4 Strategies from the Deep Work Book to Achieve Hard-to-Replicate Results

Beatriz Boavida
Apr 29, 2024
10 min read

Digital technology is evolving at a pace we cannot keep up with.

Consequently, there is a significant gap between humans (and their respective skill sets) and digital resources (AI and machines).

The problem is that if this gap continues to increase, employers may eventually choose to work with machines instead of humans. So, for us to have a single chance of bridging this gap, we need to find a way to quickly improve our skills and adapt.

For Cal Newport, computer science professor and bestselling author, the solution comes down to deep work

Deep work has little to do with technology and a lot to do with an environment free from distractions. It is the strategy that allows us to fully tap into our potential and individual intelligence. Deep work is what allows you to quickly master new and demanding skills and produce work at an elite level.

These are abilities necessary to thrive in the current digital environment. According to Newport, only 3 profiles of people are set to succeed:

As it is harder to be one of the latter, deep work is the solution we should be focusing on.

Cal Newport gathered his insights on this topic in a book entitled “Deep Work”. In this article, we will share the key insights as well as the 4 rules to incorporate deep work in your daily routine and produce outstanding and hard-to-replicate outcomes.

Deep work vs. Shallow work

Productive or focused work is not necessarily a synonym of deep work. We are breaking down this concept because only when you fully understand deep work can you critically examine your habits and be conscious of how you do work.

Deep work, for Cal Newport, encompasses all “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to their limit”. He also adds that “these efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are harder to replicate”.

Shallow work can be perceived as tasks that are logistical and non-cognitively demanding. We can often perform them while being distracted. Examples of these may be answering the phone, checking an email, etc. These efforts do not create the same value as the one generated through deep work and are easy to replicate.

Deep Work is valuable

Deep work may lead you to develop your best work. And since we are currently living in a globalised and interconnected world, you can easily share your knowledge with millions of people. In other words, the work you produced in a 3 hour deep work session may impact the lives of people in a different country.

Science has also discovered that deep work allows us to rapidly connect ideas and generate creative solutions. A team of neuroscientists have found that when we intensely focus on a task for a certain period, myelin develops in relevant areas of the brain. Consequently, our neurons fire faster and clearer signals between each other.

Deep Work is rare

Being able to work uninterruptedly for at least a couple of hours feels like a mirage.

Over the years, employers have adopted a few business trends supposedly aimed at making collaboration and work more productive and effective at achieving expected results. Nevertheless, this backfired as they made deep work increasingly difficult.

For instance, we started working on open offices, which made us susceptible to constant distractions. We started communicating through instant messaging platforms and we are now expected to respond immediately to emails and messages. And there is increasing pressure to build an online presence through our social media channels.

To add to the problem, our brains are naturally wired to be distracted and pay attention to novelty. Be it a notification, a phone call, or a noise, it will take our focus away from the task we have at hand. And recovering from such interruptions is highly costly both for employees and companies.

Instead of having organisations supporting deep work, we have companies supporting connectivity and urgency.

While trying to find the reasons that explain why deep work is so hard, Newport came across two potential explanations:

The Principle of Least Resistance… supports work cultures that save us from the short-term discomfort of concentration and planning, at the expense of long-term satisfaction and the production of real value.” – Cal Newport

5 Rules of Deep Work

Based on his research, Cal Newport developed a set of 4 rules that work as guides for you to integrate deep work into your daily routine. Here is how you can do it:

Schedule your deep work hours

You must know exactly when it is time for deep work and when to do shallow work. There are different methods you can use to figure out your ideal schedule. Newport advises you to choose between the following 4 strategies (or philosophies as he calls them):

Create a shutdown ritual

As deep work is cognitively demanding, you need to rest and restore your energy. Hence, a calming evening and a good sleep routine are essential.

For an effective shutdown ritual, Cal Newport recommends you to plan your following day. You can do this by making a list of every unfinished task and goal you can realistically accomplish in a day. For each, you can add a column with the steps you will take to achieve them. Laying everything out allows your mind to quickly disconnect from work for the rest of the day.

Embrace boredom

According to Newport, you need to feel bored. It is essential for your mind to fully recover from the hard work of deep focus.

But, nowadays, we do not allow ourselves to feel bored anymore. As soon as we finish a task or have “nothing else to do”, we immediately go online because we feel we need some entertainment to distract us from silence.

The problem is that switching between different contents, pages, and platforms in short periods of time has negative consequences for our brains as it makes us more prone to seek distractions in the future. Thus, it ultimately makes deep work harder for us.

People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand… they’re pretty much mental wrecks.” – Cal Newport

Here is what Cal Newport advises you to do to avoid this:

Quit social media

You may feel this is a bit extreme. But let us explain Newport’s point of view.

He came to realise that most people justify their use of social media with any benefit it gives (e.g. entertainment). He calls this an “any-benefit approach to network tools”. By contrast, some people use social media as a tool to help them achieve a certain professional or personal goal. This intended use of social media Newport calls “craftsman approach to tool selection”. This latter approach is much more helpful for deep work aspirants.

Here are 3 strategies you can use to minimise dispurposed use of social media:

Drain the shallows

Although there should be a balance between deep and shallow work, you may often find shallow work taking much longer to complete than expected. Worst still if you cannot avoid these less demanding cognitive tasks.

Treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated. This type of work is inevitable, but you must keep it confined to a point where it doesn’t impede your ability to take full advantage of the deeper efforts that ultimately determine your impact.” – Cal Newport

Newport urges you to have control over these shallow tasks that devour your time, so he suggests the following:

Key takeaways

Deep work is an effective strategy to achieve hard-to-replicate results. It is also the solution for employees who wish to effectively develop their skills and produce work at an elite level.

Nevertheless, as years go by, it has become considerably harder to stay focused on a single task for long periods due to the extensive use of technology and unhelpful business trends.

According to Cal Newport, you must practise and create a habit of deep working. Here are the 5 rules you should follow:

  1. Schedule your deep work hours

  2. Create a shutdown ritual

  3. Embrace boredom

  4. Quit social media

  5. Drain shallows

Deep work is probably what sets you apart from expanding your potential.

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