How To Use Deep Work To Achieve Greater Results In Less Time

Photo by Nick Morrison

Most American employees with full-time, single jobs report working an average of 8.33 hours each weekday. But how much of that time do we spend on things that will propel us to success and help us accomplish our goals? If you feel like you spend a lot of time “working”—sitting at a desk and checking emails—but not as much time making true progress, 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. It’s when everything around us fades away and all of our energy is focused on the task at hand.

When we’re focused, we get more done in less time. And when we access “deep work” our results can be 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 more than 4,000 books in her lifetime. We all want to access that power within us to focus. But transitioning into a state of deep work is becoming increasingly difficult the more the world around us becomes technologically advanced. With a shift toward 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 stimulated no matter where we are in our day. The internet has changed the way we interact with information. We sprint through it in a rapid and disjointed way.

Social networking 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. Our tech-based habits absorb us so fully that other, more important things to do become invisible to us and therefore irrelevant. 

The scariest part about all of this is that Postman wrote Technopoly twenty-five 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.

According to Cal Newport, those who practice deep work usually do so in one of three ways:

1. Bimodal

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 of intense focus over months at a time. By delegating this span, you will be able to completely detach yourself from distractions. 

Think about this 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, at which point he accesses 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 four New York Times bestsellers.

2. Journalistic

This strategy gets its name from journalists who can 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, 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 prevent us from keeping a daily routine. If you 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 your own workspace at 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.

3. Rhythmic

This tactic represents the easiest way to unwaveringly access deep work day after day. In this strategy, people tap into deep work by making it a daily habit. 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. Keep your kids occupied, put a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign up on your office door, and set your phone to 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.

This is your designated time to accomplish the most important things 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 what matters the most.

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.

Which deep work strategy do you think you can best implement in your life? Do you have any tips for staving off distractions? Let us know on our Facebook page and subscribe to our newsletter for more research and articles.

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