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Published:Sep 26, 2019

Deep Work in the Age of Distraction

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the most valuable skill an engineer can have is coding.

But that’s simply not the case. 

There are tons of “soft skills” that make engineers so much better at their jobs, and are arguably just as important as being fluent in a coding language — problem solving, time management, communication, and teamwork, just to name a few.

There’s another skill that engineers should be dying to learn, because it’s one of the most valuable skills they — or any other knowledge worker — can possess: Deep work. 

Deep work is how knowledge workers tap into their deepest potential for focus, productivity, and learning. It’s an absolutely invaluable skill that can make you better at just about any job.

But most people suck at it.

In the age of near-constant distraction we live in, deep work becomes even harder to tap into. But it’s the key to kicking distractions to the curb and getting sh*t done at work.

Here’s how to do it.

What Does Deep Work Look Like?

A graphic that compares deep work vs shallow work.

Picture this.

You just got to the office. The message light is blinking on your phone. You have emails that need answers. You have to stop by the break room for a cup of coffee. A coworker or two stops you for a chat on the way there and back. You’re getting texts and social media notifications on your cell phone. 

If you’re like the average office worker, you spend your first hour or two at work bouncing between all these different tasks that aren’t demanding, but are distracting and time-consuming.

If these tasks feel like a giant waste of your time, you’re not wrong. 

They keep you busy, but not productive (yes, there’s a difference). 

This is the opposite of deep work.

The concept of “deep work” comes from Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport’s 2016 book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Newport writes that deep work is, “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.”

Compare that to shallow work, which, according to Newport, is, “Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

In other words, to achieve deep work, you gotta ditch all the distractions and push yourself and your focus to the limit, which makes you better at your job, increases your output, and makes your work valuable, as opposed to all those simple, half-distracted tasks the average worker starts their day with.

Obviously, deep work is more valuable. It’s a better use of your time. It’s what you should be striving for. But how do you get there, and what’s standing in your way?

Why Is Deep Work So Hard to Achieve?

Deep work is like any other skill in that it’s not something most people can just do. It takes learning the skill and practicing it to become successful at doing deep work.

Unfortunately, in the modern age, there are a lot of barriers between the average worker and consistently achieving deep work.

For one, we’re expected to be online and accessible all the time

Email and workplace chat apps like slack give our teammates and clients the ability to shoot off instant communication to us at all hours, and it’s easy to give into the temptation to always be checking for messages and notifications so you can respond right away.

And then there’s the barrage of other distractions that come at all of us constantly throughout the workday. There’s always something new to look at on social media. Coworkers stopping by for a chat. Friends and family with round-the-clock access to us via our phones.

In the age of distraction, how is anyone supposed to get any work done at all, let alone deep work?

Use These Strategies to Achieve and Practice Deep Work

To start learning to flex your deep work muscles, put these strategies into play.

Choose a Deep Work Strategy

Newport says in his book that there are four ways to incorporate deep work into your schedule.

Scheduling PhilosophyHow Newport describes itWhat it looks like in practice
Monastic“This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.”
You spend as much of your time as possible on deep work.
This is only possible if you can delegate or automate shallow work.
Bimodal“This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.”
You split your time. For example, you dedicate Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to deep work, and schedule meetings and rote tasks for Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Rhythmic“This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently  start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.”
You divide your day into deep work and shallow work (for example, deep work in the morning and shallow work in the afternoon), and then stick with that schedule every workday.
Journalistic“…fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule.”Don’t plan for deep work, but practice it spontaneously and sporadically as your schedule allows; for example, in between meetings or calls.



Each philosophy obviously has its pros and cons, and different people with different work styles will find different philosophies appealing. 

The Monastic Philosophy offers the highest reward, but is unrealistic for most workers, since people generally have different kinds of responsibilities and can’t focus all their time on deep work. 

The Bimodal and Rhythmic philosophies are great for people with fairly predictable schedules, who can arrange their tasks to allow for swaths of their days or weeks to be dedicated to deep work. 

And the Journalistic Philosophy is an option for people whose schedules are regularly changing, giving them a chance to fit in deep work when it’s tough to be beholden to a schedule.

Ultimately, every worker will have to choose the philosophy that best fits their work style and schedule.

Build a Deep Work Routine

Once you know when you’re going to practice deep work, it’s time to decide how. Newport recommends creating a routine for every time you plan to engage in deep work, so you free yourself from distractions and interruptions and create environmental triggers that, when used every time, can help turn deep work into a habit.

Newport’s advice is to determine a location, duration, structure, and requirements ahead of time, so you know you’re ready when it’s time to do some deep work.

