The problem? Distractions are everywhere. But as Nir Eyal writing for Psychology Today notes, “distraction is a curse of modern life.” Cell phones, computer screens, daily errands, family obligations, coworkers, salespeople trying to get our attention—it’s all too much. And it eats into our productivity.
After a day of work, you should feel like you’ve done more than was required. Yet too many of us feel like hamsters on a wheel. We drag and drop tasks from today to tomorrow. We look at a potential three-day weekend and watch as our time fills up. And we’re left wondering what happened to our time, and why it feels like we never get ahead.
How do we solve this? One potential solution is known as “deep work.”
What is “Deep Work,” and Why Does It Matter?
“Deep work” was popularized by Cal Newport in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. The definition as outlined by the book is simple: “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.”
In other words, deep work is what happens when you do the most demanding and important work without interruption. It’s when you lose touch with the part of you that’s trying to focus and only think about the work. It’s when you get in the proverbial zone.
Why bother? The truth is, multitasking isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Even though it should theoretically be faster to do multiple tasks at once, the truth is that we end up doing less with our time when we avoid deep work.
Inc calls this the “high cost of multitasking.” Here are some statistics that back it up:
- After an interruption, it can take us as much as 25 minutes to get back to the flow of the interrupted task. Even minor interruptions can send us astray.
- The average person now checks their phone as much as 150 times per day.
- We’re only able to focus on most tasks about 1 minute or more before our first interruption.
- Multitaskers tend to experience a 40% drop in productivity and take 50% longer to accomplish one task.
You can think of “deep work” in simple terms. It’s what happens when you concentrate on one powerful task, one task at a time.
Why Don’t We All Do “Deep Work”?
Most of us like the idea of deep work. But like all great and simple ideas, it comes down to execution. And execution can be difficult.
It simply isn’t easy for us to put aside our entire life for a while and focus on work. Part of our brain will tell us to seek reward instead. It will seek the quick dopamine hit of a phone check, or refreshing the email inbox. In this context, even distracting tasks at work can seem rewarding compared to the prospect of sitting down and doing hard work.
There’s another obstacle in our way. Not only is deep work sometimes unpleasant, but it can be hard to fit into our lives. We have distractions coming at us from all angles, and if we don’t set our schedules in a way that makes it easier to do deep work, then that kind of commitment becomes all the more unbearable.
Just as you have to move your life around to fit in 30 minutes at the gym in the morning, deep work requires commitment.
The Principles of Deep Work: How Do You Know You’re Doing It?
Before we look at how to achieve it, let’s first ask a critical question: how do you know what deep work looks like? Hard work, after all, is only worthwhile if there’s a goal. Here are some ways you can tell if you’re doing deep work the right way:
- Intense mental strain. Think of deep work the way you might think about training in the gym. It’s okay to feel mentally stressed if you’re the one doing the stressing, and not bad habits. In “Deep Work,” Cal Newport speaks of a friend named Marlin who had an intense morning ritual of study. He found deep work rewarding only when he felt he had stretched his mental capacity about as far as it would go. That meant intense thought and intense focus.
- A distraction-free experience—even if it’s boring. Cal Newport also recommends that people embrace boredom rather than flee from it as something to fear. A distraction-free experience is boring, and that’s the point. Distractions are rewarding, but they also move us away from our chief focus.
- You’ve made progress toward your goal. Just as you shouldn’t spin your wheels with busywork, you shouldn’t spin your wheels with deep work. If you’re going to go through with the effort to make deep work possible, then you’ll want to feel that when a session is done, you’ve achieved something. But this shouldn’t only be about your feelings. You should know that you’ve done the hardest, most worthwhile work of the day when you’ve completed it.
How to Create a Four-Hour Block of Deep Work Every Day
Convinced already? Let’s focus less on the why and more on the how. How do you get yourself free of distractions long enough for the deep work to be beneficial? For our purposes here, we’ll imagine a four-hour morning from 8:00 a.m. until noon—but feel free to create your own segment that fits into your schedule.
Step One: Observe your work habits.
No deep work just yet. Instead, install a tool like RescueTime. Your goal at this point isn’t to change anything, but to observe what’s happening. Wait for about a week or so. After that, you should have a sample size large enough to spot some of the most time-consuming distractions that are taking you away from work.
For example, let’s say that you want to get started at work at 8:00 a.m., but you end up reading the news at length. Before you know it, it’s 8:30 a.m. and the day is already getting ahead of you. You now have a target for eliminating distractions.
Step Two: Minimize the presence of distractions during your “deep work” segment.
Now that you know what to reduce and eliminate, your next step is to follow through. The problem? Different distractions require different solutions.
- If you spend time surfing the web, a web blocker set to your pre-assigned time segment might be a good idea.
- If you’re distracted by offline events—meetings and the like—there may be nothing you can do except to re-arrange other aspects of your day. If this is the case, look at your other distracting tasks during the day and see what can be moved around.
Step Three: Automate and outsource.
When you’ve done some filtering out of distractions, you may find that there is a bare minimum of distractions you still need to take on during the day. For example, what if a client has to call you? You would have to take yourself out of deep work and respond to their needs.
If you can, automate and outsource as many of these necessary distractions as possible. For example, you might use a phone answering service to handle calls from now on. Or you might turn to a virtual assistant to take on repetitive tasks like expensing, bookkeeping, and data entry. These will still have to get done, but if someone else is handling them, you’ll be free to focus on your segment of deep work.
Step Four: Commit to your segment of deep work for 30 days.
Once you have everything in place to move your life around and make the deep work happen, it comes time for follow-through. You’ll find that if you make a deep enough commitment to this work, distractions will simply fall by the wayside. To witness this for yourself, commit to a good thirty days of the new habit. If necessary, let people know that they’ll have to reach you another time unless there’s an emergency. You’d be amazed at how much people will come to respect your boundaries once you draw a line in the sand.
The Benefits of Deep Work
Let’s be honest: it sounds like a lot of work.
Even with a virtual assistant now handling some of your least-favorite tasks, the idea of a long, multi-hour block of deep work can seem intimidating to some people. So let’s demystify that by exploring the specific benefits of taking on deep work.
- Compound “interest.” Usually, people talk about compound interest in the context of finance. But there’s something unique about deep, focused, undistracted work that seems to build on itself. Not only will you get more work done because you’re dedicating yourself to a single task, but you’ll experience something else. You’ll experience a shift in momentum. Dedicating that much work to a single task will mean that you think about it more—even while you’re sleeping—which means that you may even find it easier to solve intense problems when you come to work the next day.
- Improved relationship with stress. Stress isn’t just about what happens at work. It’s the feeling of dread that you have when you leave a task unfinished and head home for the day. Deep work helps eliminate that uncertainty. Deep work gives you more satisfaction because you’ve put all you can into the project for the day—after all, it’s harder to do much more work than dedicate 100% of a block of your time to a single task.
- “Flow” state. Deep work also means you put aside time to prioritize “flow” state. This is a general term for the mood of being inspired and losing yourself in the work. It’s not easy to quantify, but when it happens, the results speak for themselves. You’ll feel inspired by the work you did, even if you never thought you could be inspired by that specific task. And you’ll notice that the time passes in a much more satisfying way.
Ultimately, when you get back to your daily distractions, you’ll find they’re waiting for you. They didn’t go anywhere. In the meantime, using virtual assistants and productivity apps to block off time for deep work will make you a more effective worker and a more satisfied person.
But deep work, like anything else, only happens once you make the decision to get started. That poses the question: how will you spend your next day at work?