What is deep work? 7 rules to boost concentration and unleash your full potential

Caeleigh MacNeil contributor headshotCaeleigh MacNeilDecember 2nd, 202111 min read
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Summary

Deep work is a state of peak concentration that lets you learn hard things and create quality work quickly. The concept of deep work was first coined by computer science professor Cal Newport, who suggests that to be truly productive, we should log out of all communication tools for multiple hours a day in order to sustain our focus. In this article, we explore the benefits of deep work and offer seven rules to help you take advantage of deep work in your daily life.

Twice a year, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates retreats to a cabin in the woods to do nothing but read and think big thoughts. During his self-proclaimed “think weeks,” Gates completely isolates himself from the outside world—meaning no email, no phone calls, and no internet access. It’s just him and a stack of papers from Microsoft employees pitching new innovations or investments. 

Gates completely removes distractions from his surroundings in order to prioritize deep work—a state of concentration that maximizes creativity and focus. And clearly it worked, since work done during Gates’ “think weeks” led to innovations like the launch of Internet Explorer in 1995.

But you don’t have to retreat to a woodland cabin to get the full benefits of deep work. While most of us don’t have the luxury of stepping away for days or weeks at a time, you can still build deep work into your daily routine with a few simple practices. 

What is deep work? 

Deep work is a state of peak concentration that lets you learn hard things and create quality work quickly. The term was coined by Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and author of “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.” In his book, Newport defines deep work as a state of distraction-free concentration when your brain works at its maximum potential.

Simply put, Newport’s deep work theory suggests that to be truly productive, we should log out of all communication tools and work, uninterrupted, for long periods of time every day. So while you might not be able to fully step away from your team communication tools, aim for 60-90 distraction-free minutes at a time.

Deep work vs. shallow work

Newport defines shallow work as logistical-style tasks that can be performed while distracted, like work coordination and communication tasks that are easy to replicate. 

At Asana, we call this “work about work.” According to our research, 60% of knowledge workers’ time is spent on coordination tasks like answering email, coordinating projects, and scheduling meetings. And while it’s not realistic to eliminate all shallow work from most jobs, reducing time spent on shallow work can make space for the high-impact tasks that matter most. 

Read: 12 tips to be more productive today

The science behind deep work

Deep work is effective for two reasons: it helps you avoid distractions and rewires your brain to help you learn hard things faster—so you can get better work done in less time. Here’s how: 

Avoid distractions 

Eliminating distractions is a core component of deep work, and for good reason. When you switch between tasks—like checking your phone while drafting a project proposal—a bit of your attention gets stuck on the prior task. So even when you go back to writing, a part of your brain is still thinking about that text message you just saw. This phenomenon is called attention residue, and it takes a serious toll. Research shows that it can take upwards of 20 minutes to regain momentum after an interruption—so if you check your phone twice in an hour, that’s two-thirds of your focus time lost. 

Read: 5 multitasking myths debunked, plus 6 ways to be productive without task switching

Rewire your brain 

Deep work is the best way to learn new skills quickly. When you concentrate deeply, your brain cements learning pathways and strengthens the connections between neurons so they can fire faster. That means when you focus intensely on a specific skill, you’re literally rewiring your brain to help you perform that skill more effectively. Furthermore, research suggests that this rewiring can only happen when you concentrate on a single task at a time while avoiding distraction (in other words, when you work deeply). 

Why is deep work so important? 

The ability to work deeply doesn’t just give you an edge in the modern workplace—it also brings satisfaction and meaning to your daily tasks. Here’s how deep work can boost your work performance and enrich your daily life: 

Deep work is impactful

When you work deeply, you can learn challenging subjects and produce quality work quickly—two skills that can set you (and your team) up for success in the modern workplace. 

  • Learn hard things fast: Learning is a key part of any job, no matter your field. For example, an IT manager needs to learn how to troubleshoot technology at an organizational scale, an accountant needs to learn about tax law, and a software engineer needs to learn new programming languages. In that way, the ability to gain new skills through deep work makes you a valuable asset.

  • Create quality work at speed: Learning new skills is one thing, and producing quality results is another. This second value of deep work helps you utilize those skills to make a positive impact. For example, deep concentration could help a project manager learn how to write a project proposal, then create an in-depth proposal that helps secure funding for a new initiative. 

Deep work is rare

According to our research, 60% of knowledge workers’ time is spent on coordination rather than the skilled, strategic jobs they were hired to do. This bias towards shallow work instead of true productivity presents an opportunity for teams who prioritize focus at work, because they can produce better results than their competition. 

Even though deep work is rare, it doesn’t have to be. There are concrete steps you can take to help your team work deeply, by unblocking their time-consuming tasks, clarifying work priorities, and increasing team visibility. If you haven’t already, make sure you’re:

Deep work feels good

Deep work is more than a way to be more productive—it also just feels good to do. That’s because deep work is a type of flow state, a cognitive zone that’s intrinsically rewarding and presents an ideal balance between skills and challenge. 

