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Going deep: How to optimise your performance and maximise your value

By Jillian Stewart
Published in Blog
February 24, 2022
5 min read
Going deep: How to optimise your performance and maximise your value

As the world progresses and technologies change rapidly, remaining valuable means learning complicated things quickly and applying that knowledge to produce work that’s exceptional. How do you do this? You go deep.

In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport described deep work as “Professional activities 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 both hard to do and highly valuable. Examples are writing, researching, coding, video or photo editing, and designing. By contrast, what Newport calls shallow work is non-cognitively demanding and logistical, e.g. meetings, emails, messaging and phone calls. These are tasks that are easy to replicate, tasks we can do while distracted. Any work that doesn’t challenge us or produce new value is shallow.

According to Newport, the deep work state is one “where your mind is free of attention residue and, therefore, is operating at the highest level of intensity that it can.” The problem is a lot of us are losing the ability to go deep, choosing instead to spend increasing amounts of time on social media.

But is it as simple as that? Technology is fully integrated into our lives. We use the same devices for entertainment as we use for information and communication. In other words, the devices we depend on for work are also our biggest source of distraction.

“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. … the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.” -Cal Newport

It comes down to personal choice. We can blame the distractions around us but we are still making the choices that splinter our attention spans. If we don’t actively cultivate the ability to do deep work we end up in the default mode of shallow work. And, if we spend most of our time on shallow work, we reduce our capacity for deep work.

Doing deep work does not mean working more hours. Consolidating your work into intense and uninterrupted periods means you’re leveraging the law of productivity:

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

By maximising your intensity when you work, you’re maximising the results you produce per unit of time spent working.

So… how do we develop the ability to do deep work?

First you have to form a serious intention to cultivate deep work as a skill. Then you have to develop a practice around it. Learning how to do deep work involves choosing a strategy, building a routine, and adopting some rituals or tactics.

Choose a deep work strategy

Cal Newport says there are four strategies to choose from:

  1. Monastic – Long periods of near-total seclusion from the outside world; requires uninterrupted concentration and no shallow work; for those who have a well-defined and highly valued goal on which their success depends.
  2. Bimodal – Clearly defined stretches of time for deep work with the remainder open for everything else; you can divide your time between deep and shallow work in multiple ways, e.g. yearly (winter for deep work for instance), monthly (maybe 2 weeks out of 4), or weekly (3 days out of 5) but with the minimum unit of time for deep work being one day; this strategy is for those with the flexibility to enable them to ‘disappear’ for the chosen period.
  3. Rhythmic – Committing to a time every day for deep work sessions, e.g. for the first two hours of the day and practising until it becomes an unbreakable habit; this strategy works best if you have a busy daily schedule with competing calls on your time; also for people working in a business with other people.
  4. Journalistic – Doing deep work sporadically whenever you have free time; only for those who can switch between shallow work activities and unscheduled peak-level thinking without transition time; not for novices.

Choose the strategy that suits your work and life best. Consider the pros and cons of each, taking into account the type of work you do, and how your workplace is structured. You may need to experiment with more than one strategy or a combination. In the end, it’s going to be a matter of what’s the most practical and effective for you. What works for someone else may not work for you.

Add routines and rituals

Don’t depend on willpower alone. Getting into the groove is way easier to achieve if you develop practices your mind and body associate with deep work.

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.” -Cal Newport

  1. Workspace – Ideally this will be comfortable and free of distraction. If you work in an open space, get noise-cancelling headphones. Get your employer on board with deep work. See if you can work remotely one or more days a week.
  2. Time – Know how long your deep work session is for rather than having an open-ended slog. You may like to start shorter and work your way to longer. Some people find a period of as much as two hours works for them. For others, shorter is better. There are time management life hacks you can use for focusing your attention during your deep work sessions. A personal favourite is the 25-5 method. Note however, that Newport says the upper limit for deep work is four hours in a day. After that, our ability to direct focused attention diminishes.
  3. Structure – Define your boundaries around your phone, emails and the internet. Telling yourself you’re working with full intensity when you’re really working in a state of semi-distraction will trash your performance (and ultimately your commitment to deep work). Be ruthless about what you spend your time and energy on. Then work out what you need like music, food, water, and get it sorted before you start. Once you’ve established your rules around structure, stick to them for all your deep work sessions.
  4. Schedule – Timetable your deep work blocks and keep to your schedule. If you don’t develop a deliberate practice you’ll fail to learn the skill and will revert to unproductive busyness.

Choose one thing

Deep work sessions are for demanding activities that need all of your attention. To produce at your peak level you need to focus on a single task. The problem with switching from one task to another is that your attention doesn’t immediately follow – some residual energy remains with the first task, dividing your energy. If you work on a single task for an extended period without switching or being distracted, you minimise the negative impact of attention residue and maximise your performance on your chosen task. That said, taking up deep work doesn’t mean the end of collaboration. In fact, they feed into each other. Make time to have engaging conversations and then go back into deep work mode.

Downtime

Our capacity for deep work is limited. Working long hours without downtime is counter-productive and you risk burnout. Keeping your downtime sacred comes with benefits. “… regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work,” says Newport. “… providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges.”

Get started

Technology is advancing at an exponential rate. If you want to maximise your value in a rapidly changing world you have to implement strategies to optimise your performance.

“If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.” -Cal Newport

Enter deep work. Challenge yourself to give it a proper go. Once you dive deep, wallowing around in the shallows loses its appeal.


Previous Article
Focused workplaces: Are you protecting your team’s attention?
Jillian Stewart

Jillian Stewart

Culture

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So... how do we develop the ability to do deep work?
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Add routines and rituals

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