What is Deep Work? Examples, Benefits, and Access

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Do you ever get to the end of a workweek and none of your projects have been accomplished? Though you worked all day every day, few, if any, of your bigger and more complicated tasks moved forward. What went wrong? Despite the hours you worked, you didn’t access intentional peak productivity, or what we at Workplaceless call “deep work.” 

What is deep work?

Deep work is defined as a “professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” It was coined by Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport in his 2012 book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. It occurs when we intentionally create time for more complex problem-solving and creative work, such as building a financial model, writing a blog article, or developing a client presentation. This type of work is cognitively demanding and therefore requires longer stretches of sustained focus to complete.  

In contrast, shallow work is what happens naturally if we are not intentional with our time. Shallow work is defined as “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.” These are the minor, routine tasks we complete throughout the day without much thought, such as responding to emails, updating spreadsheets, or scheduling meetings. In order to succeed in the modern workplace, we all need a balance of both deep and shallow work. However, for many of us, deep work can be challenging to implement. It does not happen by accident. 

Why is deep work important?

Deep work increases productivity, creative thinking, and positive feelings of engagement with our work. When we successfully dive into focused work, we find ourselves in “flow,” the psychological term for when a person becomes fully immersed in an activity. Deep work allows us to make progress on bigger, more complex projects and to generate new and exciting ideas. Consider deep work proponents such as visionary Bill Gates. Twice a year, Gates takes an entire week to disconnect from outside distractions and read through innovative ideas submitted by Microsoft employees. And this approach works! In 1995 Gates came up with the idea to create Internet Explorer during one of his deep work weeks. 

What gets in the way of deep work?

Our current way of working often leaves little opportunity for long stretches of deep concentration with limited interruptions—unless we deliberately create that environment. There are many instances of shallow work and interruptions that occur in our current workplace, such as:

  • Daily interruptions, such as email notifications, Slack messages, or office pop ins
  • Inefficient and poorly scheduled meetings
  • Team culture that is dependent on urgent responses
  • Lack of support for the development of deep work skills

How can we access deep work?

Now that we know how important deep work can be, and what gets in our way, we have to intentionally develop the habits to access it. In fact, the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. Consider a recent study from Asana that shows 60% of knowledge workers’ time is spent on typical “shallow work” tasks. Luckily, there are several steps you and your team can take to be more focused work friendly. Use the 5 steps below to start adding more deep work to your schedule.

1. Embrace an Async-First Culture:

Async-first culture includes a mindset, skills, and behaviors that empower a team to work independently without relying solely on others to complete tasks or progress projects. Learning async communication and collaboration skills creates room for uninterrupted work time. While sync communication is important, it can also disrupt the time blocks needed in our workday to achieve deep work and flow. By prioritizing async communication, such as document sharing and video recordings, and scheduling meeting-free time blocks, finding time for deep work becomes much more realistic and achievable.

2. Create a Deep Work Routine:

In order to ensure you find time for focused work, start by blocking time for it on your calendar. Begin by setting aside 1–2 hours at a time on your calendar for uninterrupted work. Newport also suggests working in the same quiet location each time and ensuring you have everything you might need for sustained success, including water and snacks. If you need support for building out your deep work time, our team at Workplaceless has had success using the Caveday platform and implementing the Pomodoro method

3. Limit Interruptions:

Now that you know when and where you plan to work, ensure that this time remains as free of distractions and interruptions as possible. Typically, workers are interrupted every 11 minutes—and only resume their interrupted tasks after 25 minutes. Without boundaries for managing interruptions, your deep work time will quickly disappear. Silence your phone. Commit to not checking email or Slack channels. Avoid surfing the internet, scrolling social media, and other common distractions as well. Try the Freedom app to help keep your focus.

4. Set and Communicate Boundaries with Your Team:

Be clear with your team about your work boundaries and new deep work schedule. Let them know that during those hours you will be declining meetings. In fact, you will be unavailable for all sync connections unless there’s an emergency. You can also encourage your team to use those same hours—or their own peak productivity hours—to schedule time for distraction-free work. Demonstrate the value of your focused work hours by sharing your progress with the team and noting how good “flow” feels.

5. Practice Makes Perfect: 

LIke any new initiative, acclimating to deep work takes some time and practice. It’s a mindful practice, meaning you may need to unlearn “bad habits” like checking your phone every few minutes. If you find your mind wanders during your scheduled work blocks, try shorter and more focused increments. For those new to the practice, Newport recommends limiting your deep work routine to two 45-minute stretches with a 15-minute break in between. Just like with meditation, over time you can train your mind to focus for longer periods of time and increase your productivity during those stretches. 

Using the steps above, you can make vital progress on critical projects, as well as access feelings of flow and engagement with your work. Consider trying a deep work routine this week and sharing your success with your team. Doing so not only helps you to be more productive and creative in your work, but also serves as a powerful motivator for colleagues to try it too. 

"The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy."

Juli McDonald, Workplaceless Tweet

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Juli McDonald

Juli McDonald

McDonald has always been an educator at heart, starting her remote teaching career as an online adjunct professor at Jefferson University in 2018. After finding her passion for creating productive, fulfilling and exciting virtual learning experiences, McDonald joined Workplaceless as a facilitator and member of the LX team. McDonald loves making learning of all kinds accessible and autonomous through the tools and flexibility of remote work.
McDonald has always been an educator at heart, starting her remote teaching career as an online adjunct professor at Jefferson University in 2018. After finding her passion for creating productive, fulfilling and exciting virtual learning experiences, McDonald joined Workplaceless as a facilitator and member of the LX team. McDonald loves making learning of all kinds accessible and autonomous through the tools and flexibility of remote work.
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