Deep Work or The Secret to Incredible Productivity

Productivity Quote: “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” - Eric Hoffer


Deep Work has been a phrase that has been utilized frequently in the productivity and time management space after Cal Newport authored a book of the same name. But what is deep work, why is it valuable and how can you build the habit of performing deep work every day?

This is the topic of this week's productivity minute.

What is Deep work?

As defined by the author who coined the term, deep work allows for, “professional activities [to be] performed in a state distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replace.”

In other words, deep work is about increasing and maintaining your focus in order for you to produce at your peak.

An axiom that I repeat frequently is: The level of focus you maintain when working on a task is directly proportional to the level of your potential you can express in it.

The common thread between Cal’s definition and my axiom is that we must be intentional about purposefully creating a Highly Focused environment to maximize our focus and concentration so that you can produce high-quality work quickly.

But why is it so important to create the conditions to perform and complete Deep Work?

The two abilities needed to thrive in the New Economy we currently live in, Cal states, are:

  1. The ability to quickly master new things

  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

The 2nd of the abilities is what pertains most to productivity and becoming Highly Focused.

As the world, work, and the way we interact with both accelerates, your ability to quickly produce high quality will immediately set you apart from your peers. While others keep themselves busy with shallow or low-value tasks, you, when you make the practice of deep work habitual, will be able to produce results that make a difference not only for your company but for the people who depend on your company and the world at large.

It will also take less time for you to produce this masterful work which is essential in the information age we live in.

“But how can I create time for deep work when I already feel like I have too much to do?”

The best way I have seen for engineers to implement the practice of deep work in the workplace is by utilizing the “Rhythmic Framework” with Time Blocks. The Rhythmic Frameworks argues that “the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.”

In order to systemize the “simple regular habit” we use Time Blocks. To ensure that you are using Time Blocks effectively to create pockets of deep work during your workday, remember the 3 D’s of Time Blocking.

Time Blocks are:

  • Defined Durations of Time

  • Devoid of Distractions

  • Dedicated to the Completion of ONE Task

Let’s look at each “D” more intently.

Defined Durations of Time

Your Time Block for your Deep Work periods needs to have defined (written down or scheduled on your calendar) start and end times.

You need to list a start time to prevent you from delaying the time block to complete “one more thing”. Because of the nature of tasks that benefit most from time blocks, deep work and the level of results you can expect when both ideologies are implemented properly, it is virtually ALWAYS more valuable for you to start your time block on time and address your “one more thing” later.

You also need to have an ending time for your time block to fulfill Parkinson's Law which states, “Work expands to fill the time you give it.” This means when tasks have an undefined ending time, they tend to stay active longer than we desired. If there is no boundary to try and fit the task inside, it can span your entire workday.

Devoid of Distraction

When you work in a distraction-free environment, it allows you to maximize the focus and concentration you can allocate to the selected task. This results in you being able to perform your best in it.

Consequently, when we try to multitask (The practice of attempting to focus on multiple things at once), we cause our performance to suffer greatly.

According to John Medina, a neuroscientist and the author of Brain Rules, multitasking results in:

  • A 40% drop in overall productivity

  • A 50% increase in time needed to accomplish a single task

  • Up to 50% more errors in work.

All of the effects listed above will prevent you from performing at an elite level in terms of quality and speed.

To combat this, before you begin working, take time to eliminate as many distractions as you can in advance.

Turn off your phone or place it in airplane mode, close browser windows, or pause your email. If you feel that doing these things will cause you to miss an important call, email or text, you may want to evaluate what task you are working on. Maybe it is not important enough to be done well if the lottery that is potential phone calls or other notifications could trump it.

Dedicated to the Completion of ONE Task

This goes hand-in-hand with the elimination of distractions in advance.

Deep work requires you to stick with your selected task or project for the insights and revelations that would be impossible to glean with surface or “shallow” levels of attention. When we try to fit more than one subject into a deep work time, we trade depth for breadth. The negative of this trade-off is breadth is less valuable than depth because it is easier to replicate.

As an example, virtually every adult can attempt to write a blog post, listen to music, speak with a friend, watch tv and eat food simultaneously. This will result in all of the different areas listed above showing some progress but that progress will be lacking in quality because the focus and concentration needed to perform each object well placed on each object is compromised by the other objects.

Contrast this to the author who writes a unique novel that ends up winning a Pulitzer Prize. They may have spent years in deep work drafting, re-writing, and scrutinizing each work in their manuscript.

My question to you is: Which of the above examples is the hardest to replicate? Would you say that the harder of the two tasks would be the most valuable?

This is why time blocks are dedicated to the completion of ONE task. This is to better enable you to go deep and produce work that is difficult to replicate and is, therefore, more valuable.

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