With smartphones, social media, and an increasingly distracted world, it’s increasingly rare for anyone to reach deep concentration at work these days. That’s why many are urging us to take the concept of deep work more seriously. 

If you’re not familiar with deep work, it’s pretty self-explanatory. One enters deep work when they block out distractions and actually focus on their independent work.

While simple in theory, reaching deep work is easier said than done. Our day-to-day lives are plagued with texts, emails, meetings, and the new-found responsibility of juggling work and at-home life while working remotely. 

Fortunately, we’re here to explain deep work and the steps needed to implement it successfully. Let’s dive in. 

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What is deep work?

Deep work is a mentality where you prioritize absolute focus to eliminate distractions and help your brain reach its full potential. 

Contrary to popular belief, multitasking is definitely less productive than honing in on tasks individually. While it seems like you’ll complete work faster, your efficiency and accuracy take a significant hit when multitasking.

With deep work, the goal is to isolate the work at hand and eliminate distractions so you can work more efficiently. 

Understanding the deep work technique

The deep work concept originated with Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown. In his book Deep Work: Rules for a Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal finds new perspectives on our increasingly fast-paced, digital landscape and how it’s actually hurting us. 

That said, he does acknowledge that absolute focus is a demanding task that must be learned. Let’s take a look at the core principles of deep work. 

Core principles of deep work

Like any productivity technique, understanding the core principles of deep work is the first step to maximizing it. But, just like with other productivity methods, the concept evolves the more widespread it becomes.

Cal Newport’s deep work method only has four rules, and we’ll focus solely on these. 

The four rules of deep work

Rule 1: Work deeply

Cal is really tossing us in the deep end here. 

Rule number one is simply about jumping in and embracing the deep work concept. Of course, that doesn’t mean jumping into a deep work task without your proverbial life jacket, floaties, or whatever else you’ll need to stay afloat. 

Before you start working deeply, carve out some time on your calendar when you plan to practice this method. This approach helps you mentally prepare for a distraction-free session and helps those around you know when you’re unavailable to collaborate.

I must admit, I probably don’t do a good enough job of this myself most days. However, many Hubstaffers utilize our focus time policy to block distractions. Here’s an example of how one of my more disciplined co-workers blocks out this time for all to see:

Focus time for deep work in Google Calendar

Don’t stop at your Google Calendar if you like this idea. Another great place to highlight focus time is in your Slack status. With this feature, Slack users can leave a note on why they’re busy (in this case, focus time) and even tweak their notification settings during these hours.

Setting focus time for deep work on Slack.

Now that you’ve removed all contact with your co-workers, it’s time for the most dismal rule.

Rule 2: Embrace boredom

The second rule of deep work is easily the most challenging. It’s simply about embracing boredom and knocking out your work. 

For instance, writing this blog post is more fun when I’m listening to music or a podcast in the background. But, technically speaking, that’s multitasking. 

While leaving my sweet, sweet jams behind is never fun, it’s the right move. Embracing boredom is one of the best ways to be productive. Take it from one of the best sitcom characters of all time:

That 70’s Show’s Red Forman on work

While Red’s sentiments in the video above are a little harsh, he’s not wrong. Work time is for work — not multitasking on other things on your to-do list or chatting with other people. 

If you can mentally come to terms with this in small, focused sessions, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish. 

All jokes aside, many aspects of work can be fun and invigorating socially. However, when it comes down to it, you must unplug and crank out the work. Another great way to do that is to cut out social media. 

Rule 3: Quit social media

Did you know that the average person looks at their phone 58 times during a workday? 

For those with families, health issues, or other realistic concerns, that’s understandable. For the rest of us, it’s just kind of embarrassing.

As we all know, a lot of the issue is social media. Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and other social platforms are highly addictive and hard habits to kick. But, just like with email and Slack, you are in control. 

You can mute notifications on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, or any other digital service by checking out their support site. For most, you’ll follow a few simple steps that you can revert once you complete your deep work session.

Mute push notifications on Instagram

If you’re still not sold, here are a few ways social media negatively impacts one’s ability to reach deep work:

If you manage a team struggling with social media usage, tools like Hubstaff can help. 

With Insights, you can categorize apps as productive and unproductive on a user-by-user basis. 

This way, social media managers have the tools they need to succeed while others stay focused on their tasks.  

Rule 4: Drain the shallows

If the deep end of your workload is independent, high-focus work, then the shallow end is the lesser tasks that clutter your to-do list. 

Deep work vs. shallow work

The key difference between deep work and shallow work is that deep work is more in-depth and requires immense focus. You can do shallow work while distracted or interacting with others. 

Examples of shallow work: 

  • Email
  • Slack
  • Reports
  • Admin work
  • Unnecessary meetings 
Shallow work includes emails, Slack messages, admin work, and more.

Examples of deep work that requires distraction-free concentration: 

  • Quarterly planning 
  • Talent acquisition
  • Product development 
  • Content creation
  • Key client meetings
  • Logistical-style tasks

Implementing deep work in various contexts

It’s important to remember that deep work isn’t limited to the workplace. There are many professions, practice areas, and use cases where deep work is applicable. 

Deep work can be a positive in your professional and personal life, but you may need to tweak some core principles accordingly. 

Deep work for students

It’s a safe assumption that deep work is prominent in academia. As a professor, Cal Newport likely witnessed instances where deep work would be applicable for students — especially in the computer science space. 

Deep work is an absolute necessity for students. The benefits of reaching this level of focus are immense, and you’re likely to see it when: 

  • Writing a papers
  • Studying
  • Reading
  • Coding
  • Designing
  • Taking practice or regular exams
  • Completing online coursework

Of course, these are just a few of near-endless lists of examples. 

