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A Guide to Deep Work: How to Achieve the Ultimate Productivity

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Updated on ・6 min read

If you are looking for a way to become more effective, more productive and just better at everything you do, deep work is the productivity mindset you need.

Deep work is not some marketing gimmick designed to sell books and speaking gigs. Rather, deep work is a way to approach your professional life in such a way that generates the best results consistently.

This is not a case of: work smarter, not harder. This is a case of: work smarter and harder to produce a superior result in a consistent and sustainable way. Cal Newport, who coined the phrase deep work described it as a method that “will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship.”

The difference between shallow work and deep work

Deep work is “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task,” this is different to shallow work which are “tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish.”

For example, shallow work is answering emails, responding to messages, or attending meetings. This stuff is easy to do, and it makes us feel as though we’re being productive. Shallow work also typically involves a lot of interaction with other people, which also makes it attractive.

The sense of accomplishment derived from shallow work makes it appealing. However, deep work is what provides most value. And not only value in terms of output, but also an increase in the quality of valuable output.

When you start to engage in deep work, you will feel a greater sense of achievement in the work you’re doing.

6 steps to achieve the ultimate productivity with deep work

So, how do you engage in deep work? To make the most of deep work you need to turn it into a habit. It must be a part of every work day in order for it to be of any use to you. Here are six steps to help you effectively start using deep work:

1. Prepare your week and clarify your goals

Preparing your week in advance, or if your weeks chop and change too much, prepare the next day. This allows you to start each day with a bit of clarity.

Preparing your day or week can start with goal setting. What is the end-goal of the next day’s work? What should it achieve? From there you can work backwards to determine what you need to do to achieve that goal. Break that down into chunks that you can do throughout the day that will achieve your daily goals.

The clarity this preparation provides will help you to concentrate more specifically on the task at hand.

2. Automate what can be automated

Mapping out your daily to-do list, setting goals and delegating shallow work should not be a time-consuming task. You should, ideally, be able to do it in an efficient and easy-to-manage way.

With the right project management and centralized collaboration tool, it’s quite easy to create your own to-do list as well as ensure other tasks that can be done by another staff member are delegated.

Some of the project management tools that can help you automate your workflow: Quire, Asana, Trello, etc.

This frees up your time to focus on what’s important. With the help of a project management tool like Quire, you can keep on top of your own tasks in order of priority while also checking (at the end of the day) that others have completed their work.

3. Focus on one task at a time

Deep work is about concentrating on one task at a time. By giving all your attention and all your focus to only one thing for an extended period of time, it allows your brain to better process what’s in front of it.

Focus on this task for 40 minutes or an hour or two, and you’ll find you are able to accomplish a lot. And quickly.

The next step is then to rest. At the end of a deep work session, don’t immediately try to jump into the next task.

Resting will allow your brain to wind down and leave the last task. After a rest you can approach a new task with a fresh perspective: allowing you to devote all of your attention to that singular goal.

4. Create a ritual

To get the most out of a deep work session, you need to build a ritual; a routine. You need to turn deep work into a daily habit. When you prepare your day, part of that preparation will involve chunks of time devoted to deep work.

This may be in hour or two-hour chunks during a day, but it is important that you stick to these times. Remove all distractions, disconnect from the world, and work on your allotted deep work tasks.

Your ritual must include (along with an allotted time):

  • A specific place for you to work: somewhere free of distractions.
  • A plan of attack. How do you plan to eliminate all distractions for this allotted time to sustain the deep work mentality?
  • Sustenance. From something as simple as starting with a cup of coffee, to having the right kind of energy-providing snacks on hand to help keep you focused.

Creating a ritual takes time and practice. Creating a space where you can work uninterrupted and at maximum efficiency may take some time to work out. But once you have, start slowly. Your first deep work session may be only 20 minutes. And you might do that 3 times a day.

Then you’ll move up to 30 minutes, then 40, then eventually to an hour. Professionals who have been doing deep work for a while can maintain the deep work focus for as long as four hours.

But it takes time, and practice and patience.

5. Shut down social media

For deep work to be effective you must remove all distractions. Deep work is about putting all your focus, energy and attention into one place. Social media will drag part of your brain one way while another part of your brain tries to focus on the task at hand.

You don’t need cat videos on your mind while you’re trying to create high-quality value.

As part of your schedule, allocate small blocks of time where you can briefly check social media, emails and messages. But stick to these brief blocks of time. While you’re at work, you need to focus on what matters most: doing your job well.

