notebook with "what exactly *is* deep work written on it in cursive by a green fountain pen. Pair of reading glasses folded to the right side of the notebook.

what is deep work?

This week on two of my other sites, little acorn creations and PennyWise Consulting, I wrote about working deeper.

However, what is deep work?

As Cal Newport defines it, “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.” Erm ok. What does that mean? To me, it means not being constantly distracted by thoughts swirling around your head. It also means that external disruptions, such as notifications from a software application are minimized.

How do I do it?

My three steps to start working deeper are to start small, practice focus, and cut the social media (and notifications).

Let’s walk through the steps. This is a habit to build, and will require practice before you are able to achieve your full goal.

Step one

Schedule 15 minutes in your day, every other day for two weeks. It’s up to you if you want to set it at the same time or move it based on other commitments. The key is that when you add it to your calendar you keep the commitment. I find that fifteen minutes is both long enough to get something done and short enough that it doesn’t feel scary.

Step two

For the first session we’ll focus on setting things up. First turn off notifications to your mobile device, the easiest way to do this temporarily is finding the “do not disturb mode”. If you are using a desktop or laptop, close all applications (this should shut off notifications). Yes, close the browser window with a million and one tabs open. Do not “use a new desktop”, if you accidentally switch to something it can (and likely will) distract you. However, please set a timer! I’ve found that I can easily get caught up in my focus once I give myself the permission to work deeply on a topic and that’s not always good for the rest of my work!

Step three

Either on a small sticky note, an index card, a notebook, or as a digital note write your intention for what you want to solve during this deep work session. Here’s where I think I differ from Cal Newport, cognitively challenging can be something that seems shallow to others. You know what it is for you. Here’s a few examples that I’ve given this deep level of focus:

  • Figure out the ripple effect on my schedule if I make a change of doing X at a different time.
  • Flip through a crochet dictionary looking for a stitch design.
  • Read through an error log to evaluate a configuration error.
Step four

Apply the remainder of the allotted time to apply it to the intention written in step three.

What about those thoughts that are swirling in my head and trying to distract me? My brain answers back that they have their own time for my attention. With practice, it’s possible to quiet them.

Step five

Record that you worked deeply for that set amount of time. How much you want to record and how is up to you, I’ve found that it helps to motivate me to do it again.

Repeat this with each session and slowly build up the allocated time as your projects and schedule allows (and less time setting up for focus). The longest I’ve worked deeply is within a block of four hours. I’m not completely out of touch during that time. Within that session I take short breaks (a la pomodoro) and allow minimal disrupting distractions. This isn’t when I’ll browse social media, but I will check to see if an important email or phone call needs my attention.

When do I do it?

We tend to do our best work in the morning when we’re fresh. I agree with that, however with two caveats. Sometimes the most important task in the morning is something that’s technically shallow but not doing it would be a problem. Also I believe that external time pressures help to hone focus. For example, I know there is a set amount of time between when my husband says he’s leaving the office and when he walks in our front door. Yes, at the end of the day is often when I have my most successful deep work!

Why do I do it?

For years I heard that the successful multi-tasked. This is true to a degree, however it’s more about using time effectively. I often multitask while doing shallow work, listen to podcasts while I cook, and knit swatches while I watch TV. While cleaning out my inbox I often am also updating software and downloading large files.

Deep work, however, is the work that makes what I do meaningful. It is also the work that is more likely to pay bills.

What about social media?

It’s designed to be addictive and lead to binging. I’ve found by scheduling my time and with permission for spontaneity (when my foster kittens are being cute, I want the world to know.) I am more thoughtful (I hope) in what I share and why.

notebook with "what exactly *is* deep work written on it in cursive by a green fountain pen. Pair of reading glasses folded to the right side of the notebook.