What is deep work, and why is it so important?

How often have you worked all day without much of a break, only to find that by the time you finish up, you've achieved little in the way of meaningful output?

It's easy to get caught in an unfortunate and all-too-common trap: working extremely hard, doing a lot of ‘things’, but achieving little depth in any work.

Cal Newport introduced us to the idea of deep work, which he defines as, “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.”

It’s possibly best to understand deep work by looking at its opposite. Shallow work is the distracted, on and off multi-tasking most workers of today used to. This is the type of work that happens when you finish the day without achieving very much. You start a project, but you have 15 tabs open and are responding to instant messages, emails and phone notifications. This is shallow work, and it’s the norm for most workers.

Depth requires focus. To be all-in on a task for a block of time allows you to truly tap into creativity and quality. Deep work is where the magic happens.

Why is deep work so elusive?

Always-on expectations

One reason deep work can be hard to achieve is the expectations of the workplace. With chat and email, many work cultures have an always-on expectation. Teammates will make a request through a chat system and if you see the message, you’ll often feel compelled to respond.

The problem with being always-on is you stay busy, but don’t reach much depth. Your co-workers may appreciate your quick responses, but your work will often be shallow. Research shows that it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from each and every interruption.

These quick distractions and responses may seem harmless, but they are sapping workers of their focus and peak performance.

Relentless distractions

Even if your workplace manages expectations for communications, you’re still not in the clear. Our devices are increasingly demanding our attention.

Of all the distractions in the workplace, social apps are a major challenge with some studies estimating 28% of the workday is spent on social media.

Our family members and friends have access to us 24/7. On top of that, marketers are pushing information into our newsfeed and inboxes. Notifications and updates are constantly competing for our attention.

When is the last time you were fully engaged in one thing? When did you shut off the noise and immerse yourself in a project? 

Chances are, if you had this experience at all, you weren’t able to stay in the focused state for long. Deep work is essential, but it’s difficult to find.

Why is deep work so important?

Deep work leads to quality

Companies need quality over quantity. Many of the simple day-to-day tasks are at risk of being automated or outsourced.

True value comes from depth. Value comes from creativity and excellence. It’s extremely difficult to reach creativity or excellence in a series of five-minute bursts.

To achieve deep work means to spend uninterrupted time with complete focus on the task at hand. You’ll have to block out time for your priorities. This means turning off notifications and making yourself unavailable.

A thriving team needs workers who are able to focus and get their key priorities done. To achieve this means leveling up accountability. A company must not judge productivity based on hours worked or appearing busy.

The company needs to focus on tasks and output. Technology built for collaboration isolates specific tasks to eliminate wasted communication and unnecessary meetings. When you focus only on the work, the entire team will be empowered to make time to execute at the highest level possible.

To achieve deep work means to spend uninterrupted time with complete focus on the task at hand. You’ll have to block out time to

Deep work is healthy

The always-on expectations in our work not only keep you more distracted, but actually creates physical anxiety. Anxiety creeps in when there is no escape from the potential for a new message or notification.

When does work stop?

For many professionals, the last thing they see before going to bed and the first thing they see when they wake up is their phone. This means instead of working 9 to 5, it’s now more like 24/7.

The shallow work messages and distractions never ends. If you are trying to take a break, but can’t truly shut off mentally, then it’s no break.

Deep work means blocking out time for purposeful, focused work. Then when the block of time is finished, it means you stop. You walk away and make yourself unavailable.

This approach reduces anxiety and has the added benefit of feeling accomplished when completing a meaningful task.

Investing in deep work

Successful teams are prioritizing deep work. Focusing on hours and busyness will lead to frustration, anxiety and failure to move major projects forward.

If you’re a leader, you need to be clear on key priorities and tasks for your team. Then you can empower them to focus on those tasks.

Without clear-cut tasks and accountability, people will fill their time with shallow distractions. Clarity of purpose and priorities lead to depth of focus. Then you can create a culture that prioritizes depth.

Going deep in work will produce a motivated team and a higher level of quality in work. The transition from shallow to deep won’t be easy but will be well worth the effort.


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