Most of us spend our day constantly switching between tasks while being disrupted by notifications from our phones, email, and instant messaging apps like MS Teams or Slack. This ‘context switching’ has a cost on our ability to focus on the things that matter in our work.
Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work separates work into two categories, deep and shallow work:
Deep work: “Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”Cal Newport
Shallow work: “Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”Cal Newport
You need to be intentional about how you spend the working day, or you will default towards shallow tasks at the expense of what matters. Newport argues that to be the best at what you do, you need to focus your time on as much deep work as you can manage first, and then use the rest of the day for shallow work such as responding to email, direct messages, and attending meetings.
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”CAl Newport
Most of us are so used to shallow and distracted work that we have, at best, forgotten and, at worst, never learnt how to truly focus on our work. Developing a deep work practise requires periods where we block out distractions and concentrate on high-value tasks.
Building a deep work habit
- If you have a reasonably predictable schedule and can plan your week and day ahead of time, block out time for deep work to develop a regular habit.
- Assign a task to each deep work block in your plan.
- Schedule your shallow work, including checking email around this to protect deep work from distractions.
- choose a comfortable workspace where you can minimise distractions
- Turn off your phone, close your email and messaging apps, and mute notifications.
- Set a timer for your desired duration and commit to concentrating only on your assigned task until the timer finishes.
- Once complete, note down any distractions or anything that stopped you from concentrating on the task. Make an effort to prevent this from happening next time.
Start with 15 minutes of distraction-free focused work and gradually increase the time over several weeks till you can do 90 minutes of uninterrupted deep work.