How “deep work” changes the way we work

deep work

Cal Newport, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, published his fourth book in January called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. While some of his tips are simple—log out of email, social media, and team collaboration platforms when you want to get something important done—what he ultimately suggests is revolutionary. To be truly productive, we should be logging out and working, uninterrupted, for long stretches at a time every day.

The brain science that Newport shares in the book is fascinating. When we work on something cognitively intensive without distraction, fatty threads in our brains wire neurons together—the literal manifestation of “rewiring your brain.” These neuron bundles help us do our work faster, more effectively, and more skillfully. Every time we’re interrupted, those fatty neurological threads stop sewing and don’t start up again until we’ve fully regained focus.

Newport argues that we could be missing out on our lifetime’s great thinkers, innovators, and artists, because, by getting distracted and multitasking, people are working against their brains’ attempts to help them become masters.

We could be missing out on our lifetime’s great thinkers, innovators, and artists, because of workplace distractions.

Can leaders encourage employees to try shorter stretches of “deep work” during the workday without hampering team communication or collaboration? Should managers encourage “deep work” in their workplaces?

In a recent interview, Newport was emphatic: yes. “Deep work is the type of effort required to master complicated new skills and to produce at a high level,” he said. “Neither of these activities can happen in a state of frequently fragmented attention.”

Newport said that his own life and processes were improved by researching and writing this book: “I enjoyed diving deeper into the thinking behind why this activity can be so enjoyable and make your life feel more meaningful. It provided a nice boost to my own ongoing efforts to sustain a deep life.”

If you want to get more done by “going deep,” consider adopting these systems—and encourage your team to do the same.

Block off time for deep work—and stick to it

“Whatever that precious block of time is, those two to four hours, block it off on your calendar,” says Blake. Turn off your cell phone, sign out of email, and turn off the ringer on your desk phone. If your office has an open floorplan, put on your headphones and plug them into your computer to give off the “I’m in the zone” vibe.

If this seems too intense, take incremental steps. Identify an hour during the day when you are most productive, and have a one-hour deep work window three days a week. Work your way up to an everyday practice and to working in longer stretches.

Get on the same page with your team

Jenny Blake, a New York-based author who interviewed Cal Newport on her podcast, encourages you to consider what times of day you are most energetic and productive, and block those windows off on your calendar for deep work. If you feel you need to clear this with your manager or your colleagues first, that’s fine.

But Blake says not to worry that having deep work windows comes off as standoffish or self-indulgent. “You can encourage people to understand, ‘This is how I do my best work. This is when I’m most productive.’ Having deep work time creates the highest ROI for yourself and for your team. You’ll feel proud of the work you accomplish. It’s about putting our attention and energy on the work that matters most. It will make a greater impact on the team.”

Set up office hours for meetings and calls

For those interested in an immersive deep work experiment, Newport recommends an inverse approach to blocking off “deep work windows.” He said, “I think more offices should reverse this strategy and require employees to specify when they can be disturbed. Imagine, for example, that each employee has a 30-minute “office hour” every two hours during the work day. During these hours they are fully accessible. Outside these hours they cannot be reached and instead they spend that time producing valuable results.”

In the way that some people only check their email at certain times of day, Newport’s advice extends that strategy to in-person meetings and real-time phone calls. The rest of the day can be devoted to projects and working on long-term goals, all in two-hour chunks.

Make open offices work for you

If you work in an open office, odds are good there are people all around you. Odds are also good you’ve already invested in a pair of headphones (Newport recommends “big, big headphones”).

Jenny Blake says that most people understand the office social norm that a person wearing headphones probably doesn’t want to be interrupted. Says Blake, “When you’re doing deep work, it’s important to not let oneself get hijacked or interrupted. If someone taps you on the shoulder when you’re wearing headphones, you can say, ‘Hi. I’m right in the middle of something, but can I find you in 20 minutes?’”

Blake also says that employees can ask strategically for a work-from-home day to make big progress on an important project. Says Blake, “Instead of saying, ‘I want to work from home on Friday,’ say: ‘If I work one day at home this week, here’s what I plan to deliver. If I have one clear day, I can knock it out.’”

Says Blake, “The joy of deep work is the joy of making huge strides on a big project.” In other words, deep work is worth it to attain that glowy end-of-day feeling where you think, “Whoa, I was productive today.”

Liz Funk is a New York-based freelance writer who covers entrepreneurship, careers, and happiness at work.

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