LocationChoose a space that’s free from distractions and conducive to periods of intense, focused work. If you don’t have a room where you can work distraction-free, or need to deep work on the go, noise cancelling headphones might be all you need to create a deep work conducive location.
DurationBefore you start deep work, determine how long you’re going to work. Remember that human brains aren’t designed to intensely focus on tasks indefinitely — in fact, research shows we can only be truly productive for around three hours per day. If you’re new to deep work, start small, with 15-minute sessions, and work your way up from there.
StructureDecide what deep work will look like for you. For example, can you get up and move, or do you need to stay in front of your computer for the duration of your deep work session? Can you have drinks or snacks, or might those be distractions? Set clear, explicit rules, and then follow them every time you do deep work.
RequirementsAs you practice deep work, you’ll learn what’s required to make a session successful. The key is to have it ready before you begin deep work, so you don’t have to stop to turn off your phone after it rings, find the right music or access software you need. Make sure everything you need is ready to go at the start of each session.

How Developers Can Get Better At Deep Work

Having a schedule and a routine, and then using them regularly, are the best ways to learn how to access your deep work skills and practice them. But these tips can help developers get even better at doing deep work.

Time Management Tips for Deep Work

  • Prioritize tasks that require deep work during the time of day that you’re most productive, whether that’s first thing in the morning, after lunch, or in the middle of the night.
  • Plan out as much of your day as possible. If you can block of a section of each day specifically for deep work, that’s great. If not, schedule times to check your email instead of being connected all day long. Schedule meetings and phone calls for the part of the day when you’re not in the zone, whether that’s first thing in the morning or a post-lunch slump.
  • Prioritize downtime. Since our brains aren’t wired for staying focused for long periods of time, it’s important to allow them time to rest and recover in between sessions of deep work. Taking a break (or a night off) can also help you solve tricky problems that have you stumped during your deep work periods.
  • Try the Pomodoro method, which means spending 25 minutes doing focused work on one task, and then taking a five-minute break. Many developers (and others) swear by this technique for breaking up the day into easily digestible chunks of work.

Communication Tips for Deep Work

  • Say no to meetings. Unless it’s vital for you to be there, a meeting is just a distraction that pulls you away from meaningful work.
  • Understand that deep work probably won’t happen while you’re collaborating with others. You can work together on a plan and then go individually to do deep work to execute it, but you can’t do deep work while talking to another person (or while they’re talking to you).
  • Delete social media. It’s wreaking havoc on your privacy, harvesting data about you, and keeping you from focusing on your work. Time to let it go.
  • Turn off your phone. Turn off your internet if you don’t need it for the task you’re working on. 
  • Become hard to reach. Get the people in your circles used to not hearing back from you right away if they send a message so you can focus on work instead of being in constant communication.

Work Culture and Environment Tips for Deep Work

  • Create the most distraction-free environment you possibly can. In an office, this can be tough, especially if you don’t have your own office with a door you can shut to close yourself off to distraction. A pair of good noise-cancelling headphones might be a worthy investment.
  • Wear your headphones all the time, even if you’re not listening to anything. It might dissuade coworkers and teammates from interrupting you while you’re working.
  • If you need a change of scenery or a better environment to do deep work, consider what Newport calls a “grand gesture.” This can mean asking to work from home for a few days a week, booking a conference room where you can work in peace, or even renting a cabin or hotel room to spend a weekend alone and deep in the zone.

Like With All Skills, Practice Makes Perfect

Don’t expect to become a pro at doing deep work right away. It’s like any skill — you have to practice and get better over time.

For knowledge workers, including software engineers, the time you spend learning to do deep work will be a worthy investment, as it makes you a more efficient, productive coder. 

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Turning a Timesuck Into Time Well Spent

8 comments

Ben

10-03-2019 18:23

Fantastic breakdown! We were inspired Cal Newport's book and made a free app that crunches your online calendar and shows you how much time you have between deep work and shallow work, how much of your life is in meetings, and compares you to global averages. You can see an example report here: https://app.shepherd.com/personal-report/sample/pages/deep-work-capacity And, I'd love to get your feedback!

anon

10-09-2019 08:34

Ironically that while reading this blog about removing distractions, this annoying alert "subscribe to newsletter" pops up and covers the whole page...

Sev

10-21-2019 13:33

"Become hard to reach. Get the people in your circles used to not hearing back from you right away if they send a message so you can focus on work instead of being in constant communication." Please don't be that guy. There is nothing more annoying than when a simple task gets pushed back for hours because some genius thinks that his time is so valuable that he can't afford to spend 10 seconds responding to a simple question.

10-03-2020 10:16

10-03-2020 10:16

10-03-2020 10:16

10-03-2020 10:16

10-03-2020 10:16

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