Even if you’ve never heard of ‘deep work’ before, you’re immediately familiar with the concept. It’s that place of intense concentration and cognitive focus where real progress is made—on whatever it is that we happen to do, be it writing or thinking or designing or creating.
Producing a book, that takes deep work. Developing a new insight in science or psychology—that’s the product of deep work. Same goes for studying for a difficult exam, composing music, running a company, reading a difficult article, even training in certain sports. Elite work takes deep work.
Cal Newport, the popularizer of the term and the writer of an amazing book on the topic, compares this to the shallow work that so many people spend much of their time on. You know, “tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media,” the kind of work that is “attractive because it’s easy.”
The question is then: How do you do more of the former and less of the latter? Are there tricks for getting more deep work done?
Of course there are. Just to be clear though—that’s very different than a productivity hack. We’re not just trying to do more period, but more of a very specific thing.
Here are some of mine:
[*] Exercise in the middle of the day. Not in the morning or at night but in the middle of the afternoon. This allows your brain to work through things from a different angle and come up with ideas, so when you come back to your desk you have a fresh stuff to work with. I wrote parts of this piece in my head on my run this afternoon.
[*] Severely limit the apps on your phone. For me, that means no Facebook, no games, and the like. I don’t want my phone to be distraction/relief in my pocket.
[*] Same goes for all push alerts and sound for stuff like text messages. Turn it off. Your phone is less of a threat to deep work if it can’t interrupt you.
[*] Make commitments. Ideally, commitments that can’t be broken. Part of the reason I’ve been able to write 4 books in 4 years is because I signed contracts for that many. I have to deliver those or I owe them money.
[*] Ben Casnocha has a good one: Stare out of windows.
[*] Create a commute. That sounds weird but I’ve found my deep work has increased since I stopped working from my house. Since I have to drive to my studio/office (as opposed to just walking downstairs), it’s created not only a zone of focus for me but also a distinction between work and not work. I know what I have to get done before I can leave each day.
[*] Don’t pay for TV. Even the extra step of having to select something on a streaming site is a helpful deterrent. Make it harder to just “turn on the TV” and you’ll do it less.
[*] Understand where distractions come from (hint: it’s not from the outside). As Seneca puts it: “There is never a time when new distractions will not show up; we sow them, and so several will grow from the same seed.”
[*] If you have trouble sleeping, stop trying to sleep. I used to always force myself to stay in bed, hoping I’d magically fall back asleep. Now when I can’t sleep because my mind is racing or because of time zone changes, I get up, work when I am tired and then go back to bed when I am tired. I don’t waste hours just laying there.
[*] As Shane Parrish says, get up early. Deep work is easier earlier.
[*] Listen to the same song over and over again. This helps me lose track of time.
[*] There’s only one person in the world who can do your deep work: YOU. So to the best of your ability and finances, hire and delegate as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Pay for what can be replaced (scheduling, labor, etc), so you can do what cannot be.
[*] Don’t let systems get in the way of just fucking working. This is controversial but I would say there is probably an inverse correlation between meticulously organized Evernote accounts and doing a lot of deep work. Over-organizing can be a kind of distraction.
[*] Same goes for smart drugs and all the other crap that people sell you as a short cut. Chances are you haven’t optimized for the most important stuff yet, so don’t you dare justify these more costly efficiency gains as being worth it.
[*] Avoid meetings and definitely avoid agreeing to phone calls. I almost never get on the phone unless I’ve been hired to be on that call (whether it’s via Clarity.fm or booked through an assistant). Because it’s time spent away from doing the work that matters.
[*] Don’t waste time talking about what you’re going to do. Let the results of your deep work speak for you—while you’ve moved on to the next thing.
[*] Big intimidating projects should be broken down into several discrete tasks on which you can focus completely and have individually visible horizons or completion points (just like you might break a workout up into sets and reps). For me on books, that means on a given day, I am not “writing my book”, I am “writing Chapter 13 in Part II.” I always have my bearings.
[*] If you are slowing down, take a walk. Walking helps you think.
[*] As Cal says in his book, don’t take breaks from distraction (as in “Ok, I’m going to not check my phone for 30 minutes”), schedule distraction (Ok, now that I’m finished, it’s TV time). Productive work—when you’re “working”—should be the default. Dicking around, that’s what breaks are for.
[*] Can you get comfortable not being informed? Or saying: “Oh, I hadn’t heard about that.” One way to get more deep work done is to cultivate a disinterest with the trivial things that other people get distracted by (hint: watching debates/political maneuvering a year before an election).
[*] Auto-responders are your friend. Not a default though, or people will stop respecting it. But when you need time, put up the sign to tell people.
[*] Another tip on email. Ask yourself: “What if I just pretended I never got this? What would happen?” If the answer is nothing, you can probably do that then.
[*] When Bill Bradley played for Princeton (and soon for the Olympic team) he would actually shout “Concentrate” to himself when he would feel his focus slipping.
[*] Routine matters. Develop one and stick to it.
[*] Deep work requires tradeoffs. Nutritionally, I’d probably be a little better if I ate breakfast. But I find I am most productive if I get to work right away. So I accept that trade.
[*] Reading is deep work—especially the long, difficult works that require significant effort and focus. Listening, watching the right things can be too. It’s not only about putting stuff out there that counts, it’s also what you put in.
[*] Make a clear distinction between the “research” phase of work and the “creation” phase of work. Trying to do both at the same time—researching while you write, for example—is usually a recipe for doing both poorly.
[*] Have a designated place (other than an office). There are a couple places in the world I can go when I know I need to really get something done and my home base isn’t cutting it. They’re like deep work reserve banks.
[*] Keep a journal. Julia Cameron has said that having “morning pages” to do each day is like a warm up—it helps get you going.
[*] Since reading Cal’s book, I’ve added something to what I put in my journal. I used to record what exercise and walking I did the previous day. Now I also write down how many hours of deep work I did. If that number is low—that means I’m doing something wrong. It means I got distracted or didn’t stay disciplined.
And I suppose that’s the last little bit of this: the amount of deep work you get done is on you. It starts by closing your browser (after you finish reading me, of course) and getting to it.