In his 2016 book, Cal Newport coined the term Deep Work, which essentially means working on a single task for prolonged periods without getting distracted.
A concept that back then could have been blamed as productivity geekery is nowadays more relevant than ever and on everybody’s lips.
Especially remote workers often face an environment of constant communication in which it becomes hard to escape Zoom and Slack. Finding time for value-producing work is almost impossible.
Enter deep work. If done right, it enables us to get meaningful work done while simultaneously navigating the jungle of messaging and calls.
Over the years, I tried to embrace the concept as much as possible in my own schedule (meaning as much as you actually put these self-help-book advices to practice).
This article outlines three tips for planning and executing deep work sessions more effectively and rewardingly. These were the things that helped me repeatedly go deeper. Hence, I hope it helps you too!
Note: As a developer, I am very fortunate to work on my own schedule. If you work in a corporate setting, it can be harder. Ideally, schedule meetings with yourself so that colleagues know you are busy during those periods.
1. Setting The Frame
Deep work, and work in general, becomes more effective and rewarding if you set yourself well-defined artifacts to work on. While a task like “designing my portfolio” can feel like a never-ending undertaking, “finish design for blog post page” is much more specific and achievable.
Defining a realistically chosen outcome of the session upfront will help you stay focused on that very task since you clearly defined something tangible to work on.
Additionally, it helps you get creative to reach your goal before the deep work session ends. I found that a bit of time pressure can be helpful to skip unnecessary revisions (especially if you tend to be a perfectionist like me).
Next to the defined outcome, a time boundary is necessary since doing challenging work can be draining. For me, anything between one and four hours seems ideal for a deep work session.
Even though I was not too fond of it initially, I became a fan of Promodoro timers for scheduling breaks (once you found your sweet spot for the slot duration). So often, I thought, “This is hard, and I feel stuck. Why not take a break now?” while working on a task. Sticking to my Pomodoro slots helps me work through a problem without immediately escaping to the next break.
If you defined a clear outcome and set period, you set the perfect frame for your deep work session.
2. Shutting Down Distractions
This next tip should hopefully be nothing new to you. You can’t concentrate on a task if your brain constantly bumps around Slack and Outlook notifications.
Fortunately, many platforms make this more accessible nowadays (although the amount of noise has increased too). Even Apple has built-in support for focus settings, meaning you can configure which notifications should be allowed during work periods.
More generally, it helps to set clear expectations for colleagues to avoid distractions. If you plan on working on a task, block off time on your calendar so that others know you are unavailable during this period. And put every device you don’t need for the task as far away as possible.
I don’t use my phone some Sundays. The mental space you get by not carrying around your device is enormous. And it made me realize how much we implicitly occupy our brains with being reachable even though we don’t actually use our phones.
While putting away the phone is easy, not using the computer is much harder for most tasks. And the computer is a distraction-generating machine too. How often did I go down rabbit holes just because I found an interesting new video online.
To prevent this, you can separate your tasks into different activities and do the distraction-prone ones up front. For example, when I write blog posts, I do the research (which is usually the source of distraction) a few days before I actually start writing. This allows me to do the writing (the deep work part) without being connected to the internet.
Being unavailable to others is key. Put your phone away and block all notifications. Separating out distraction-prone activities can help to avoid going down rabbit holes.
3. Environment Matters
Last but not least, I realized over the years that your work environment matters a lot - especially when doing deep work.
For example, an academic who writes papers in Oxford’s beautiful Trinity College feels much more inspired and upbeat than his colleague sitting cramped at his kitchen table.
Scenic locations help you be more creative. And it makes working on challenging tasks much more enjoyable. Personally, I like writing in cafés because it has an upbeat vibe (and I can feel much more like J.K. Rowling).
Using dedicated locations for specific activities also improves your ability to focus faster on the task at hand. Over time, your brain associates the place with the job and remembers “café = writing”. Thus you get a lot quicker in the mood of writing.
You can achieve the same effect with rituals around your deep work sessions. For example, doing the same walk around your neighborhood before you start working on your thesis prepares your brain for what’s ahead.
Generally, if possible, pick a location outside your home. Although it can be convenient to work in your living room, your body associates this environment with rest, not work. This makes it more difficult to focus on challenging tasks. And if you are not living alone, you will be interrupted while working (speaking of experience).
Setting the right conditions – a scenic location and a little ritual your brain associates with deep work – will get into a flow state more easily.
In summary, deep work will never become easy due to its inherently difficult nature. And having a few tips at hand won’t change this. It will always feel challenging, as if you were doing something wrong.
Nonetheless, I hope those three ideas will help you immerse yourself better in whatever tasks you are facing and leave your sessions in more rewarding and pleasant ways.
In the end, it often just comes down to how we can make tricky tasks more enjoyable so that we don’t procrastinate on them. So feel free to experiment a bit yourself! And let me know how it goes: @kmuenster