Deep work: how to learn one of the most valuable skills in the market

What is deep work?

The concept of deep work was introduced in one of the blog posts by Cal Newport, an author and computer science professor at Georgetown University, and later on described in his 2016 bestseller entitled “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” [1]. By Newport’s definition, deep work refers to:

“Professional activity 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.”

Deep work is a great tool to guard us against wasting time on meaningless activities, e.g. reacting immediately on every notification we get or scrolling through news feed. By actively planning your deep work along with free time, you’re forced to think for a moment about what time means to you, and how you can get the most out of it. 

Busyness is not productivity

Nowadays, we are constantly busy or, at least, we act like we are. When I ask people at work how their day’s going, they most often reply with “Wow, what a busy day” or “I hope this week is over soon.” People tend to look “busy” because it creates an image of a hard-working professional. But let’s get right to the point. Bouncing between your inbox, enormous amounts of meetings, and chat notifications is no way to get ahead in today’s world. These are the marks of busyness, not productivity. And being busy does not equal being productive. Ask yourself this honest question:

How many hours that you spend at work actually lead you to deepen your skills, grow your business or achieve the ambitious goals that you set for yourself?

Acting “busy” in the long run can be a trap, leading you away from the path of excellence and down the road to mediocrity. To be truly exceptional at work and to gain recognition for it, you’ll need to adopt a different strategy.  

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Learning how to practice deep work is crucial to become highly productive. Cal Newport suggests focusing mostly on “Intensity of Focus”. Embracing the power of directed focus is called a superpower of the 21st century. According to him, if you want to have an advantage in the market, you need to have access to huge funds, be the best at what you do or use machines and devices in a creative way. The last two groups in particular require learning how to practice deep work.

Deep work strategies

Many of us haven’t learned how to focus deeply on a single task. Do you remember how it was at school? It was very hard to focus while the teacher was speaking. It was even harder to focus when we were studying at home. There were so many more interesting things to be done rather than reading a school book or doing exercises. I remember how long it took me to do homework when I was in high school. It was a nightmare. Staying late at night to finish homework was definitely one of the marks of not being effective enough. I think that the only deep work session I had was a few times per month to write a test or an exam. During those moments I was definitely focused on this particular activity only.

There is no single best deep work strategy. Newport describes four different types of deep work you can choose from, depending on your job and lifestyle. It’s also worth experimenting to see which one offers the best results for you.

Deep Work SchedulingDifficulty LevelDescriptionExample
The MonasticHardThe most dedicated form of deep work involves spending all of your working hours on a singular high-level focus. While it has the highest potential for reward and the lowest level of context switching, it’s unrealistic for most people.If you have a job to be done, you spend as much time as needed to accomplish this. It can be a whole day or a week. You don’t do anything else. You reject all other activities that arise.
The BimodalHardThis form requires you to split time on an annual, monthly or weekly basis into deep work and shallow work. It  allows for a high amount of deep work while enabling you to maintain other activities in your life that you find valuable.Devote work week on practicing deep work and leave weekends for shallow work.
The JournalisticMediumThis is an option for people who are constantly on the move with little to no regularity to their days. It is definitely not for beginners as it requires you to put yourself in a deep work mode quickly, even if you only have 30 minutes between other tasks.If a meeting is canceled or unexpectedly you finish something earlier you devote this time to deep work. You can practice this even if you are waiting for lunch or having a walk.
The RhythmicEasyIt is a perfect solution for individuals with a fairly static schedule. If you know what most of your days will look like, it’s feasible to block off several hours every day for deep work, thereby getting into a daily “rhythm” and leaving the rest of your hours for shallow work.If you have 2 hours of spare time between meetings, you devote it to deep work, you can leave the rest of the day as it is.

Minimize distractions

Distractions are the enemy of deep work. Unfortunately, nowadays we are exposed to various distractions more than ever before. Facebook notifications, Instagram feeds, Slack notifications, and our email inboxes are only waiting to steal our precious time. Even if you use a to-do list, it’s difficult to play this unfair game with your brain, which loves to slack off and do anything but the work you are supposed to do. 

