Deep Work – How to Achieve Focus and Fulfilment in the Age of Distraction

Deep Versus Shallow

How much deep work have you performed this week? Where you focused on challenging tasks, distraction-free, until they were 100% complete.

Cal Newport, in his 2016 book ‘Deep Work – Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’ describes deep work as…

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard for others to replicate.”

Or have you been tossed about on a sea of shallow work and distractions, pulled from your priorities into other people’s demands and dramas? Wasting one of your most valuable resources – attention – by going down the rabbit hole of emails, phone calls, and social media. Being pulled in and out of the work that really matters to put out fires and move information around.

When you deliberately perform deep work, you are self-directed. Like a scuba diver, you are in your own world, in the timeless, calm space deep under the surface. You determine your destination and how you will get there. When you unconsciously perform shallow work, it is like you have been cast onto a storm-tossed sea, swept this way and that, at the whim of the currents, directed by outside forces.

Research by Gloria Mark found that people spend only three minutes on any single event before being interrupted (either by an external distraction or by distracting themselves) or before switching tasks and it takes, on average, 23 minutes to resume an interrupted task (Gloria Mark et al, 2008). Add up your daily interruptions and you realise the cumulative toll interruptions take on workplace productivity, employee engagement, and mental well-being. Deep work cannot be performed effectively in this environment.

Focused Sprints

I schedule my most challenging work (work that requires critical thinking, creative thinking, or thinking outside the box) early in the morning when I am physical and mentally refreshed, less likely to be disrupted, and before my brain gets filled up with the minutiae of the day. To provide optimal conditions for deep work you need to clear your physical, mental, and virtual space. To quiet my mind I practise one-minute mindfulness exercises, such as four-square breathing or open eye meditation, before tackling deep work.

Minimise temptation and distraction by:

  1. Clearing everything off your desk except what is required for the task at hand
  2. Switching off your mobile phone and putting it in a drawer (it is more effective if you can’t see it – literally out of sight, out of mind)
  3. Closing Outlook and other apps on your devices.

Our brains are hard-wired to seek novelty and according to Linda Ray, CEO of NeuroCapability, we can “focus our attention fully for around 20-25 minutes before [our] brain starts looking for novelty”. I often work on tasks in 25-minute sprints, followed by a short break (The Pomodoro Technique). If my brain starts to fatigue, I stand up and stretch, walk outside for a minute and look up at the sky, or play a quick game of fetch with my Greyhound. To satisfy the need for novelty, sometimes I switch to a different sub-task within the task I am working on, but I keep going until the task is done. The process of deliberate, deep work is deeply fulfilling, creating a sustained reward state. Unlike the mini hits of dopamine you get when you complete quick, shallow work – like an addictive, short, sharp hit of sugar that doesn’t last.

Structured Tenacity

We need to perform deep work and shallow work, so get deliberate about how you structure your workdays to maximise productivity and outcomes. For office-based, knowledge workers, Cal Newport recommends developing a rhythmic deep work ritual, alternating between deep work (in 90-minute blocks) and shallow work (in 30-minute blocks), building up to performing 4 hours of deep work per day. When was the last time you performed 4 hours of deep work in a day?

When you are performing deep work and find yourself disengaged, resist the temptation to check email, surf the Net, or jump on social media. This will pull you out of your deep work state and delay task completion. Instead, take 5, but don’t switch tasks. If you switch to another task, you will likely experience attention residue, where you are unable to fully concentrate on the second task because part of your attention is still focused on the first, unfinished task, and your cognitive capacity will be reduced for a period before it clears (Dance & Service, 2013).

Regularly powering down your mind is crucial. It is in the spaces in between that I have had major breakthroughs – while having a cup of tea on my back deck or doing the washing up. I have yet to have an Aha! moment while reading an email or watching a cat video.

Schedule your entire day in advance, allowing for:

  1. Deep work, like research, strategy development, analysis, and coding
  2. Batched shallow work, like meetings, reading and responding to email, and administration
  3. Mind-wandering time to allow your unconscious mind to form associations and patterns and
  4. Free time to recharge.

Build in some slack and allow yourself flexibility to adapt your schedule for unexpected events. Keep hydrated and maintain glucose levels for your energy-hungry brain.

If you are an early bird like me, a schedule like the one below could work for you.

Become the Scientist of Your Own Experience

My challenge to you should you choose to accept it…

When you get up tomorrow do not engage in any shallow tasks until you have completed your first deep work task. The only exceptions are mandatory work tasks, family obligations, and time-critical tasks. Stay off your mobile phone, avoid television, the Internet, social media, instant messaging, and email.

Before work, instead of engaging in tasks that scatter your mind and deplete your valuable attention resource, engage in activities that nourish your mind, body, and soul – listen to music, play with your kids, go for a walk with your dog, meditate, enjoy a quiet cuppa on your verandah, or read an actual book. Be present in the moment.

When you arrive at the office, don’t get drawn into office gossip. Start your day focused completely on a deep work task for 90 minutes. Work in 25-minute sprints, followed by five-minute breaks. Be mindful of where you focus your attention. When you surface from the deep work, compare how you feel in mind and body to how you felt today. Compare your focus, productivity, the quality of your output, and your level of fulfillment. Rinse and repeat for one week.

I would love for you to share the results of your experiment in the comments below.

Di Krome is a Champion for Good Mental Health in the Workplace and founder of Wildfire Business Consulting. Di is on a mission to inspire a generation of conscious, compassionate leaders to create psychologically safe workplaces, so their people feel safe, supported, and empowered.

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