seal diving deep



Deep work is a term coined by Professor Cal Newport to describe one way of getting valuable and meaningful work done. It is the type of work that needs your focus for a block of time, without distraction or interruption.

Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity

In a world where your personal effectiveness is more dependent on your thinking skills and knowledge, there is an absence of clear meaningful metrics. It is easy to resort to an industrial measure of productivity, like a machinist turning out widgets. The equivalent is doing lots of things in a visible manner i.e. busyness.

In the current culture, your colleagues would rather you respond quickly to their latest email or Slack message than produce the best possible result.

These factors are very understandable reasons for people spending time in busy work rather than productive work. Without conscious planning, this will only get worse.

What to focus on in Deep Work

Deep work is best employed when you need to focus on something for a while to understand it and create an outcome. Typical topics are:

  • A thorny problem
  • Creating a new business offering
  • Planning a project
  • Creating a strategy

You may notice that the common thread is that these things go better if you direct your full attention to the task.

A useful question to ask yourself is ‘How long would it take (in months) to train a recent graduate, with no previous specialised training, to complete this task?’

The longer it would take to train someone up then the more suitable the task is to the deep work approach. If you think it wouldn’t take long, then treat the task as shallow work.

Doing Your Deep Work

First, of some good news, not all your work is deep work. Our capacity for deep cognitive work tops out at 4 hours per day. You will feel better and work more effectively if you use the rest of your day for shallow work. That doesn’t mean being unproductive, just that you can get on with other things like meetings, emails, and routine admin.

Block out some time for deep work, know what you aim to achieve in that block of time. Work in bursts of time, 90-minutes is a good length of time. As you get more used to deep work you can increase to 2 hours.

After each block, keep a half-hour of flexible space. If you are doing well and are near the end of the work, you can use the extra time to complete it. If you have finished the work on time, or even early, then use the half-hour flexible time to do something less demanding like catching up on email.

To ensure you have enough space in your week to do some deep work, make conscious planning a habit. Planning and avoiding distractions are whole other topics, I will write about them at another time.

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