. Cal Newport defines this as "the distraction-free state where you push your cognitive capabilities to their limit". In this hyper-focused state you get a lot of work done, create new value and improve your skills. You don't just get in the state anytime you want, it randomly happens. However, there are 4 rules that apply to the deep work phenomenon.

Rule #1: Work Deeply

You will get bombarded with all kinds of tasks everyday. They may seem small, but they can distract you from the things that are actually important. Interrupting your deep work session for a phone call that could be skipped or done later is a no-go. You will get rarely more than 4 hours of deep work in a day. Use that time carefully on the big tasks that need them. In order to get more in this deep work state you have to work with routines. Design the place where you do the work to routinely get into deep work automatically. Work from the same place, use the same setup and light your favourite candle. The cues that you have while performing deep work may help you with getting in the same state the next time.

It's important that you relax at the end of a deep work session to reset your brain so you can perform deep work the next day again. Fill the rest of your day with small tasks that won't take much mental RAM. These tasks are also called Shallow Work.

Rule #2: Emrace Boredom

When you have your phone in front of you and the screen lights up, you will take a look at it and interrupt your deep work state. It's hard to be actually undistracted because of all these incentives around us. However, you can train your undistracted concentration habit in a couple of ways:

  • You won't win the battle with your mind when it comes to distraction. Schedule downtime in your deep work session where you can browse the internet or send that message. Put your phone away outside these downtimes. You can perform deep work better because you know you have some downtime coming up.
  • Set artificial deadlines for yourself so you use 100% of your focus on the task that needs to be finished instead of 50% the whole day. Seeing the timer coming close to zero you automatically get the incentive to finish your work before the timer hits zero.
  • Give your brain some space by going for a walk where you're physically occupied so you can focus your attention on a single well-defined problem.

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

The devil behind your concentration problems. The disadvantages outweigh the small advantages it gives you in return. We should look into our core activities that matter for us to achieve our goals. Social media probably won't help you in achieving your goals. It only distracts you from performing the needed work. Do everything with a meaning instead of hours of unnecessary social media use.

You have 24 hours in a day. Substracting the 8 hours of sleep and 8 hours of work gives you 8 hours of free time. It's like a day within a day where you're not a wage-earner and as good as a man with private income. Don't waste this time on social media.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

Try to schedule every minute of your day using time blocks. It gives you a clear overview of your day where you can plan deep work sessions. Combine small and non-important tasks into time blocks of 30 minutes. If you're unsure that you will finish your work in that time frame give yourself some overflow in the time block. When you do finish in time you can fill this overflow time with non-urgent tasks.

It's also important that you stop working after a certain time. This is because you probably can't focus after ~ 4 hours of working a day. Doing the extra work will not be efficient anymore for today. It also forces you to focus on the thing that actually matter. It's the artificial deadline of your day.

Final Note

Deep work is the state where you're ultra productive, get things done in the least possible time and forget everything around you. It can be used from the student that want's to prepare for its test in the best possible way or the artist that is so deeply focused in its painting that everything else is not noticed anymore. It's hard to concentrate on a task without getting distracted by other things. It requires training and discipline but gives you a rich life with productivity and meaning.