“A deep life is a good life.” – Cal Newport, Author of “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.”
Have you heard of deep work? A term coined by Cal Newport, deep work is a state of distraction-free concentration when your brain works at its maximum potential.
As you read this, you probably realise just how hard it is to find a space of genuinely distraction-free concentration. Even whilst reading this blog, you may be thinking about your next task, hearing the notifications from your mobile device or switching between tabs in your browser. We all have a ton of distractions that we’ve allowed to permeate, and often govern, our days.
So whilst we think we’re making the most of our productive time, there’s a good chance we’re not. Instead of deep work, we’re engaging in shallow work. Newport’s deep work theory suggests that to be truly productive, we should log out of all communication tools and work uninterrupted for long periods every day. So while we might not be able to step away from communication tools fully, we can aim for 60-90 distraction-free minutes at a time.
Deep work is effective for two reasons: it helps us avoid distractions and rewires our brains to help us learn hard things faster—so we can get better work done in less time. The next step to implementing deep work into your schedule is to choose a deep work philosophy.
In his book, Newport outlines four different philosophies to follow as you decide how to schedule your deep work. Depending on your lifestyle, some approaches may work better than others:
With this approach, you establish a regular habit and rhythm for deep work, blocking out between 1-4 hour chunks to focus at the same time every day. For example, schedule time for deep work between 8-10 am every weekday. The key to this strategy is consistency, which you can achieve by committing to a certain amount of deep work daily.
This method allows you to fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule. You could schedule time for deep work when you have 90 minutes between meetings, and this requires you to switch into deep work mode at will, which can be difficult for beginners. The rhythmic philosophy may be your best bet if you have a predictable meeting schedule.
This approach eliminates or drastically reduces shallow work across all aspects of your life. For example, science fiction writer Neal Stephenson famously avoids email and speaking engagements to free up his brain space for writing. That means Stephenson is nearly impossible to get a hold of but highly prolific, with over 80 works to his name.
This method involves dividing your time, with long stretches (at least a full day) set aside for deep work and the rest dedicated to everything else. Bimodal scheduling is a more flexible version of the monastic philosophy—instead of completely eliminating shallow work, you can spend a day or more working deeply and then return to your other obligations.
Again, like so many other skills we’re learning in our current age, it begins with mindfulness. Many of us begin our days by responding to emails, and before we realise, we’ve spent an entire day simply following the needs and requests of other people. Becoming mindful of how we spend our work time is the first step to choosing how to spend our time more productively. A deep life is a good life.