Deep work in practice: reimagining my workflow for radically less distraction

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say adopting Deep Work has changed my life, and I’m not the only person to claim this. I first wrote this post four years go, and it hit a chord: “going viral” and being read by 50,000 people.

I’ve been a Deep Work devotee all this time, and it’s allowed me to produce – as the theory says it should – “remarkable results”. But what is theory of Deep Work? And how can one use it in practice, in the modern knowledge workplace?

The idea of “Deep Work” comes from Cal Newport, a Computer Science Professor at Georgetown University, and is something he expands on in his book of the same name. Here’s the idea in Cal’s words:

Deep work is cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve… . Deep work results in improvement of the value of your work output… and an increase in the total quantity of valuable output you produce.

Deep work lets you do the above by demanding you focus, distraction-free, for long periods of time. This state of distraction-free concentration gives you the space you need to create valuable breakthroughs in your work.

This probably wouldn’t have been too interesting fifty years ago, but now we’re more distracted and have demands on our attention all over the place. As philosopher Alain de Botton says:

One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.

Sitting still and thinking has become impossible for many of us, and even after nearly three years of following Cal’s Deep Work method, if I’m not careful I fall back into the same bad habits. That’s why this is important, and that’s why this is urgent. This post is about Deep Work, and actually putting it into practice in your working life.

Why Deep Work?

As mentioned, Deep Work is the idea your most valuable work comes from concentrating on just one thing at a time, for extensive periods of time.

The thesis argues that this is where you produce the vast majority of your valuable work, and that so-called “shallow work” – email, meetings, Slack, social media, etc – is the opposite of this valuable work.

You should thus, the argument goes, try and do as much Deep Work as possible and minimise your shallow work.

That’s the gist of it. There’s a ton more detail in Cal Newport’s book, or this is the kind of book where reading someone’s notes will give you 80% of the information. It’s also the kind of book, though, where hearing the message repeated is very helpful for getting it to sink in.

There’s an obvious productivity benefit to Deep Work, but there’s also a “good life” benefit: you have to have downtime to recharge after producing at your top level, and you get the satisfaction from focusing on the things that really matter.

This is the why of Deep Work: it lets produce your best work, really push the boundaries of what you’re capable of, and just have a nice time.

Are we getting more distracted?

Deep work requires prolonged periods of concentration on hard problems. For me that typically means writing of some kind and project planning. For you that may mean something similar; any sort of computer work and the concept stands.

As Alain de Botton commented up top, we’ve experienced an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything in recent years and this is a problem.

There are no end of op-eds and studies arguing we are hopelessly hooked and most people I know have problems with internet addiction and we’re creating a culture of distraction – and the economic data says the same thing: the US output per hour (a standard measure of labour productivity) has decreased from an annual rate of 3% between 1945 and the 1970s to 0.5% since 2010. The latest annualised productivity growth rate was minus 0.4%.

The internet “is designed to be an interruption system”, and we are “addicted to distraction”, argues Nicholas Carr. As a 90s kid I’ve grown up with the internet and all its benefits – but also can’t help myself from switching tabs the second I need to think about something difficult.

Social media and apps use the same principles as slot machines: intermittent reinforcement. When you pull to refresh Twitter or Facebook or your email you don’t know what you’re going to get – it may be nothing or it may be a really cool email. The randomness makes the action of checking addictive. Technology companies know and use this and we are ill-equipped to defend ourselves.

Distraction seems to be a well established problem but nobody wants to take it seriously or knows how to fix it.

Why Deep Work in a remote team?

Any remote team relies on being able to effectively communicate! Whilst remote teams are more flexible, they’re obviously not in the same place and thus all communication has to be online.

This often leads to remote teams trying to replicate the physical office, but online: a general “watercooler” group chat, various team and project-based chats, regular catch-up meetings, and of course also the email you’d have in the office anyway. Slack has become the tool of choice for this in recent years.

I disagree with this: remote teams aren’t like their physical counterparts, and don’t need to aspire to be like them! Remote teams can, instead, double-down on their competitive advantages.

In my opinion, a competitive advantage of remote teams is that you don’t need watercooler group chat, and you can get by perfectly fine without meeting more than you need to. Jason Fried from Basecamp has a great post on this: Is group chat making you sweat?. Jason argues:

Following group chat all day feels like being in an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.

