Are you a shallow or deep worker? Not sure? Discover how you can create and maintain a state of steady focus and improve productivity.
Picture this: a laptop sits in the middle of a desk, the open screen revealing a cluttered desktop with eight open tabs. The screen illuminates a slight glow on the person hunched in front of it, cup of coffee in hand, their eyebrows furrowed as they type.
Does this scenario look familiar?
It does to me—it was me.
If you’ve ever rushed through your workday and left feeling like you didn’t achieve anything, you have fallen victim to shallow work.
You may have heard these buzzwords—shallow work and deep work—but what are they? Why is deep work so important? And most importantly, what can you do about it?
Let’s dive deep into work styles, how they impact your productivity and wellness, and how you can learn a few simple habits to improve your focus.
Are You a Deep or Shallow Worker?
Deep work is a philosophy developed by Cal Newport, author of self-help literature and professor at Georgetown University. Newport’s theory defines deep work as the practice of activities performed at the limit of your capability while free from distractions.
Let’s break that down a little. Essentially, deep work is working without distractions for extended periods. During these periods, you concentrate on one task and block out everything else. The theory proposes that we produce the best results when we push our cognitive abilities to their limits.
Compare this to the workdays many of us experience. We’re checking emails while talking on the phone, taking a break to check social media, and busying ourselves with endless multitasking. Newport calls this distracted performance of cognitive, logistical, or minor duties shallow work.
But we’re getting our work done, right? Why does it matter if it is deep or shallow, as long as it’s done? You may not realize it, but your work style doesn’t only affect your productivity—it has an impact on your overall wellness.
How Is Your Work Style Affecting You?
I’m sure you’ve been there—you’re in the groove, your work is flowing, you’re producing great things. Then someone taps you on the shoulder or the phone rings, and it all falls apart.
Workflow interruptions are more than an annoyance. Every time you switch your attention from one target to another, you lose a little bit of focus.
This is attention residue, and it reduces your cognitive capabilities and performance every time it happens. By constantly checking your devices and inboxes, you maintain a state of persistent attention residue.
What a bad idea if you use your brain to earn a living!
On the flip side, entering a state of deep work helps you avoid the residue. Psychologists suggest that boosting your concentration can actually improve your cognitive ability. In a concentrated work state, no outside influences are distracting you. Your mind is free to process information, which has a powerful impact on recall ability.
That enhanced concentration helps you do more at a higher quality, raising your work satisfaction. In an interview with NPR, Newport said,
“People who spend a larger proportion of their professional time concentrating intensely on a single high-skill or high-craft target tend to enjoy their work a lot more … a deep life is a good life, and that’s something I really believe in. It can take a knowledge work career and make it much more satisfying than being in a persistent state of putting out fires and busy distraction.”
So, improving our focus can actually enhance our entire lives. Amazing!
Deep work is the way to go. But how can we break our shallow work habits and start practicing this deep focus work?
How Can You Improve Your Focus and Start Working Deeply?
Deep work doesn’t come easily, unfortunately. If I could wave a magic wand, we would all be able to focus immediately. But unfortunately, our brains are actually wired to avoid intense concentration.
Newport has plenty of suggestions for those who want to deepen their approach to work. He outlines four major rules in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. The basics? Work deeply, quit social media, embrace boredom, and ditch shallow work.
Sounds easy, right? I didn’t think so, either. Developing skills like these requires a routine and habitual application; you can’t do it instantly. But achieving a deep work focus isn’t an impossible task, and it doesn’t have to be complicated either.
To get started, here are three basic things you can do today to begin creating healthy work habits.
Establish Routines and Rituals
The best way to get started with deep work is to create a routine to support it. There is no one deep-work ritual that is right for everyone—it depends on you and the type of project you are working on.
You will get the most out of your deep work sessions if you create rituals that are strict and specific. Start by asking yourself these key questions:
When and Where Will You Work?
A dedicated workspace is vital. Choose an environment that will allow you to work for long periods without interruption. If possible, a solitary space with a closed door offers the most privacy from outside distractions.
Consistency is also essential. When you routinely use the same space, the environment can signal your brain to enter deep work mode. Familiar items like your favorite beverage or scented candle can serve as totems for added focus.
How Will You Perform Your Tasks?
This is where a routine starts to form. Establish a structure, write down your goals, and determine how you will work in deep mode. Decide what tools to use and which distractions to limit. Setting the rules in writing makes it more likely that you will stick to them.
When you are ready to work, consider how much time you can devote to each activity in advance. Start small, committing only 15 minutes at a time. You can work up to longer sessions as your capacity for focus improves.
How Can You Support Yourself While Working?
You know what they say about the best-laid plans (hint: they often go wrong). When you are building routines and rituals, don’t forget to include layers of support to keep you on track.
Block websites and apps with the Freedom app, so you aren’t tempted to use them. Make yourself inaccessible with Do Not Disturb settings on your devices and on your door. Consider using noise-canceling headphones to silence noisy distractions.
Define Your Priorities
Eliminating all superficial work is, of course, impossible. You will always have to manage administrative tasks like sending emails or booking appointments. However, it is possible to cut down the time you spend on shallow work.
Try automating things like email replies and calendar imports. Delegate tasks you can share with others and batch similar tasks like phone calls. After trimming your list down, only the essentials should remain. From there, you can rank each job according to priority.
To make efficient use of time, schedule each minute of your workday according to the priority of your task list. This may seem extreme, but it isn’t too tricky. Divide your workday into blocks and assign your tasks to those blocks. Focus on the most critical tasks during deep work sessions.
Shut Down. No, Seriously.
The deep work method isn’t just about putting in long working hours—it’s also about what you do after the workday is over. We have a limited capacity for deep work, Newport suggests. It lasts, at most, four hours. After this, our ability to focus on one task diminishes.
Regularly resting your brain will improve the quality of your deep focus, so it’s important to make downtime a priority. After work, avoid complex tasks if possible. We’ve become so used to multitasking online, on our phones, and at work that now we do it at home, as well. Instead, allow time for relaxing activities.
Use this time to disconnect from your devices. Social media and texting are fun, but they are also distractions that limit you from your goals. Instead, embrace boredom. Consider setting up a recurring schedule on the Freedom app to block your devices during the evening hours, freeing you to focus on rest.
Find the Freedom to Focus
In this fast-paced digital world, it’s no wonder that so many of us struggle with focus and productivity. Many things compete for our attention all day. If we aren’t careful, we can stretch ourselves so thin that we don’t accomplish anything.
According to Newport, “To master the art of deep work…you must take back control of your time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them.”
With the Freedom app, you can regain control of your time. Sign up for free to block distractions with automated support tailored to your schedule.
Your health and well-being matter. Make yourself a priority, and enjoy the professional fulfillment and better quality of life that embracing deep work will bring.