It’s likely you have heard the term ‘deep work’ bandied about the place of late. Positioned as an answer to perpetual distraction, multi-tasking and checking phones and emails every few minutes, deep work promises dividends in terms of productivity, employability and happiness. For agency founders and leaders, there is something so undeniably attractive about deep work – if you commit to it, then it’s not ‘just another thing you need to cram into your schedule’ instead it can transform the rest of your time – you’ll crank through shallow work (the emails, small tasks etc) faster, be more present in your home life, and eliminate time wasted switching between tasks.
Professor Cal Newport, who coined the phrase ‘deep work’ explained its premise as this:
“We can’t solve complex problems or create new value without having space for undisturbed deep thinking. So in a world of constant digital distraction, those able to master their productive focus will thrive. This is the simple premise of deep work – to regularly push your cognitive capacities to their limits. With huge consequences for employee productivity, happiness, and adaptability, it’s touted as the world’s ultimate job skill for good reason.”
Now whether it really is touted as ‘the world’s ultimate job skill’ – I couldn’t say, but I’d certainly fall into the camp which regarded deep work as something that has the power to produce tremendous results. I’ve been having some interesting conversations with lots of people about deep work recently – those of you who watched my video on Process with Cat Navarro will have heard about her new venture, FLOWN, which gives you access to the ideal mental and physical spaces for you (or your team) to think and work more productively and creatively. The more I explore, the more I accede that we can’t solve complex problems or create new value without ‘becoming unavailable’ and having space for undisturbed deep thinking.
The four main values of deep work:
The ability to do deep work is a skill and, like any skill, the more you work on it the more proficient you become. Strengthening your deep work muscle helps improve your concentration – helping you lock focus on a specific task and stick at it for longer periods of time. You might begin only being able to focus deeply for 45 minutes, but regularly practicing and pushing deep work can help you scale this. Aside from boosting your productivity and the quality of your work, being able to work on mentally taxing tasks for long periods of time helps you to build presence in everything you want to do.
Deep work helps us quickly develop new skills and solve the complex problems that move our company forward. In addition, working at an elite level – where you produce more and better work in less time – clearly comes with huge competitive advantages. Since deep work is currently under-practiced as a skill, Newport believes that those who can produce high-quality work at a superior rate will quickly outpace their colleagues and competition.
Deep work challenges people to regularly accomplish difficult and meaningful tasks. It essentially provides a framework for accessing and extending productive flow states – where we produce our best work. When we achieve something valuable, we feel an intense sense of happiness, purpose and satisfaction. So there’s a deeply emotional benefit to deep work too.
An improved sense of self
When we’re constantly distracted and multitasking, it’s difficult to remember what really matters and reflect on what we’re contributing towards that. People naturally search for meaning and connection, but a constant flow of shallow work and multitasking leaves little cognitive space for this. In contrast, deep work challenges us to consider the true value of our time – it’s about understanding what work actually helps you achieve your goals and redirecting your efforts to immerse yourself in it. In championing time and mental energy for our most important, useful work, Newport believes regular deep work can support a state of eudaimonia — where we feel we’re achieving our full human potential.
Deep Work – choose the best method for you:
- Monastic: remove all distractions on a permanent basis (no Slack, no phone communication, no email)
- Bimodal: divide your time between deep and shallow stretches, concentrated over days or weeks at a time.
- Rhythmic: Make deep work a regular habit by scheduling a few hours of it into daily life.
- Journalistic: switch to deep work whenever free time presents itself.
For agency leaders, the most likely solution (and easiest to get started) is likely the rhythmic method.
Deep Work – here’s how to get into it…
- Understand how you work – see above
- Plan your time – Decide what you want to prioritize and block off time working deeply to achieve that. It’s a good idea to think about what time of day you are most productive and focussed and save that for your deep thinking. Don’t agree to any appointments or meetings during this protected period.
- Decide what you want to achieve – Deep working isn’t just for Nobel-prize winners of people producing “profound” work. It’s accessible to anyone, no matter what small task you want to achieve. Understand what success means for you and set a challenging deadline to get there.
- Establish rituals – You can’t rely on the force of your willpower alone – it’s fleeting and mood-driven. Create structured habits and rituals to sustain your deep thinking.
- Become unavailable – All communication outside your deep working space can wait until you’re done. You need to be ruthless to make sure all your attention is focused on your set task.
- Know when you’ll stop and actually stop
- Assess how you did – Did you achieve what you promised yourself you would? Take an unforgiving stance on this – deep work can unlock new levels of productivity, so if you’re not getting enough out of it reassess your approach. Without reviewing your performance, you can’t improve.
- Enrich your downtime – long periods of concentration should be balanced with quality rest
Inspired by Cal Newport’s Book, ‘Deep Work – Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’ and the article ‘How to do deep work effectively’.
Deep Work is sort of a calisthenics for your mind. Starting to get in shape will absolutely transform your work processes and ability to get stuff done.
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