Jason goes on to argue it creates an “ASAP culture”, FOMO, interruptions, and “manic context-shifting and continuous partial attention”. It also doesn’t really work across time zones.

Regular check-ins and standup meetings are typically less of a burden, but it’s still possible to default to “hop on a call” in the same way you’d interrupt someone at their desk. I’d also argue these are bad as a default mode of communication. There is, of course, a lot of value in actually talking and you can communicate a lot more nuance this way. Meetings are, however, very interruptive, and it’s unlikely they’re the best choice as a default.

You might not necessarily even need email; you just need a good way of communicating. Indeed, given how bad we all are in general at dealing with email, I’d argue that using an alternative tool is a better solution.

A final challenge for remote teams is separating out home and work. They might be the same spaces physically, but they can’t be the same spaces mentally. Physical and remote teams will check email and do shallow work

Thus, a remote team doesn’t need to look like its physical counterpart. It can cherry-pick the best bits, and leave out the worst bits. Indeed, it can even create the perfect space for everyone to do their best Deep Work. This is precisely what we’ll get on to next.

How do you do Deep Work in a remote team?

We’ve now covered what Deep Work is, why it’s right for remote teams, and now we can get on how to do it for remote teams.

This is in part culture, and in part tools: the team needs to be on board with this mentality, and use the tools which facilitate it.

We’ll focus mostly on the latter here, although I will note quickly: part of the reason knowledge workers chat and send email so much is these are a proxy for showing that you’re providing value and doing work. For this whole thing to work, there has to be an understanding by all parties involved that you don’t have to be communicating to show you’re working.

Alright, let’s get to the actual tools now. A key requirement here is that whatever communication tools you use empower doing good work, rather than get in the way. I’d argue tools like Slack and email can be used in this way, but are some typically notused in this way it’s best to avoid them completely.

My personal preference is Basecamp, a project management tool with communication and chat built-in. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to project management that embraces the Deep Work philosophy.

Basecamp works for this for a number of reasons:

  • Everything is in one place.
  • Nothing else can plug in: you can’t get random emails or messages from other accounts.
  • It facilitates non-urgent, task-based discussion that’s searchable and on-the-record.
  • The notification system is good and makes for an easy way for everyone to see what’s happening. But, it’s non-interruptive, letting you come to it when you need something rather than it interrupting you.
  • The notification system can be turned off outside work hours. This is key for doing Deep Work as it gives you that rest time. There’s also an obvious quality of life benefit here.
  • There is still chat for when you need it with the Ping and Campfire features. This can be for 1-to-1, company-wide, per-team, and per-project, so the “channels” are made for you and don’t end up with a thousand chats to follow.
  • Announcements and updates can use the Message Board feature (essentially blog posts), so everyone can see and respond in their own time – it’s not instantly buried in a group chat.
  • Clients can be added so they’re working with your way of working (but this can work for the client so that they get everything through email).

This can be platform agnostic, and indeed you could do this Slack and email, but as these are both more “open” tools you can set up with the best of intentions but have other channels creating the interruptions and shallow work you’re trying to get away from.

This also relies much more heavily on buy-in and putting-into-practice by team members, which is hard! I love my Deep Work, but the internet is distracting and it’s so much easier to use a tool which sets you up for success.

Do you need to quit social media?

Cal was early on the “quite social media” movement, and he makes the recommendation in the book long before it was a respectable thing to do. Indeed, his new book Digital Minimalism more or less expands the chapter in Deep Work into an entirely new book.

  • Delete social media apps from my phone (that aim to be addictive). I can still access from the mobile browser if I want, but its inconvenience puts me off.
  • Stop carrying my phone in my pocket. Keeping it in my bag instead makes it less convenient and me less prone to picking it up.

Now do the work

You’re then all set up to actually do your work. This was the subject of my Deep Work in practice post, so I’ll summarise the key points below but leave you to read the full thing for more:

  1. Pre-select a task!
  2. Focus deeply on that task for as long as you can manage.
  3. Minimise distractions.
  4. Build positive rituals to support the above.
  5. Take regular and energising breaks so that you can work at peak performance.

