How Deep Work can improve your focus

Quick memory exercise: remember what you did at work yesterday?

Maybe you had some meetings. Maybe you wrote some emails. Maybe you posted on social media. Maybe you answered a few phone calls.

It was probably busy.

But here’s the thing: being busy isn’t the same as producing high-quality work.

In his bestselling book Deep Work, author and professor Cal Newport analyses the differences between ‘shallow work’ (“non-cognitive, logistical-style tasks”), and ‘deep work’ (challenging tasks completed without distraction).

He celebrates the power of that one quality people have in an increasingly shorter supply: intense, undistracted focus.

Newport defines deep work as: “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate”.

The idea is, without that kind of focus it’s impossible to produce work of real value.

Many work activities – such as email – he defines as ‘shallow work’. 

Newport argues that deep work is valuable and, in our connected economy, increasingly rare.

For those wanting to flit about on the internet’s endless hamster wheel of distraction, Newport has some bad news: “It’s those individuals who cultivate their ability to concentrate without distraction who will thrive,” he writes.

Rife with paradigm-shifting insights, Newport’s book flips the merits of unbridled connectivity on its head.

Focus is continually seen as a muscle. And – let’s face it – when it comes to focus, most of us are ridiculously weak.

That brings us to the exercises – it’s time to hit the focus gym for some deep work training.

Think of it as CrossFit for your mind.

Exercise 1: disconnect (and stop busywork)

Stop pretending that you can multi-task (no-one can).

Invest in some anti-distraction programs that block sites, block background windows, or log your computer off the internet for set periods of time.

Checking emails

Author of Deep Work, Cal Newport considers checking email an act of ‘shallow work’ that provides little real value.

Some helpful tools:

Freedom: increase productivity by temporarily disabling networking on your computer.

WriteSpace and WriteRoom: full screen text editors for distraction-free writing.

Exercise 2: embrace boredom

If you’re currently in an intense, long-term relationship with your smartphone, it’s going to be hard to focus intensely.

The reward centres of your brain fire up when you experience a novel stimulus.

This places you on the endless wheel of distraction/reward/distraction – the natural enemy to deep work.

“If your mind is addicted to getting novel stimuli at all times, it’s very difficult to then focus when it comes time to focus,” Newport says.

Phones detracting from work

Notifications on smartphones provide novel stimuli that detract from your ability to do meaningful work.

To do deep work, declare war on novel stimuli and embrace boredom – it will strengthen your focus muscle.

“Deep work is a period where you’re not going to have novel stimuli because you’re concentrating on just one thing.”

It’s time to put the phone away, Newport encourages us. “Give yourself practice being bored, of being somewhere and not having any novel stimuli.”

Exercise 3: harness social media

Social media is often a rabbit hole of diverting content that is sometimes useful.

Part of succeeding in business is knowing what to focus on and what to ignore.

As writer and philosopher William James said, “being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook”.

You don’t have to quit social media; just keep it in check.

Start by deciding which times you’ll check which platform, and for how long. Granted, this will be painful at first, but it’s making a bold move to show yourself, and maybe others, that you take your focus and attention seriously.

If you need a little help, try StayFocused: it restricts your app usage to 30 minutes per app per day.

Practise these exercises to achieve ‘deep work’

Naturally, these exercises require practice and deliberate habit-building – simply starting a step in the right direction.

To benefit from deep work, Newport reminds us that it doesn’t matter whether you’re producing concertos or web copy; whatever your craft, a life of focus “is the best kind there is”.

To learn more, check out Newport’s book.
Checking social media

Be mindful of, and consider limiting, how much time you devote to checking social media – even when you consider it a work task.