There are some tasks that require our full focus to complete properly. It’s very easy to let distractions get in the way of difficult tasks

We might feel that we are very busy with answering emails, noting group chat conversations and attending multiple meetings. These can be markers of busyness not productivity.

They won’t help you to develop new skills or grow a business. In fact, these activities won’t aid you in any number of the ambitious goals you’ve set for yourself. You need “deep work” to achieve real success.

The concept of “deep work”

Photo by Axel Holen on Unsplash

The concept was coined by Cal Newport, a renowned author and computer science professor at Georgetown University.

In a 2012 blog post and expanded upon in his 2016 bestselling book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. By Newport’s definition, deep work refers to:

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

Workers dedicate too much time to shallow work. These are tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on).

This work is appealing because it’s easy and it makes people feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy.

Ultimately this type of work is ultimately unsatisfying. It’s like fast food: nice in the short term but not a good diet for long term development and satisfaction.

We need to spend more time engaged in deep work — cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.

Deep work generates three key benefits:

  1. Continuous improvement of the value of your work output.
  2. An increase in the total quantity of valuable output you produce.
  3. Deeper satisfaction (aka., “passion”) for your work.

Cal Newport identifies 4 key steps.

4 Steps to “Deep Work”

Step #1: Prepare

Deep work can be tiring. Our brains can’t easily switch over to a deep work mindset. It helps to cultivate a ritual that transitions you from normal shallow work to the deep variety.

For example this can be clearing emails, physically moving to a designated “Deep Work” area with no distractions, clearing your desk or some other obvious sign that you are about to focus on something.

Step #2: Clarify your goal

Deep work requires a clear vision of the outcome you’re seeking and why it’s valuable.

Be specific about what success will look like and why that success is important.  Keep in mind that it can take a surprising amount of research to define a good goal, so give this step the attention it requires.

Step #3: Stretch

Take your clear overall goal from the previous step and identify the next logical chunk of work.

When you tackle this chunk, push for a result that is beyond — but not too far beyond — what’s comfortable for your current skill level.

This stretch is important to: (a) extract the most out of your current abilities; and (b) ensure that your abilities continue to improve.

Step #4: Obsess

It requires a clear state of mind.

You begin a session with a well-defined ritual, you work on a stretch chunk for 1 – 3 hours, then you finish and go rest.

You’ll be surprised by how little time you naturally spend doing deep work. You’ll also be surprised by how quickly you can increase these numbers once you know what you’re looking for and are keeping track of what you’re doing.

It will make you more productive, help you develop new skills and help you find your time at work more satisfying.

See our training programmes on personal development.

Further reading

The Complete Guide to Deep Work – How to master the #1 job skill that will never be obsolete

Knowledge Workers are Bad at Working (and Here’s What to Do About It…)