It’s a really good system. You can tie in other productivity “hacks” of choice, including distraction-blocking apps, the Pomodoro technique (personal preference is to do this, just at 60+ minutes, rather than 25 at a time), and whatever else you need.

Do good work, then have a nice break

  • section on productive meditation

I really like this way of working, and do think companies which adopt this will have a huge comparative advantage in the future.

I’ll wrap up with the obvious caveats: I don’t know best and I’m sure there are very good arguments for doing everything I’ve just critiqued. Maybe over time, and indeed as Ellipsis adds more team members, these kinds of communication will become essential. Right now, though – for small remote teams – I wouldn’t do anything else.

How do I create more space for Deep Work?

We’ve made two theses so far:

  1. The type of work that is valuable in the modern economy involves long periods of serious work and focus.
  2. We are easily distracted and find prolonged period of focus difficult.

Identifying these as problems is important and valuable in itself, but real progress will come from being able to properly put deep work into practice.

Trying to break the “distraction habit” is hard and this is by no means a comprehensive or exhaustive list, but this is what I’ve been doing and what has worked for me:

Tactics to be less distracted:

  • Time blocking: commit to specific times each day when you’ll do your “Deep Work hours”. This is something also recommended for deliberate practice, which has many similarities with Deep Work. This ensures that you have the space to do quality work, and that you’re much more likely to stick with this – as it’s in your calendar.
  • Recognise when I’m doing deep work and need to focus (this is useful for stopping yourself when you’re tempted to change tab).
  • Use a time blocker. Install Timewarp for Chrome. This doesn’t aggressively block websites (although you can if you wish), but puts up a timer for selected sites, showing you how much time you’ve spent on a site that day. Much more useful than sweary alternatives*.
  • Put my phone on do not disturb and keep it off my desk.
  • Use full screen mode in app and browser.
  • Remove the bookmarks bar from Chrome.
  • Close my email app and only open at set times.
  • Listen to more classical music.

Deep Work and the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomdoro Technique is a popular productivity “hack” which asks you to work in 25 minute increments, and then take a 5 minute break. It’s not too far from Deep Work in that you focus intesely for that period of time – but the major difference is ideally you spend much more than 25 minutes focusing on your Deep Work.

Thus, you might find using a Pomodoro timer a good method for getting started with your Deep Work, but I’d certainly try and push past those 25 minutes as soon as you can. You could do back-to-back Pomodoros in a 50 minute session and a 10 minute break, or I’ve heard some people like to use Pomodoros to get started on difficult tasks; with the thinking being if you don’t get into the flow of things, you can always stop after the 25 minutes. If you do, then just carry on.

My favourite way of using this these days is a moderate variation: I have a physical kitchen timer on my desk, and will use it occassionally for either a couple of minutes to get me started on something I don’t want to do, or for an hour to

Website blocking tools

*I’ve received lots of recommendations for Chrome extensions after publishing this. A couple of note: Inbox When Ready hides your inbox by default, so you can compose email without getting distracted. News Feed Eradicator removes the news feed from Facebook (or just use to get chat-only Facebook instead). Finally, Forest offers an intense tree-killing alternative to Timewarp. For Mac Self Control is another more extreme option. See what works for you.

How do I get deep work done?

Two more things to think about. Your work schedule and what you’re working on.

The former is pretty simple: set aside time for working out what you’re working on, so when you sit down to work it’s just a case of getting on with the deep work. No time faffing working out what to work on.

The second appears simple but is more complex to fix: you need to be working on projects interesting enough that they can demand your attention. Something to think about.

Embracing deep work

Distraction is a problem. We’re probably reliant on or addicted to the internet more than we’d like to admit. Fixing this will be a work in progress, but acting now, recognising the problem and consciously trying to fix it is as good a first step as any.

For your convenience here are some of the key takeaways:

  • Deep work requires prolonged focus on hard things.
  • We’re addicted to the internet and distractions. Certain apps are especially bad for this.
  • Reducing distractions in general and at work is helpful.
  • Timewarp for Chrome is helpful.
  • Plan your schedule in advance.
  • This is all a lot easier if you’re working on interesting and important things.

There may be a magical fix for this. I’ll let you know if and when I find it.