As a bonus, concentrating deeply helps you bring value into the world and create things that matter, which in turn can bring a new level of satisfaction to your working life. Neurological research suggests that your perception of the world is shaped by what you pay attention to—so if you spend time working deeply, your mind perceives your world as full of meaning and importance. 

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A deep life is a good life. ”
Cal Newport, author of “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” 

7 rules to create a deep work habit

Your mind is like a muscle, which means you can build your capacity for deep work through practice and consistency over time. To get you started, we’ve laid out seven rules to help you establish a deep work habit.  

1. Choose an approach

In order to work deeply, you need a plan that fits your individual schedule and work preferences. In his book, Newport outlines four different approaches (or “philosophies”) to follow as you decide how to schedule your deep work. Depending on your lifestyle, some approaches may work better than others: 

  • Rhythmic philosophy: With this approach you establish a regular habit and rhythm for deep work, blocking out 1-4 hour chunks to focus at the same time every day. When scheduling time for deep work, keep in mind that most people can’t sustain more than four deep work hours per day. For example, you could schedule time for deep work between 8-10am every weekday. The key to this strategy is consistency, which you can achieve by committing to a certain amount of deep work every day. To effectively implement this strategy, try a time management technique that compliments it, like time blocking.

  • Journalistic philosophy: This method is the most flexible and allows you to fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule. For example, you could schedule time for deep work when you have at least 90 minutes between meetings. Keep in mind that this approach requires you to switch into deep work mode at will, which can be difficult for beginners. If you’re just starting out and have a predictable meeting schedule, the rhythmic philosophy may be your best bet.  

  • Monastic philosophy: With this approach, you completely eliminate or drastically reduce shallow work across all aspects of your life. For example, science fiction writer Neal Stephenson famously avoids email and speaking engagements so he can free up brainspace for writing. That means Stephenson is nearly impossible to get a hold of but extremely prolific, with over 80 works to his name. If you’re looking to implement the monastic philosophy at work, consider time management strategies that minimize work about work, like the GTD method.

  • Bimodal philosophy: This method involves dividing your time, with long stretches (at least a full day) set aside for deep work and the rest dedicated to everything else. Bimodal scheduling is a more flexible version of the monastic philosophy—instead of completely eliminating shallow work, you can spend a day or more working deeply and then return to your other obligations. A good example would be the “think weeks” we mentioned in the intro, when Bill Gates retreats to a cabin in the woods twice a year to read and brainstorm. At Asana, we implement our own version of the bimodal philosophy by encouraging No Meeting Wednesday—a full day for our team members to dive into work uninterrupted.

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If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.”
Author Neil Stephenson, from his essay “Why I Am a Bad Correspondent”

2. Create rituals to help you focus

Research suggests that our brains remember specific associations. When you pair two things—like salt and pepper, or a clean desk and concentration—your mind learns and anticipates that same combination in the future. That means you can create rituals to trigger concentration and tell your brain it’s time to focus. For example, if you always clean off your desk before writing, a clear workspace will make it easier for you to focus on writing in the future. 

As you craft your deep work ritual, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Where will you work? Consider the environment you’ll create—for example, you might work in your office with the door shut and desk cleaned off. 

  • When and long will you work? For example, you could choose to work first thing in the morning for 90 minutes before taking a coffee break. 

  • How will you work? Determine rules to guide your concentration, like whether you’ll use the internet, how many words you’ll write every 20 minutes, or where you’ll put your phone. 

  • How will you support your work? Make sure you have the materials you need organized beforehand—like reference papers, coffee, or food. 

You can also build additional triggers into your routine to jumpstart your concentration, like lighting a candle, listening to a specific type of music, or dressing in a certain way. 

Read: How to focus: Tips to get things done in a distracted world

3. Prioritize your most important work 

With focus, prioritization is key. Often the more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish—so in order to work deeply, you need to concentrate on the most important task and ignore everything else. Here’s how to do it: 

  • Decide in advance what you’ll work on during each deep work session. To work deeply you need to focus on one task and ignore everything else. When you decide what to concentrate on in advance, you can avoid multitasking. And if you receive new requests during your focus time, there will be less pressure to switch tasks right away. Try using a prioritization strategy to identify and tackle your most important to-do’s, like the Eisenhower decision matrix, Pareto principle, or eat the frog strategy

  • Create clarity with team and business goals. Clear goals are like a compass, because they guide your decisions and tell you which tasks are most important. For example, if your team’s quarterly goal is centered around redesigning your company website, you can more easily de-prioritize improvement requests for your app. Be sure to use a goal-setting framework to make your objectives measurable and specific, like the SMART goal methodology or Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)

Read: 15 secrets for making a to-do list that actually works

4. Track and audit your time

You need to invest time to get things done, and deep work is no different. That’s why managing your schedule and taking charge of your time is critical—because to build more deep work into your routine, you have to make room for it. 