Deep work in professional settings

While the deep work concept originally came from a professor, that doesn’t mean you can’t apply these principles at work. 

Most employees have a considerable amount of meetings, team-building events, and other opportunities to interact. However, they still need to lock in and complete independent work like: 

  • Project scoping
  • Budgets
  • Forecasting
  • Process mapping
  • Content creation 
  • Quarterly planning
  • Creating meeting agendas

If you have similar items on your to-do list that you’re struggling to find time for, adopting deep work best practices is a great way to start crossing things off. 

Deep work for remote employees

Contrary to popular belief, remote employees are actually more likely to work deeper and encounter fewer interruptions than their in-office counterparts.

RTO mandates, studies on remote loneliness, and other tactics to get employees to return to the office can’t dispute these facts. 

That said, remote employee productivity is a concern for many companies. Fortunately, employee productivity tools make it easier to check in on employees, gauge their mental health and workloads, and manage from a distance without micromanaging

Enter Hubstaff.

Hubstaff offers daily stand-ups, achievement badges, and fully customizable monitoring permissions.

Hubstaff offers several features to help you ensure employees have a healthy workload: 

  • Customizable dashboards for every employee to gauge productivity, hours worked, PTO requests, engagement scores, and other tools for managing remote teams.
  • Achievement badges reward high activity, praise productivity, and keep an eye on hours worked to prevent burnout.
  • Virtual Stand-ups you can customize for daily progress updates, mental health check-ins, and more. 

Creating a deep work schedule

As mentioned above, you can’t dive immediately into the deep work methodology without drowning. 

Creating a deep work schedule is essential to help you plan better for sessions, balance deep and shallow work, and knock out items on your to-do list. Let’s get started. 

Planning for deep work sessions

Planning for deep work sessions starts with identifying the deep work hours where you’re most productive. Once you’ve identified those blocks of time, try to clear your schedule to remove any meetings, shallow work, or other distractions from those periods.

As we showed above, you can block this time out on your calendar, Slack, and other communication tools so your peers know not to interrupt you during these blocks. 

Balancing deep and shallow work

Even if you identify the correct time frames where you’re most productive, deep work isn’t foolproof. You will still have to fight the urge to take on shallow work that arises during these periods.

That said, you also can’t rely too heavily on cranking out all your deep work in one sitting. As my colleague wisely points out, you can and will burn yourself out trying to operate this way. 

Break up your deep work sessions to allow you time to check in on immediate asks and other shallow work you may need to address. This approach will keep you refreshed, recharged, and able to take time for yourself that’s spread out across the workweek. 

Deep work tools and techniques

Deep work is a productivity method, but that doesn’t mean it needs to stand on its own. There are productivity methods that work well with deep work like:

More often than not, other productivity methods rely on isolating small tasks to focus on larger ones. However, some productivity methods don’t mesh very well with deep work. 

Pomodoro technique vs. deep work

The Pomodoro Technique is a productivity method that we like here at Hubstaff. However, I believe that an out-of-the-box approach to the Pomodoro Technique contradicts the point of deep work. 

While the Pomodoro Technique and deep work prioritize blocking out time for focused success, the time frames are polar opposites. Deep work requires you to lock in for longer periods, well over an hour. 

The Pomodoro Technique, on the other hand, is a method that emphasizes speed with rapid-fire work sessions followed by quick, frequent breaks. 

You can adapt the Pomodoro method to your liking and add longer work sessions and breaks, but the productivity method feels less conducive for deep work. Even if you spend the exact same time working, the frequent breaks make it hard to practice deep work. 

Technology and tools to enhance deep work

Now that we’ve looked at some productivity methods you might consider pairing with deep work, let’s look at some tools that can help you lock in.

  • Hubstaff. Maybe we’re biased, but Hubstaff is made for deep work. Time tracking features help you see how much time and money you spend on projects. You can also see real-time activity scores to see if you’re locking in as planned.
  • Google Calendar. As we’ve consistently mentioned, Google Calendar (or Outlook if you prefer) is your deep work scheduling friend. While it’s our preference, any tool allowing you to block time, tweak notifications, or set away statuses is excellent for blocking distractions.
  • Forest. If you’re a gamer like some of us here at Hubstaff, Forest is a great way to bend the “embrace the boredom” rule of deep work. This app allows you to plant virtual forests the more you focus intensely. Sometimes, gamifying the fruits of your labor is the best way to make strides. 

Overcoming challenges in deep work

Once you get the hang of it, deep work can feel like a superpower — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its fair share of challenges. 

Common obstacles to deep work

  • Burnout. It’s called deep work for a reason. The tasks you’ll embark on are some of your most challenging projects. Allow yourself time to recharge and break up your deep work sessions as best you can.
  • Lack of availability. If you’re a manager, you know full well that blocking out time to eliminate distractions can feel like a pipe dream most days. Try to balance putting out fires when you should be working and cutting yourself off to potential fires you might need to put out.
  • Procrastination. Like Cal says in his core principles, deep work isn’t always fun. These are intimidating tasks that you most likely have been putting off. Fight the urge to procrastinate and dig deep. These tasks won’t go away. 

Developing a deep work habit

Now that you’re up to speed on deep work, it’s time to “embrace the boredom” and get to work. Stop procrastinating and reading blog posts! 

You’ve got the tools you need to plan, lock in, and be successful.

 Do you have any tips for embracing deep work? Have you succeeded in reducing the shallow work that detracts from your larger goals? Let us know in the comments.

Category: Time Management