Have you ever experienced a working state characterized by heightened concentration, a flow-like state, and increased productivity?
If so, then you engaged in “deep work.”
Engaging in deep work can prove immensely advantageous, benefiting both you as a practitioner and your clients.
This post will provide a broad overview of this state, its advantages, and the methods to attain it. Understand that this is an introductory exploration, and while you won’t attain deep work proficiency solely through this reading (sorry …), you will acquire insights into the essential practical measures necessary for nurturing your capacity for deep work.
“Deep work” was coined by Cal Newport in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. It refers to the capacity for concentrated, high-quality cognitive activities demanding deep focus, creativity, and problem-solving.
Although we can fill our workdays with many tasks and deadlines, not all tasks are considered deep work. Newport contrasts deep work with “shallow work,” which includes simple tasks that require minimal cognitive effort.
Deep work, however, is characterized by these facets:
Intense, undistracted focus
High cognitive effort involving problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity
High productivity yielding quality output
Deep work is demanding and well suited to tasks that are cognitively demanding and/or very creative. In his books, Newport lists examples such as academics, software developers, musicians, writers, artists, and others working in situations where deep thinking and problem-solving are needed. Therefore, deep work is not limited to one profession only.
To work deeply, Newport recommends blocking out chunks of uninterrupted time protected from external and internal distractions. All distractions should be minimized – muting phones, emails, and instant messaging; informing colleagues; and closing doors.
Crucially, deep work is a skill. It will be difficult initially, but it will improve and become easier to engage in over time and with practice. Newport emphasizes that achieving deep work requires deliberate practice, discipline, and a commitment to creating an environment conducive to focused concentration. So, don’t be disheartened by initial struggles; concerted effort makes deep work more attainable.
While challenging initially, practice enhances proficiency, making engagement easier. Newport underscores deliberate practice, discipline, and creating a focused environment.
Core ideas: deep work - Cal Newport
To watch an introduction from the author himself, please watch this video.
Deep Work by Cal Newport – The Book
Cal Newport introduced the concept of deep work in his book of the same name. For those keen to delve further into deep work, this book is an excellent starting point following this post.
Newport dissects the subject across two sections. In the initial segment, he lays out the theoretical framework for deep work and explains its significance.
He builds his argument on three pivotal pillars: the value, rarity, and meaningfulness of deep work. He uses examples of how deep thinking benefited people across various domains.
Concretely, Newport believes the following:
Deep work is valuable because it acts as a method that once honed, bestows the ability to swiftly master intricate skills and promptly generate high-quality output.
Despite its considerable advantages, deep work is rare. The time and effort needed to do deep work is vulnerable to the demands of busyness and the allure of instant messaging and on-demand communication.
Deep work offers intrinsic value, yielding a deeper sense of fulfillment compared to superficial tasks.
In the book’s second section, Newport furnishes a roadmap for achieving deep work. He posits four cardinal principles that facilitate its realization:
Engage in deep work.
Abandon social media
Drain the shallows (that is, eliminate unnecessary tasks).
These four principles are expounded upon in subsequent sections of the post.
Cal Newport currently works as a professor of computer science at Georgetown University. His career encompasses extensive publications, with over 50 manuscripts listed on Google Scholar, all situated within computer science. Beyond his academic pursuits, Newport curates a website named “The Deep Life,” which focuses on topics on deep work.
The website is rich with resources, including:
Deep Questions Podcast, which explores various topics around work–life balance
Video versions of podcast episodes: The podcast episodes are complemented by matching video renditions.
Newsletter: An option to subscribe to his newsletter
He has also published several books about the challenges around achieving deep work in a digital world.
Other Cal Newport books
Cal Newport has authored seven books, including three for younger adults seeking success in school and college:
How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get Into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out). Available on Amazon.
How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less. Available on Amazon.
How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success From the Country’s Top Students. Available on Amazon.
Two of his books discuss ancillary topics to Deep Work, specifically that immediate digital connection and instant messaging reduce productivity.
In A World Without Email, Newport documents how email is counterproductive and sabotages effective work communication. He advocates that businesses should instead use other forms of communication. Available on Amazon.
Similarly, Newport extends this argument in Digital Minimalism, where he advocates for disconnecting from the digital world to avoid distractions and boost productivity. Like with Deep Work, Newport gives practical guidance on how to disconnect digitally and work without email. Available on Amazon.
In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport challenges following one’s passion, arguing instead that one should pursue what they are good at. He believes that our skills and their contribution to society should be promoted over passion and fulfillment. Available on Amazon.