Schedule the time you spend online

As a general rule, Newport suggests to schedule in advance when you use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside this timeframe. Rather than switching context and trying to be flexible or even multitasking, it’s better to be honest with yourself and switch off distractions completely. Simply, put yourself in an “offline” status, so that you don’t get all those notifications and app feeds. It should be your default mode if you start practicing deep work. And if you get stuck and feel the need to go “online” to do something else, resist this urge and continue working on another deep work assignment.

Add some time pressure

Set up blocks of time to practice deep work, and limit the amount of time you want to spend on them. For example, if you need 1 hour to read 30 pages of documentation, try to limit this time block to 45 minutes. In the presence of a smaller window of time, you’ll be forced to leverage deep concentration to finish a task. The same mechanism was triggered when you had only 1 day before a deadline in college. When the time is limited, suddenly people are more motivated to focus and work in a deep work mode.

Improve your memory

What is the relation between memorizing a deck of cards and deep work? Some of you may be surprised, but in his book Newport [1] also recommends working on your memory. He says that the focus that memorization requires is beneficial when it comes to practicing deep work. Training your memory will enhance your ability to concentrate and improve your capacity for complete deep work. And it doesn’t matter what kind of information you try to remember. You can learn a poem, a certain amount of words in a foreign language or memorize the order of a stack of books.

Operate like a company

Some time ago, one of my teammates, a software engineer, came to me with an issue: “I have a couple of meetings today and some of them overlap! What should I do?” This guy was so confused that he couldn’t make the right choice. For many leaders or managers, who deal with a lot of people, such a situation is pretty normal. We are bombarded by tons of meetings every day. But the answer to such a situation is quite easy. You need to prioritize it yourself, and decide which meeting brings you the most value. You need to operate like a company. Try to analyze which activity allows you to achieve your goals.

We should treat ourselves as one-person companies no matter what we do. There are strategies intended for companies, which are also valuable to consider for an individual. Newport suggests using practices laid out in the “Disciplines of Execution” book [2] on a personal level.

Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important

Direct your effort towards your most important goals during your deep work hours. Keep your goals always in front of you. You can write them down on sticky notes in order to make it easier to ignore distractions that don’t help you pursue your long-term goals. Companies choose projects which offer them the biggest profits, so should you. Companies are not going to spend too much money and resources on things that are not aligned with their goals or do not bring in satisfying revenues.

Discipline #2: Act on the Lead Measures 

While you can attempt to maximize the time you spend on your activities, it may be more valuable to optimize the time you already reserved for them. For instance, if you want to spend 5 hours per day on writing a code instead of 3 hours, it may be better to make sure you actually spend 3 hours coding, but in a deep work mode. Quantity doesn’t necessarily relate to quality. Therefore, by increasing the number of hours per week you spend in a state of focused concentration, you’ll naturally be more successful in what you want to achieve.

Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

You should count how many hours you spend in a deep work mode and display that somewhere. Newport believes that making it visible keeps people motivated and reminds them of their goals. 

Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability

Keep your word to someone or yourself by committing to daily or weekly reviews of your progress. If you already achieved your goals, maybe it’s worth pushing yourself further. The same practices are used in companies where managers present their results to stakeholders on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis. It lets everyone understand what the current status is and what still needs to be done in order to achieve a goal.

Don’t forget about the downtime

And, last but not at least, deep work is not only about the work itself. It’s not a means to become a burned-out workaholic. Newport recommends making downtime a priority, because it is also a key to improving the quality of your deep work. Downtime develops our thinking. That’s why, you shouldn’t direct your attention to high priority tasks after work. Instead, give your mind uninterrupted rest through activities like gathering with friends or family, cooking or walking in nature. Anything that is not related to your deep work.

Unfortunately, as valuable as deep work is, it can’t be done in unlimited quantity. Newport suggests the upper limit for deep work is four hours per day. Beyond this, our ability to direct focused attention diminishes. Given this, you’ll have plenty of time to rest and concentrate on other aspects of your life.


[1] Cal Newport. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing. 
[2] Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, Jim Huling, Scott Thele, Beverly Walker. (2012). 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goal. Simon & Schuster.