Here are some strategies to help you understand and manage your time: 

  • Audit how you’re spending your work time. Before you can trim away shallow work to make room for deeper pursuits, you have to understand the type of work you do on a day-to-day basis. To do this, list out every activity or task you engage in—then quantify the depth of every activity so you know how much time you’re spending on deep work vs. shallow work. 

  • Audit your meetings. Make a list of every work meeting you attend, and quantify how valuable it actually is on a scale of 1-5. You can also note how much you pay attention in the meeting, if there are typically action items, and if there’s a pre-set agenda. That way, you can gauge which meetings are truly productive, and which might be better as an asynchronous update.

  • Schedule your day. Take charge of your daily schedule by allocating blocks of time for each task you want to accomplish. Two common ways to do this are timeboxing and time blocking. Timeboxing is a time-management strategy in which you estimate the amount of time a task will take and box out time to complete it. The concept of time blocking is similar—but instead of boxing out time for a single task, you group similar tasks together and complete them all in one time block. Timeboxing is a good option for scheduling deep work, while time blocking can help you tackle lots of shallow tasks in one go, like answering emails. 

5. Minimize digital distractions

Distraction is the arch-nemesis of depth. But distraction—especially of the digital variety—is more common than ever in today’s fast-paced work environment. At a time when 80% of knowledge workers report working with their inbox open and nearly three in four employees feel pressure to multitask every day, avoiding digital distractions can seem nearly impossible. 

But minimizing distractions is still doable with a few simple strategies: 

  • Turn off notifications. Sounds, banners, and notifications flashing across your screen have a negative impact on focus and can quickly jolt you out of deep work. When you’re trying to focus, use Do Not Disturb mode or snooze notifications for your phone and any communication apps you use. Or to really disconnect, close out of email and messaging apps completely. Remember that you can always check notifications during your next focus break.

  • Make depth your default. That means instead of living in a distracted state and wrangling your brain into focus mode to complete tasks, schedule focus breaks—times when you allow yourself to take a break and give in completely to distractions. You can use this strategy during your workday or in your personal life. For example, you could schedule a focus break after work when you’re allowed to browse the internet and scroll through social media—then turn your undivided attention to cooking dinner, watching a movie, or talking with loved ones.  

  • Choose your tools wisely. According to our research, the average knowledge worker switches between 10 apps 25 times per day to do their work—and employees who switch between apps are also more likely to struggle with effectively prioritizing their work. But just because a tool exists doesn’t mean you have to use it. Instead of spreading work across many different apps, carefully choose a project management tool that integrates with all of your business tools, so you have a central source of truth for all of your information. That way, instead of working out of multiple apps, you can track important information in one place.  

6. Take time to recharge 

Rest is just as important as work. Setting aside time to recharge every day can help prevent burnout and make your deep work habit sustainable. Newport suggests that you should disconnect fully from work to get the most of your downtime, so setting clear boundaries is essential. He recommends creating a hard cut-off time for work each day (for him, it’s 5:30pm), and avoiding work on the weekends. That means once you’re done, you’re done—no checking Slack on your phone, composing emails in your head, or thinking about upcoming meetings. 

If it’s hard for you to disconnect, try creating a “shut-down procedure” that you complete at the end of each workday. This can be 10-20 minutes when you take a last look at your inbox to ensure you’re not missing important notifications, plan how you’ll accomplish any unfinished tasks, and review your schedule for the next day. This practice provides peace of mind when you sign off for the day, so you can avoid nagging worries about unfinished work. 

7. Set goals and track your progress 

Setting clear goals is one of the best ways to stay motivated and sustain your deep work habit over time. In fact, when psychologists tested the impact of different motivational techniques on group performance, they found goal setting was one of the most effective. That’s because goals create intrinsic motivation—the drive to succeed that comes from within yourself, rather than external factors like praise or compensation.

To create a habit of deep work, set short-term goals to track metrics like how many hours you want to focus each day. Newport suggests creating a scoreboard where you can record your daily hours and check off each goal you’ve accomplished. You can also create higher-level long-term goals to help you work up to a certain amount of hours over time—for example, you might start with one hour per day, then work up to four hours over a period of three months. Just remember to make your objectives measurable and specific with a framework like the SMART goal methodology or Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)

Go deep

Deep work is one of the best ways to maximize your creative potential—but it’s about more than just productivity. Ultimately, working deeply just feels good, and it can help you feel energized and empowered to accomplish challenging tasks each day. Or in the words of Cal Newport, “a deep life is a good life.”

Unlock deep work by reducing the amount of shallow work you and your team do. Asana lets you coordinate work in one place so you can spend less time searching for documents, chasing approvals, and answering emails—and more time getting your highest-impact work done. 

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