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What is Deep Working?

Jul 11, 2022
What is Deep Working?

Have you heard of deep working?

It’s a focus and productivity technique that’s spiking in popularity. That’s no surprise, considering we live in a more fast-paced working world and a more information-based economy than ever.

The concept was first introduced by computer science professor Cal Newport in 2012. He wrote a book on the subject called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Newport defines deep work as “professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit,” as stated by Doist.

In today's blog, we’ll give you a head start towards integrating deep work into your daily working life.

The difference between busyness and productivity.

To get our heads around deep working, we must first understand shallow working.

Have you ever sat down to complete a task, then bounced between your email inbox, instant messages, and quick calls, only to find that an hour later the task has barely been started? That’s because you’re busy, but not productive.

These are examples of shallow work, which can act as ‘attention traps’. Whilst they are necessary when tasks like these absorb too much of our time, they impact productivity and value output.

As Doist put it, ‘They won’t help you deepen your writing practice, master a programming language, or grow your business.’

Let's look at how you can keep the shallow work at bay and maximise the value of your time.

Deep working strategies.

There are several modes of deep working, outlined in Doist’s complete guide. We’ll sum them up:

One is the Monastic philosophy, where you devote as much time as possible to deep working and reject all other tasks.

Another is the Bimodal philosophy, in which you split your time weekly, monthly or annually between shallow and deep work.

The third is the Rhythmic philosophy, making deep work part of daily habit by allocating chunks of your day to each.

The final philosophy is Journalistic, which involves spontaneous deep work at any opportunity, such as when a meeting is cancelled.

None of these modes is right for everyone. The best tactic will depend on your profession and personality. It’s best to experiment and find what works for you.

Best practice.

How do we optimise our deep working habits?

You make the rules. Be strict, but make sure they’re practicable. Decide whether you access the internet, get up and move about, or not.

You’ll need an environment that’s quiet and comfortable or at least a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

If you can, use the same space each time. The same goes for anything helpful, such as the software you use or even the tea you drink. Consistency will train your brain to get into deep working mode. If something works, do it every session.

Notifications off! The primary cause of distraction for many of us is the ease of access to messaging tools. Blocking time when you are unavailable can help to set effective boundaries.

If you are worried about missing important messages, set up an ‘emergency’ channel, where colleagues only contact you if something cannot wait.

Decide how long your session will be. Start small, and set a timer. Time pressure can also intensify our level of effort.

After that, you need to measure the success of your deep working session. Choose an appropriate metric, such as words written or lines coded.

Need to take it further? Let’s talk about ‘Grand gestures’.

This is how Newport describes radical routine changes that kick your deep working into high gear. 

Ever heard of Bill Gates’s ‘think week’ where he retreats to mull over the future of Microsoft? It’s the same principle.

According to Doist, this might mean asking your manager if you can work from home for one whole week to focus on a big project, and adopting the Monastic approach during that time.

Finally, don’t forget the importance of downtime. Our capacity for deep work is not infinite, and effective time off helps us improve our thinking and replenish energy.

As Newport says, “providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges.”


All that might sound like a lot of effort, and you’re right; cultivating a successful deep working habit requires discipline, motivation and above all, time.

So, is it worthwhile?

Deep working will allow you to achieve higher standards and productivity, thus supporting your career progression goals. You can enhance your skills, and even manage your time more effectively to enjoy the rewards of work-life balance. 

Proven deep working success can even make you more employable. According to Newport “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.”

If you’ve been looking for a way to stand out from the talent crowd, you just found it.

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