How to Stay Focused Using Deep Work in Today’s Hyper-Distracted World

January 20, 2020
Image: Runrig, for the album Proterra

The world is a distracting place and our attention is more fleeting than ever.

We are constantly being interrupted in our work culture today. During our work day we find ourselves disturbed by colleagues or hooked on social media or our phones, whilst spending an average of two hours a day on social media.

We are lacking what author Cal Newport calls Deep Work. Which can be defined as:

“Professional activities 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.”

We live in a world where Deep Work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable. The few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

As the world advances, three kinds of people will survive and prosper according to Newport:

  1. Owners of capital or people with access to it
  2. Those who can work with intelligent machines and technology
  3. Superstars in their field of work

Deep Work focuses on the third type. To become one, you need to develop two skills: the ability to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

Unfortunately, the rituals of the modern workplace, such as meetings, emails, and reports do not allow for Deep Work. While they are hard to escape, we should make a conscious effort to diminish the time spent on them in order to maximise the time we have to develop Deep Work.

So the question becomes, how can we develop more Deep Work in our lives?

While there’s no universal strategy, here are a few Newport says we might find helpful:

  • The monastic approach. This strategy works by eliminating all sources of distraction and secluding yourself like a monk.
  • The bimodal approach, which involves setting a clearly defined, long period of seclusion for work and leaving the rest of your time free for everything else.
  • The rhythmic approach. The idea here is to form a habit of doing deep work for blocks of, say, 90 minutes and using a calendar to track your accomplishments.
  • The journalistic strategy is to take any unexpected free time in your daily routine to do deep work. But regardless of which technique you employ, it’s key to remember that they’re methodical, not random.

Deep work is intentional and desired, which makes it essential to have rituals that prepare your mind for it. One ritual can be to define your space. It can be as simple as placing a “do not disturb” sign on your office door, or going to a library, coffee shop or going to a quiet space in the office. The latter is especially helpful if you work in an open office.

Many of the greats can attribute this small practice of defining your space to their success. J.K. Rowling, who, while finishing her last Harry Potter book, stayed at a five-star hotel just to escape her hectic home environment and cope with the pressure of writing her gripping novel so she could get into deep work.

Cal Newport writes about a lot of rituals and tactics to practice deep work in his book and we encourage everyone to read it. He emphasises the point that there is no one-size fits all model for Deep Work, there’s only the way that works for you.

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