Lastly, there’s a practical time-blocking guide titled The Time-Block Planner that complements Newport’s other works. This book isn’t recommended to newcomers as an introductory text. However, once your client understands the importance of deep work and time blocking, then they should consider this journal.
Once they have the hang of it, clients could reproduce something similar in their personal work diaries or journals. Available on Amazon.
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A Deep Work Summary
This is a brief guide to Deep Work’s key principles, but don’t be intimidated by the book. It’s under 300 pages and nicely organized. I’ll highlight my key takeaways from the four rules below; let me know in the comments if any resonate with you.
Why do we need a book on something seemingly obvious? Well, achieving deep work isn’t straightforward. Our current always-online, always-available behavior leads to digital distractions, depleting our cognitive resources and time. Newport values deep work because it’s becoming rarer and more valuable.
To foster deep work, Newport suggests strategies like creating a distraction-free space, setting clear goals, establishing routines, and being mindful of technology’s impact on work habits. Deep work aims to leverage your cognitive abilities for meaningful results in both professional and personal pursuits.
Now, let’s explore the four key principles for implementing deep work in your professional life.
Principle 1: Work deeply
Deep work is akin to exercise: It demands active involvement, causes fatigue, and has gradual improvement. Newport advises carving out dedicated time for deep work, where you intensely tackle demanding tasks without distractions.
The types of tasks that should be reserved for deep work are ones that are cognitively demanding and benefit from extended periods of extreme concentration, for example, writing a book, an academic paper, or reports; composing music or creating art; coding, engineering, or design; or developing a new idea such as a course or a proposal.
Approach these sessions with dedication, almost like a ritual, and make them lengthy. Create an environment that fosters deep concentration and train your brain for peak cognitive performance.
Principle 2: Embrace boredom
For this principle, my takeaway is that boredom is a trigger for deep work. This might sound like a strange principle, but by not immediately acting on our need to alleviate our boredom (by reaching for our phone, as an example), our boredom can result in deep work.
Newport argues that our constant exposure to stimuli and distractions has diminished our ability to tolerate boredom. By learning to tolerate boredom, individuals can more effectively enter flow states and achieve meaningful results.
Principle 3: Quit social media
Whereas the second principle advocates suppressing the need to scratch our boredom itch, the third principle is more concrete and argues that we should learn to disconnect from social media because it saps our attention by distracting us unnecessarily.
When our status notes that we’re always “available” on social media (including company internal messaging and emails), that means we do not block out time to work without disruption and that we are always available.
The downside is that we never have time dedicated to important tasks that require our complete attention. We are always on alert and always available to switch from our work to the immediate request.
Principle 4: Drain the shallows
This principle emphasizes that busyness doesn’t equate to productivity. It’s about recognizing the crucial tasks and eliminating those that waste time, lack value, and don’t align with our professional objectives.
These unproductive tasks drain our time and energy, resources better invested in deep work sessions.
Focused Success for Your Practice
While deep work is highly productive and can lead to significant accomplishments, there are considerations to keep in mind.
Just like physical fatigue, cognitive fatigue can set in after extended periods of deep work. It’s important to recognize when your mental energy is waning and to allow for breaks or shifts to less-demanding tasks.
Some people can sustain deep work for longer periods, while others may find it more effective to alternate between deep work and other tasks.
Deep work should be integrated into your daily schedule in a way that aligns with your energy levels and natural rhythms.
Regular breaks, rest, and recovery help prevent burnout and allow you to return to deep work sessions with renewed focus.
The amount of time one can sustain deep work can vary based on factors such as task complexity, familiarity with the subject matter, and individual preferences.
It’s not necessary or sustainable to engage in deep work all day. Balanced work routines that include a mix of deep work, shallow work, and breaks are often more effective in the long run.
Regular self-assessment and adjustment are key to ensuring that deep work remains productive and beneficial without leading to burnout or diminishing returns.
Deep work: how to develop the most valuable skill of the 21st century
This video provides practical tips on how to implement deep work principles into your daily work life.
Creating a Deep Work Schedule
Incorporating deep work into your routine boosts productivity and focus. The specifics of your schedule will depend on your individual preferences, energy levels, and other commitments.
To create a deep work schedule:
Set clear goals. Define what you want to achieve with deep work and why it matters.
Plan ahead. Before each session, decide on the task you’ll focus on to avoid wasted time.
Create a schedule. Allocate specific time blocks for deep work, adjusting as you get used to focused work.
Minimize distractions. Ensure a quiet, clutter-free environment, silence notifications, and set boundaries.
Use time management techniques. Try techniques like the Pomodoro technique or timers to maintain focus.
Reflect and adjust. Regularly assess your deep work experiences and adapt your strategies.
