Practicing Deep Work Habits

Just imagine. It’s the perfect day: the sun’s shining, your workplace is tidy, your tasks enlisted, you’re full of energy and ready to start your day.

You just dive in.

Hours go by as if time rushes at the same speed as your mind. It’s your momentum. You achieve, you accomplish, and you find yourself blissfully submerged in that which you do with so much passion. You have successfully acquired a Deep Work Habit and you’re loving it.

You dive in each day, again and again. No one can stop you.

Deep Work implies the ability to efficiently perform tasks and activities in a state of distraction-free concentration (deep focus) that pushes intellectual and cognitive capabilities to their limit. This kind of effort, when sustained through time as a habit, creates new value, improves skills and permits the accomplishment of goals. Commitment with oneself is needed, so reflection and conscious action-taking are principal pillars to get started.

Newport (2016) establishes four rules related to certain decisions we “Deep Workers” have to make in order to develop this wonderful habit. I suggest taking some time to reflect on these rules and adapt the suggestions here (which are further developed in Newport’s book) to a plan that you can put to practice based on your particular needs.   

Rule #1: Work Deeply

To work deeply you first need to reflect upon your depth philosophy. This means that you’ll need to respond to the following question: What Do I Consider Deep Work? This may have infinite answers. For example, deep work might mean for some a sustained, six-hour, uninterrupted work period in isolation with no distractions and only few breaks. For others, it might mean engaging solely in one project at a time and working on it until it is finished, and so on.

The main point of reflection on your deep work philosophy is that it’s important to understand the importance of depth in the things you do. Only after this understanding is solidified may you enable yourself to be more rigorous at work and remain concentrated.

Now, this philosophy has to be scheduled. This indicates that you need to schedule your tasks and activities considering that to go deep, distractions must be off. You can choose to minimize shallow obligations and distractions to the maximum (or even more drastically, eliminate them) and work deeply for prolonged and uninterrupted hours. On the other hand, you might want to divide your time, dedicating part of it for some “Deep Work sessions” and leaving the other part of it open for other things that are not so demanding. Maybe you’re interested in setting Deep Work as a regular habit, so you decide on establishing a rhythm of deep work sessions for a specific quantity of time everyday.

Newport calls these methods (1) The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling (2) The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling and (3) The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling. Further information about these methods can be found on pages 61 to 70 in Deep Work. Rules for focused success in a distracted world.

Getting started on Deep Work requires a mindset, which can be formed and further recalled through a specific ritual. An efficient ritual may answer the following questions:

  • Where will you work?  
  • For how long are you going to dedicate to work? 
  • How will you work once you get started?
  • How will you sustain work? 

Overall, in order to achieve a Deep Work Habit you must commit to discipline. This means that you’ll need to constantly focus on the important, act on lead measures and determine the moment to shut down and rest in order to recharge.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

Nowadays, boredom is understood as a desperate state of mind in which we are not productive and nothing satisfies us. Boredom is demonized since stillness and silence are considered to be the main conditions for reflection and deep concentration. It is mainly because of this that we are constantly bombarded with technological applications that keep us from boredom. So, distractions are everywhere, making us dependent on them.

Nevertheless, there is another perspective that considers boredom as an opportunity to explore the many ways you can use your time for the good stuff (i.e. that which relates to your passion). In this sense, Newport explains that to develop the habit of deep working, it is necessary to train our minds to concentrate and to overcome our desire for distraction.

For this, the author suggests changing our way of understanding work and break time. With this in mind, it’s important to consider that since we are living in a world full of distractions, we tend to need to take breaks from them in order to focus. Just imagine a person that spends most of his working time answering emails and checking social media, and sees “focused work” as a short break from them. The opposite would be a person that deliberately takes breaks from focus in order to distract himself. In this second situation, focus is the priority.

For this to happen, it is necessary to reflect on the specific things or activities that function as distractors to you. They may be internet-related, family, music, chores, or other things that demand your attention constantly.

If you recognize internet as the main distractor, but also as a tool for work, you may have to decide on certain actions such as web-page blocking apps or scheduling its usage. If the internet is not your main issue, scheduling distractors is still recommended, since this can help you to consciously determine a certain amount of time for relaxation and distraction of the mind.

Embracing boredom implies accepting the state of “being bored” as an opportunity to further concentrate, meditate, reflect. Think of it as a state in which your mind is willing to engage in something profound and enriching.

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

This may sound weird to some. Out of this world, eccentric and disruptive, but yes, this means quitting one of the main distractors present in the contemporary lifestyle.

Now, as boredom, social media can be criticized but also valued. For example, it can be used as a tool to build a solid client base for your startup. It can also serve as a marketing tool to spread the word on your product or service. It is impossible to establish a moral value to social media itself. It being good or bad depends solely on the users’ usage.

So, quitting social media can be considered as an interesting exercise to detect how much time we lose by scrolling endlessly through our feeds or even to detect which social media is truly important and worth keeping. For this, you can apply the law of the “Vital Few” to your internet habits (i.e. quit every social media that you haven’t checked in the last 6 months). You can also try the Network Isolation Exercise, in which you quit all social media for a specific time period in order to experience life without it and regain the value of other—more nourishing—distractors. You can schedule this exercise in your routines, for example, establishing a Network Isolation time during midterm or final evaluation week, or even when you’re on vacations.

I personally suggest not using the internet for entertainment. This means that internet can be understood only as an innovative and excellent tool for working and learning, so entertainment comes from other things such as reading, going out with friends and family, walking, etc.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

Maybe you hate it, or maybe you don’t even realize its condition as shallow. Shallow work is trivial in essence. It doesn’t generate value, it is repetitive and takes up your time (i.e. answering emails, attending meetings, completing forms, etc.). Newport recognizes that it is impossible to get rid of shallow work since it keeps things organized and running flawlessly. So it is important to reflect on the effects of spending too much time on it. 

First, it is necessary to clearly detect and determine what the shallow obligations of your work are. Once they are detected, you may try to schedule every minute of your day in order to determine the exact time in which you are going to attend to those shallow obligations. Scheduling every minute of your day may sound a little obsessive, but this is not intended to be a strict schedule. Moreover, it helps you to consciously determine the amount of time dedicated to deep work and shallow work, and when specifically to attend to each of them.

To do this effectively you’ll have to analyze the depth of each activity. To do that, Newport suggests that you should ask yourself: How long would it take (in months) to train a smart, recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task? (Newport, 2016 p. 135). The answer to this question may help you understand how demanding each activity is, so you can recognize which requires deep work and which can be catagorized as shallow.

A final recommendation related to this rule is not to work on shallow obligations while at home. If you are a student, it is understandable that you require your time at home for studying and revising material. But if you work, home is the place to truly be at home. Leave shallow work where it belongs, and utilize your at-home time to relax your mind after a day of productivity and deep work.

These rules are not expected to be followed without consideration of their implications on your work habits. Still, this may help you develop a deep work habit adjusted to your personal needs. Remember, a habit needs commitment and consistency to truly become part of our behavior. But to get started you just need to decide on being the best version of yourself. We have a great future in front of us, and each step towards it is a gain towards excellence. Remember that, deep worker!   

Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work. Rules for focused success in a distracted world. New York: Hachette Book Group.