In a society of instant convenience, those who master deep work stand out. As Cal Newport defines it in his eponymous book, deep work is a cognitive state of intense focus and concentration without distractions over an extended and uninterrupted period of time. It allows you to learn hard things quickly and excel in your area of expertise, both in terms of quantity and quality of output.
Deep work changes your perspective on the world too, in the sense that it gives you more control over where you direct your attention. It trains you to concentrate on what matters to you while ignoring distractions at the same time, an ability that will help you navigate a society that tries to hijack your attention in whatever way it can.
Deep work is crucial and unavoidable if you're committed to mastery. But how do you pull yourself away from shallow work and transition into a life that allows you to work deeply? It's not as hard as it may seem. The following choices, habits, and lifestyle changes, taken largely from Newport's book, will take you a long way toward a life of intense focus.
Before you implement deep work into your life, you need to take stock of what you want to work deeply on. Choose something that's wildly important to you. That choice, in turn, will decide what form deep work will take in your life, something that Newport calls your depth philosophy. He identifies four depth philosophies:
- Monastic: You have a well-defined and highly valued professional goal that allows you to work deeply for weeks, if not months on end. Think cabin in the woods to write a book. This type of deep work isn't applicable to many professions.
- Bimodal: You have a clearly defined amount of time that you set aside exclusively for deep work, and you leave the rest open to everything else. This is what the highly prolific fantasy author Brandon Sanderson does. He writes for long hours every day except Thursday, which he keeps free for shallow work. The amount of time dedicated to deep work should be at least a day.
- Rhythmic: You have a set starting time for deep work that repeats itself every day. This is the type of deep work that's easiest to achieve for most people. Either this or bimodal deep work should be the default for those new to deep work.
- Journalistic: You fit deep work in wherever you can. This is not for the deep work novice, because it takes some time to get into the flow of deep work. Choosing this depth philosophy requires a mindset that allows you to switch on and be productive right away. It's not impossible, but it requires significant training.
Once you've decided on your depth philosophy, you need to ritualize your deep work. Rituals differ from routines in the sense that there's purpose and meaning behind them. Before you begin your deep work session, identify and reiterate your why. Why are you doing this? What future do you envision if you do this properly? This will help motivate and keep your end goal top of mind.
The next step is to decide on the factors around your deep work session. Particularly for the rhythmic depth philosophy, figure out where you will work and for how long you will work. Decide when you'll take breaks (which you should) and what you will and won't do during those breaks. Make these choices before you begin and you will fall into deep work much faster.
You should work deeply on something that's wildly important to you. You should also know, clearly and in detail, why it's important to you. Then you should track the number of hours you spend working deeply on your wildly important goal. The more time you spend working on it, the higher the chances that you'll achieve it.
Tracking your deep work hours also helps you stay accountable. Schedule regular reviews to understand why a week went well (many hours of genuine deep work) or poorly (few hours of genuine deep work). Use this information to get back on track or make the next deep work period even better.
You are not to distract yourself during your deep work session. This can be tremendously hard, particularly when you're new to deep work and if you're connected to the Internet. There are many ways to eliminate distractions, whether it's putting your phone in another room, locking your door, using a website blocker like Freedom, or disconnecting from the Internet altogether. You will need to experiment to see what works best for you.
But it's crucial to get distractions under control. The pull of today's distractions, especially those that come in the form of technology, is almost irresistible. Whenever a thought pops into our head, we look it up online. Before we know it, we're watching a video on how much butter is needed to stop a bullet. Eliminating or at least reducing the impulse to follow these random thoughts is the first step to taking back control over your mind.
There's no going around it: Deep work is exhausting because it takes so much mental effort. That's why it's crucial you rest and recover just as deeply as you work. Examples of good rest are: exercise, walks in nature, easy conversations with friends, listening to music, meditation, etc. Good rest does not include subjecting yourself to the latest terrors and outrage of the news or vitriolic opinions on social media.
You almost certainly know what constitutes good rest for you, because your body and your mind will tell you. The trick is to choose these forms of rest over those that may be easier or more convenient, but that find you feeling empty and unfulfilled. This is harder than it seems, and may require familiarizing yourself once more with what so many can't stand a second of nowadays: boredom.
The antidote to a society that leans toward the shallow is a life of deep work. It is a life of hard work, but it won't feel that way. It will feel rewarding, fulfilling, and some would say sacred. This blog post has given you a brief insight into how you can improve your life through deep work, but Cal Newport's book on the topic is a much more comprehensive account and well worth reading.