What is deep work and how do you make time for it
26 November 2020

What is deep work and how do you make time for it?

Emails, virtual meetings, instant messaging – the modern world of work can be exhausting and leave little room for discovery, or going deeper – is deep work the answer?


Bogdan Tiganov

Bogdan Tiganov

Bogdan Tiganov was head of content at Ciphr from October 2020 to September 2021.


Future of Work Health and wellbeing Performance


Emails, virtual meetings, instant messaging – the modern world of work can be exhausting and leave little room for discovery – is deep work the answer?

To some extent, we’re all digitally distracted, and it’s no wonder as organisations vie for our attention in the Attention Economy. For a lot of us, modern working life can feel like a repetitive cycle of more of the same – checking emails, responding to instant messaging, logging administrative tasks, scheduling, planning, and attending meetings.

There never seems to be enough time for that important project you were aiming to get to. That book you always wanted to write. We’re pulled away by the sight of an alert on our phones, an update, a text message. Some refer to this way of working as shallow work.

In our tumultuous times, with more and more of us working from home, HR needs to offer best practices and ideas around how to be more productive when remote working. One way is to promote the concept of deep work and encourage employees to find time for it.

Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, defines deep work as, “Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” In other words, deep work is the antidote to the modern way of working. With deep work, you’re giving yourself the best chance to go further.

Start with the following ideas to implement deep work practices:

Develop awareness of working habits

Deep work starts with awareness. Become more aware of your habits when you work. Notice how there are occasions when you reward yourself with browsing the internet, or you turn to your favourite apps on your phone. See how easy it is to keep switching between tasks but to not focus exclusively on one. Begin to realise just how digitally distracted you are.

Ask yourself – what tools and information do you need to work? Do you need to be constantly checking the news to produce your work? Do you need your emails to be open at all times? Do you need your phone to be within touching distance? Try to resist scratching that social media itch.

Set aside time for deep work

Calendars are a great way of booking out time, and also serve as a way of letting the rest of your team know when you are available. But they shouldn’t be used simply as a way to book meetings. Start to book out the time you need for deep work.

Start off with one deep work session a week, where you allow yourself an hour or two, then build up from there. Be generous with your deep work time — you are not being selfish — this is a way for you to get more satisfaction out of your work.

Of course, if your job involves being on the phone all day, it might not be possible to set aside a set period for deep work, certainly within working hours, so it may require a more flexible approach.

Create a space for deep work

If you’re working from home, ensure that others in your household are aware when you’re entering a period of deep work. For example, you wouldn’t want someone to ask you about dinner when you’re in the middle of intense research and productivity as part of your deep work session.

What would help you define your space? What effect does music have on you? Consider looking at a service such as <Brain.fm to help you focus. Do you live in a noisy environment? Perhaps you need sound-isolating earplugs for when you need to focus.

If you’re working on a piece of writing, try closing any app or dismissing any activity that is not immediately relevant. Do you need that spreadsheet open? Or all those tabs on your browser? Focus your attention intently on what you need, and nothing else, for the period that you’ve allocated to deep work.

Reduce zoning out

While some forms of meditation encourage the practice of letting go ­– or thoughts dissolving away – the bright screen of our laptops, that we’re all so familiar with, can elicit a different sort of zoning out. This zoning out is a kind of mindlessness that is associated with relaxation, from watching YouTube videos that you have no interest in, to switching TV channels or clicking around on the internet.

The more you practice the discipline of deep work the more you’ll discover that it’s possible to go deeper, getting into the zone, and a feeling of discovery and ultimate focus will become more attractive. You’ll want to be there often, and find that you can eliminate more of your digital distraction habits from your daily routine.