6. Switch off for the day

When you’re done for the day. Be done. Don’t try to eke out an extra hour or two after dinner in the hopes of getting more done.
After the strain of your day (and if you haven’t strained your brain during a deep work session, you haven’t done a deep work session), you need to let your brain relax and recharge.
However, that doesn’t necessarily always mean watching terrible TV or TikTok videos. Disconnect from work and do something that’s relaxing but not (necessarily) mind numbing.

How to achieve the ultimate productivity

Deep work is a method of approaching cognitively demanding tasks free from distractions. It’s about ignoring the shallow work long enough to ensure you’re creating high-quality value that no one else could.

To help you focus, you want to be able to easily create to-do lists, streamline task delegation and have all this in one easy-to-manage, easy-to access place.

Not only will this help you prepare your day and set your goals, it will also allow you to stay away from shallow work until its allotted time in your scheduled day.

The overall effect of a combination of deep work plus a project management and centralized collaboration tool, is increased productivity for yourself and the whole team.

Discussion (13)

olivier32621338 profile image
Olivier Chauvin • Edited

Thanks for the list! It's really helpful.
I think the hardest part about the Deep Work method is setting a schedule. It took a long time for me to just finish setting a day's schedule, let alone a week's amount. I used to write everything down on pen and paper, but this actually wastes a lot of time.

Switched to using digital todo lists like the ones you recommend above, and things got so much easier. I'm a huge fan of Quire ever since someone recommended it to me a few months back. They have the feature where you can set priorities so that you can finish the ones that are more crucial and put the ones that have a longer deadline to the back.
The best thing is that the app provides offline syncing so I can turn on airplane mode (to get rid of the distractions from social media) and still use it.

Thanks again for the tips!

turbopape profile image
Rafik Naccache

If only people understood the importance of point six! In our industry they kinda give a badge of honor if you do extra hours, not noticing that they are ruining the bigger story !

squidbe profile image
squidbe • Edited

Good list. The title of #2, however, doesn't really reflect the content of #2. When I saw "Automate what can be automated", I thought, "Yes, that's a big one!" But you go on to talk about project management and delegation. Might wanna change the title of #2 to better reflect its content.

That said, automation is very important in that it reduces cognitive load, which lets you focus more on deep thinking. This really extends to every tool that you use; e.g., understanding all the shortcuts of your IDE, using macros where possible, and even just using conventions will reduce the time and effort you need to spend on repeated tasks, hence freeing up your brain for problem solving.

dwilmer profile image
Daan Wilmer

I love doing deep work, but lately I'm having trouble getting into it. I hope these tips might help! Though I have to wonder what kind of alien you are that you find the shallow work that I deeply resent so attractive (or maybe I'm the alien for finding it so repulsive).

uf4no profile image

I've been trying to do most of these for the last couple of years. The difference between the weeks I plan ahead and when I focus on specific tasks one a time vs weeks that I just randomly try to progress with whatever comes to mind is outstanding.

I've even created an app to manage my weeks and help me focus. You can find all the details here and even try a public demo if you want 😉

franciscosuca profile image

Great article! While reading this I was saying to myself "you are not the only one who do this kind of stuff on a daily basis🤯".

I must confess that #1 is the hardest one to control but once you nailed your time, starting with #4 and then following #5 you should be on the zone🧘‍♂️.

P.S: Always respect #6! I'm still practicing this one, is really difficult to get rid of 👨‍💻.

phantas0s profile image
Matthieu Cneude

Nice article!

The point 3 is good for productivity, not really for creativity. We need our focus to be less narrow in order to let the world around impact us and gives us new ideas. The point 6 is good for that.

If you block on a problem, the point 3 is not the best either. Again, letting things go and do something else can help.

I think it's a question of balance, like many other things.

kileyohl profile image
Kiley Ohl

SUPER helpful tips! Thanks!

tarun_geek profile image
Tarun Nagpal

Awesome post

manuelbrs profile image
Juan Manuel Bello

Great post.

Any recommendation for point 6, thanks.

julia_moskaliuk profile image
Julia Moskaliuk

Quite helpful, thanks Zoe.
I like to use special tools for improving productivity level. E.g. I like TMetric, Asana and Memento.

geetecho profile image
Geet Sehgal

What it thang called when you do a lot of it and can't find it to do it more ?
It's something naming!