Each December 31st I do a yearly review and one of the first sections within that is how many books I have read that year and which had the most impact on me. Deep Work: Rules For Success In A Distracted World by Cal Newport was 1 of 3 for 2017.
This article is by no means a comprehensive guide on the subject but more about the basics of what it is and how I incorporate deep work into my working life as an online Life Coach to be more productive with my time and utilize my creative capacity.
What is Deep Work?
According to the book, deep work involves “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that
One of the main benefits of deep work is being able to get in the zone or the Flow state. In a normal environment, there are so many distractions that can interrupt or hinder your ability to get in the zone. Even switching between task and distraction can be mentally draining. As Cal says, “Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.”
How I Do Deep Work
1. Schedule It
I often say to my friends, “If it’s in my calendar, it gets done”. I’ll be honest, it’s not always the case but it has a significantly larger chance of happening if it has been scheduled and it is there for me to see. I use an online scheduler for my coaching which is synced to my google calendar so by putting the deep work session in the calendar, it prevents other events from being created. I deliberately block out this time as I know it’s when I get my best work done and I actually look forward to it now I have my process nailed.
I use the rhythmic approach as mentioned in the book – “generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep.” I have a set start time each day (when the library opens) and this approach “works better with the reality of human nature.”
2. Find Your Spot
As well as choosing when you do your deep work, you’ll need to select a where you will do it. There are quite a few options including a dedicated room in your house or office, coworking spaces, coffee shops, libraries or anywhere you won’t be distracted.
I tend to prefer libraries as there tend to be the least amount of distractions. I prefer to leave my living environment as I found my two main distractions there weren’t actually people but the presence of a fridge and a toilet. As random as it sounds, I was using these as ‘easy outs’ or an excuse to take a break. By removing myself from the distractions, I am less likely to cut short my time doing the deep work.
3. Have a Backup Spot
As I do my deep work outside of the house, I like to have a few spots that I can go to. When I first started I mapped out all the venues of my google map and tried a different one each day to see which ones I was most productive in. The library won but alas, it is closed on certain days so I had a few coffee shops as backups. I encourage my coaching clients to take action, use the data, then take more action to see what works for you and what doesn’t.
Both of my preferred deep work spots are public places so by their very nature, there will be people and noise nearby. I am an HSP so every little sound or movement grabs my attention and takes me away from what I am working on. My earbuds drowned out the sound but I found that I would have to play my music loud to compensate which in itself became a distraction. Ideally, noise cancelling headphones would great in these situations but due to the cost, I plumped for a £15 pair of Sony headphones. By having the cup over the ear, it does block out or at least reduce some of the ambient noise. I recently saw a guy in the library wearing a pair of construction ear defenders, he must be serious about his deep work!
I don’t play the music too loud either, just enough to drown out the ambient external noise. I had a hearing test recently and had a noticeable dip in certain frequencies due to noise damage (from my DJ years no doubt) so I am being more careful with my volumes nowadays. In fact, what I do is start with the music at 0 then increase until I can’t hear the outside rather than just play on whatever volume it was on previously.
As much as I love Drum & Bass and Hip-Hop (
6. Plan Your Tasks
In advance of each deep work session, I have an idea of what I’d like to accomplish or what I’d like to create/work on. Having the focus up front and also in the calendar means you don’t waste any time once you are in the spot trying to work out how to use the time. Again, it’s about being deliberate.
7. Plan It Around Your Energy Levels
Most people know about circadian rhythms but one of my nerd outs is on ultradian rhythms. By this, I mean knowing what times of the day (done by tracking over a week or so) you have the most alertness and energy. If you plan your workload around the times when you tend to have most energy then you will be more productive and vice versa. For me, I work better in the mornings and have a real slump around mid-afternoon. Everyone has different times, try and find yours.
8. Plan Your Timings
Deep work can be quite intense and brain taxing at times so for me personally I love using Pomodoros (I use Goodtime on my Android or Tomighty on my MacBook Air). By working in bursts of 25 mins with a break of 5, it enables me to almost sprint then recover. The recovery break is important to sustain the levels of mental effort so, actually take a break by closing your machine or book, turning off the music and maybe stretching. Try to avoid switching to another task such as email/social media as that will only use more of your mental resources.
9. Set a Time Limit
One trick I use to keep me productive is to set myself a time limit. I often fall foul of Parkinson’s Law, so by setting myself a limit or deadline, I am more efficient with my time rather than dragging it out because I can. Give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.
10. Bring Fuel
If you are in a coffee shop then obviously there are a few options to keep you going. If you are in a library then not so much. So, I bring along my own snacks – energy bars work well). In fact, I was surprised to find my hometown library was quite progressive and not only encouraged talking (wait, what?..In a library!?) but also allowed food to be brought in (“unless it was fish & chips and then you had to bring some in for the library staff”). Bring a bottle of water as hydration is needed for better performance.
By fueling yourself accordingly, you can extend the deep work session and therefore get more shit done. As a money saving tip, I bring my own coffee from home in a flask so I save a fair few quid from not buying coffee from the shop next to the library then bringing it in. This soon adds up over a week so gives me some dollar to do some cool stuff instead. Like, try all the different local beers wherever I am. Yeah, it sounds counterproductive but see the last point in this article
11. Use Processor Light Apps
If like me you use a laptop and don’t bring the charger with you (to give me somewhat of a time restriction) then a good idea is to use apps that don’t drain your battery as much or at least install alternatives you can use when you are away from a power source. For example, I use Quicktime player for my music instead of my usual VLC when out and about. Turning off the wifi not only helps battery levels but removes any online distractions as most of the work I do is written in google docs which can be used offline.
12. Keep Doing Deep Work
The more I do it, the more I increase my ability to focus, concentrate and create. This carries over into other areas of my life, not just work. I consider my brain a muscle so I work it out as often as I can but also rest it so it can recover. Deep work is a skill so the more you do it, the better you will get, and the better your output will be, both in terms of quantity and quality.
13. Don’t Keep Doing Deep Work
In the book it mentions Attention Restoration Theory (ART) which basically means, after your deep work is over, take the time out to do nothing, or something less taxing on the brain, allowing it to replenish. Some of the best methods include walking in nature and sleep. Or beer.
So, there is a rundown of how I do my deep work. As I write this I am in a small library that is 100m from the beach in Las Canteras, Gran Canaria and it’s a 5-minute walk from my abode. I would love to hear where and how you do your deep work and any tips you’d like to share so add them in the comments below.
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