Prioritize rest. After a session, take a break to recharge and relax.
Be patient. Developing a deep work routine takes time. Start small and adjust as needed.
Deep work is a skill that improves with practice. It’s normal to face challenges initially, but with practice and commitment, you can build the capacity for focused and productive work. Start with small steps, gradually increase the duration and intensity of your deep work sessions, and find the approach that best suits your work style and goals.
How I work for 4 hours with 100% focus (deep work) - Mike Dee
For more inspiration, take a look at this video.
From the steps listed above, here is a sample deep work schedule with three deep work sessions. If three sessions are too many for your day, adjust them in a way that suits you. However, always try to have your session in the morning when you are most energized and motivated.
8:00–8:30 — Planning
Begin with a brief mindfulness exercise to center yourself. Review tasks and prioritize deep work.
8:30–10:00 — Deep work session 1
Focus on your most important task with minimal distractions. Focus on writing client reports, research, or planning sessions.
10:00–11:30 — Client appointments
Client appointments. Conduct individual therapy or coaching sessions.
Lunch break: Enjoy lunch and engage in a relaxing activity.
12:30–2:00 — Deep work session 2
Use this slot for deep work.
2:00–3:30 — Client appointments
Continue conducting therapy or coaching sessions.
3:30–4:00 — Break
Short break to stretch and refresh.
Late afternoon session
4:00–5:30 — Deep work session 3
Focus on updating treatment plans, reviewing progress, or conducting research.
5:30–6:00 — Shallow work and wind down
Tackle less-demanding tasks like email and workspace organization.
6:00 onward — Leisure and personal time
Disconnect from work and relax.
In this example, deep work sessions are strategically placed between client appointments to ensure focused work is balanced with client interactions.
Remember that client appointments require a different type of focus and energy, so finding the right balance between deep work and client work is crucial for maintaining the quality of both your focused work and your interactions with clients.
At PositivePsychology.com, there are several tools aimed at boosting productivity.
Avoidance Plan Worksheet This worksheet is useful if your client struggles to get started with work and appears to be avoiding work goals. Using this worksheet, you and your client work together to identify why and how they avoid working and track successful techniques that help them overcome these hurdles.
Goal Planning and Achievement Tracker
For clients who want to track their goals, we recommend this tracker. Clients can use it for a broad overview of how they worked toward their goals during a particular period. In this instance, the tracker is across a week, but it can be easily adapted to a monthly overview.
This amazing pack contains 17 exercises tailored toward productivity and focuses on different aspects of deep work that we addressed in this post. For example, one exercise is the Deep Work Plan, which you can use to help your clients devise their own work plan.
Other exercises related to deep work are creating a suitable workplace and reducing time wasters. But this pack is not limited to only deep work principles; it includes other good-quality practical advice for you and your client.
Deep work is a gigantic topic and covered in a fabulous book well worth reading. In this post we’ve only briefly explored the topic along with practical suggestions for how to implement it.
If you aspire to write a novel, develop an app that will change the world, or establish a mind-bending concept that will leave your name etched in stone, you need dedicated alone time.
Deep work is a valuable method for approaching such tasks. In today’s distracted environments and “always on” mentality, you have to disconnect and block out time for your inner brilliance to flourish.
The examples mentioned at the start of his book are nothing short of inspiring. With this thought-provoking approach, don’t let busyness prevent you from becoming the next Nobel laureate.
Please let us know in the comments if you have read Deep Work and incorporated this work philosophy into your professional life. Which of your remarkable accomplishments should we be on the lookout for?
Deep work, as outlined by Cal Newport in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, refers to the practice of engaging in intense, uninterrupted cognitive work that demands deep concentration and creativity. It involves setting aside dedicated, distraction-free time to tackle demanding tasks, aiming for high-quality, meaningful productivity.
What are the four rules of deep work?
The four rules of deep work are:
Quit social media.
Drain the shallows.
How long should I do deep work?
The recommended time for a deep work session can vary depending on individual preferences and capabilities, but it typically ranges from one to four hours. Cal Newport suggests beginners might start with shorter sessions and gradually work up to longer periods of focused, uninterrupted work as they become more accustomed to deep work practices.
Is the Deep Work book worth reading?
Absolutely! This book is highly recommended for people interested in productivity, time management, flow state, and work–life balance.
About the author
Alicia Nortje, Ph.D. is a research fellow at the University of Cape Town, where she is involved in multiple projects investigating eyewitness memory and face recognition. She’s highly skilled in research design, data analysis, and critical thinking. When she’s not working, she indulges in running on the road or the trails, and enjoys cooking.