If you’re reading this blog chances are you have specific goals you want to accomplish. And for those of us who are trying to be our most productive, the exceedingly rare and little-understood practice of “deep work” is an idea worth diving into.
In his bestselling book Deep Work, Cal Newport defines deep work as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” In a sense, it’s the skill we use to get into the zone, where everything around phases out and all of your attention and energy are focused on the task at hand.
When we’re focused, we get more done in less time. And when we access “deep work” the results are more than doubled.
It’s how athletes like Reggie Miller do incredible things like score 8 points in 9 seconds to win a playoff game. Or how Corin Tellado was able to write over 4,000 books in her lifetime. The ability to access that power within us is something we all want. But transitioning into a state of deep work is becoming more and more difficult the more the world around us becomes technologically advanced. With a shift towards shorter and shorter attention spans, harnessing the power of deep work is more important than ever.
The Problem We Face
Our 21st-century economy is quickly becoming labeled the “distraction economy” — and for good reason. We are constantly barraged with stimulation no matter where we are throughout the day. Not only are we over-stimulated, we also have shrinking attention spans. In fact, a study conducted by Canadian researchers showed that since the year 2000, the average attention span has dropped from twelve seconds to just eight seconds. We now have a shorter span than a goldfish! The internet has changed the way we interact with information. We sprint through it in a rapid and disjointed way.
Modern network tools (i.e., texting, Facebook, email, Twitter, etc.) are designed to be addictive and distracting and pull us away from deep work. In his book Technopoly, Neil Postman warned his readers that we are stumbling into a dangerous relationship with technology where our tech-based habits absorb us so fully that other, more viable choices become invisible to us and therefore irrelevant. Without being able to see what our priority should be, we become stuck and are okay with it.
The scariest part about all of this is that Postman wrote that book 25 years ago! Can you imagine what he would say about our world now?
Accessing Deep Work
Those who achieve greatness use deep work to escape distractions and put aside all “shallow work” in the pursuit of extreme productivity and mastery. And now more than ever we have to use it to our advantage.
Cal Newport found that those who practice deep work usually do so in one of three ways:
In this strategy, you divide your time to unlock long periods of deep work. Instead of getting short bursts of intense focus here and there, you try to maintain a prolonged period intense focus over months at a time. By setting aside months of your time, you will be able to completely detach yourself from distractions.
Think about this approach as the “sabbatical” approach. Those who use this approach will spend weeks or months in solitary states of deep work completely isolated from their normal day-to-day routine. For many of us, this strategy isn’t feasible because we don’t have the ability to take large breaks from the rest of our lives to make it work. But for some, this approach is the key to success.
Adam Grant uses a Bimodal approach to produce a staggering number of research papers and books. He splits his years into two segments. He dedicates one semester to teaching and the second semester to “log off” from the world to access deep work for writing and public speaking. Grant’s bimodal deep work has paid off, too. He is the youngest ever tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of three New York Times bestsellers.
This strategy gets its name from journalists who have the ability to write several articles a day, despite having jam-packed schedules that can take them anywhere at any moment.
By its nature, journalistic deep work should be very easy to jump into. You don’t need to set aside a large chunk of time nor do you need to isolate yourself from your normal environment. All you need is a small slice of free time and a “go-bag” for focus that contains everything you need to do your work and a few essential items that will help you tune out distractions.
This strategy works for those of us whose lives and jobs that prevent us from keeping a daily routine. For those of us who cannot set a daily time-block due to an ever-changing work schedule, this is a great strategy to be able to still get some deep work done. However, the catch here is that setting a deep work habit is often difficult because of the unpredictable nature of your schedule.
You may have your special noise-canceling headphones, a cup of coffee, and a small hole that you can curl up next to in the airport, but without having a set time to get your work done, you ultimately put your productivity up to the mercy of the world.
This tactic represents the easiest way to unwaveringly access deep work day after day. In this strategy, people access deep work by making it a daily habit (which this tool will help you develop). Instead of letting deep work come sporadically, you block off a chunk of time for focusing and practice it regularly.
The best way to help yourself access deep work during a time block is to create a distraction-free environment. Get yourself out of that bakery during your designated deep work time block! Keep your kids occupied, put a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign up on your office door, and set your phone on ‘silent’. Make yourself unreachable by email and set a standing meeting with yourself so that no one schedules a meeting during that time. Keep all of your necessary tools and resources close at hand so you don’t have to leave your workspace for anything. Lastly, and most importantly, come prepared to whack away at your One Thing.
This is your designated time to accomplish the ONE Thing that will make all other tasks easier or unnecessary. When your deep work time block is over, you can go about your day with a load off your back because you have already accomplished your One Thing.
Getting into a state of deep work is like getting into a state of meditation. It takes practice and determination. Keep at it and, over time, it will become easier to access. For more info on deep work, watch episode #32 of The ONE Thing Webinar Series or listen to episode #75 of The ONE Thing Podcast with Cal Newport and learn about the rules for focused success in a distracted world.