What is Deep Work? How to make space for 'Deep Work' in your typical working day?

Jun 10, 2022, Jiten Madia

What is Deep Work?

Every year twice I take off 3 working days out of my schedule and go to a quiet place along with my laptop and journal. I reflect, think, and write my thoughts to bring more clarity on what the next 6 months are looking like.

I am often being asked - Really, does this help?

Yes, it does. After all, this approach works for Bill Gates. It works for me and I think this practice can work for most of us. The idea is to remove distractions from the surroundings and create a state of concentration that maximizes focus and creativity.

But you don’t have to go find peace and creativity only once or twice a year. In the current world of constant distractions, the art of ‘Deep Work’ is becoming rarer and rarer.

Earlier last month, I created a poll around Deep work.40% of the participants said they can do only 1-6 hours of Deep work in a week. Interestingly 23% showed curiosity around - What is Deep Work? And that became the inspiration for writing this piece.

Deep work: “Activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limits.” The concept of Deep work was coined by Professor Carl Newport. He advocates cultivating a routine and carving out a few hours away from all communication devices to focus on cognitively demanding, creative, concentration demanding tasks.

Shallow work is the exact opposite of Deep Work.

Newport defines shallow work as logistical and coordination tasks that can be performed while distracted, like work coordination and communication tasks.

Shallow work is the enemy of Deep Work. The concept of ‘Deep Work’ is sexy. But is it practical? Can we really eliminate Shallow work? Unfortunately, it is not possible to eliminate Shallow Work from our lives. Someone needs to write those emails, do follow-ups, make logistical arrangements and handle coordination.

In fact, as per an Independent Survey 60% of the working time is spent by knowledge workers spend time on their non-core tasks like answering calls and emails, scheduling meetings, coordinating projects, and other logistical issues.

And yet, we do not understand the hidden cost of ‘Shallow Work’

Shallow work means distractions. Distractions force your brain to switch attention. When you switch attention, a part of your brain is still stuck with the previous task. This is called 'Attention Residue' Attention residue means each task has a switching cost. In fact, some of the previous studies conclude that 'it can take more than 20 minutes to regain the momentum lost due to distraction. So next time you want to pick up your phone casually to check your WhatsApp, think again.

So, how, and where does Deep Work really help?

The value of focus is well known to all of us for centuries.

  • Focus ensures your brain works at its peak cognitive ability. Higher-order cognitive abilities can help you learn better and fast. In the age of the VUCA world, learning is not a luxury. No matter what kind of job you do, every job demands continuous learning.
  • When you concentrate deeply, your brain cements learning pathways and strengthens the connections between neurons so they can fire faster. Deep work not just helps you learn faster, deep work can also help you foster clarity. Clarity can help you produce quality work at a faster pace.

We know Deep Work is important and Deep Work is rare. But how do you really cultivate the ability to do more and more ‘Deep Work’. Here is how -

1. Choose your Deep Work approach

Newport outlines four different approaches to follow as you decide how to schedule your deep work. Depending on your lifestyle, some approaches may work better than others:

  • Rhythmic philosophy: Establish a regular habit and rhythm for deep work, blocking out 1-4 hour chunks to focus at the same time every day. You should pick up a distraction-free time and stick to it.
  • Journalistic philosophy: This method is more flexible. It suggests you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule. Let’s say, if you have at least 90 minutes between meetings, you can schedule a block for Deep Work. The flexibility of this approach might be luring, yet this requires a lot of discipline and will. Rhythmic philosophy still might be your best bet if you are just getting started.
  • Monastic philosophy: This approach attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. This is the most intense and most difficult form of Deep Work.
  • Bimodal philosophy: This method involves dividing your time into long stretches at least a full day set aside for deep work and the rest dedicated to everything else. Bimodal scheduling is a more flexible version of the monastic philosophy—instead of completely eliminating shallow work, you can spend a day or more working deeply and then return to your other obligations. ‘No meeting day’ once a week is a good starting point if the Bimodal philosophy is your Go-to approach.

2. Build a Deep Work routine:

As you initiate yourself in Deep Work, fix the details like:

  • Place of Deep work: Just like time, create a dedicated space for Deep work
  • Journalistic philosophy: This method is more flexible. It suggests you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule. Let’s say, if you have at least 90 minutes between meetings, you can schedule a block for Deep Work. The flexibility of this approach might be luring, yet this requires a lot of discipline and will. Rhythmic philosophy still might be your best bet if you are just getting started.
  • Create a structure around your Deep Work routine. Decide whether to keep Email notifications on or off. Is it ok to walk to the kitchen to drink water?
  • Ensure you get the most out of your Deep Work time. Make sure you have everything that you need beforehand—like reference papers, coffee.
  • Decide how will you measure the success of your ‘Deep Work’

3. Minimize digital distractions

In the age of the ‘Smartphone Revolution,’ everyone needs to be available every time. Hack, I have seen a lot of people pride in how quick they are to respond to messages. While being available is definitely an advantage, remaining available all the time, can create a working environment full of distractions. While avoiding digital distractions completely may be difficult, minimizing distractions is still doable with a few simple strategies:

  • Turn off notifications. Outlook provides a feature of ‘Focus time’ where you can stop the notifications flashing across your screen for a set amount of time every day. If you use an app that doesn’t allow ‘Focus time’ consider switching off the app for a few hours.
  • Create a fixed ‘Social media’ time. It is incredibly hard to fight against the army of behavioral scientists employed by Facebook and LinkedIn. And yet you need to learn to make boredom your friend. Naval Ravikant suggests the simplest kind of meditation. Sitting idle and not doing anything for 1 hour ideally first thing in the day. It is incredibly difficult and effective. I have tried it.
  • Choose your tools wisely. According to independent research, the average knowledge worker switches between 10 apps 25 times per day to do their work—and employees who switch between apps are also more likely to struggle with effectively prioritizing their work. But just because a tool exists doesn’t mean you have to use it. Instead of spreading work across many different apps, carefully choose a project management tool that integrates with all of your business tools, so you have a central source of truth for all of your information. That way, instead of working out of multiple apps, you can track important information in one place.

4. Prioritize Downtime

Rest is equally important as work. Unfortunately, our ability to do Deep Work is finite. Since Deep Work is cognitively demanding, you need to set aside time to recharge every to make your deep work habit more sustainable.

Newport suggests setting clear boundaries is key to a successful Deep Work strategy. He recommends creating a hard cut-off time for work each day and even setting a routine like a “shut-down procedure” that you complete at the end of each workday. This can be 10-20 minutes when you take a last look at your inbox, how you’ll accomplish any unfinished tasks, and review your schedule for the next day.

5. Make ‘Deep Work’ - Your way of life

To create a habit of deep work, set short-term goals to track metrics like how many hours you want to focus on each day. Newport suggests creating a scoreboard where you can record your daily hours and check off each goal you’ve accomplished. If you are new to ‘Deep Work’, try ramping up slow .for example, you might start with one hour per day, then work up to four hours over a period of three months.

Deep work amongst Qualitative Researchers

Qualitative research is all about generating insights. It requires creativity and critical thinking and a lot of cognitively demanding tasks.

flowres can help you streamline your qualitative research execution with its qualitative research specific workflow and a collaborative project workspace. A researcher working on 4-5 projects simultaneously can save at least 5-6 hours a week. That's almost half a day gained for Deep Work in one workweek.

flowres offers a forever free plan for up to 3 users. We also offer a free trial for one month across all users.

Spends time on meaningful thinking tasks, not on project management.
Jiten Madia
Jun 10, 2022