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7 Things The 9–5 Worker Can Learn From Cal Newport’s “Deep Work”

Don’t You Wish You Could Do What You Were Hired For?


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Joel Sigrist

3 years ago | 8 min read

Before getting into the practical takeaways of the book, it’s important to address the biggest complaint with Deep Work.

It’s not written for the real world. It’s written for academics and writers who can lock themselves away for hours on end, shut away from the world, and unreachable by any distraction. And there is no consequence.

It assumes that you are already an aficionado at your craft and that the only thing missing from your legendary productivity is time.

Sadly, most of us don’t get to live in that world and most of us aren’t in the top percentile of our field. Instead, most of us are real people working in real jobs. We are constantly derailed from our work by the needs of our boss, our colleagues, and our customers.

I hear you.
And Deep Work is written for you, too. Just differently.

This post is written for the real world. There will be no command to move to a remote cabin without internet access, and there will be no call to action that will get you fired if you actually followed through on it.

Rather, this post will be about practical takeaways for the real people working in real, knowledge-work jobs, content creation, sales, operations, marketing, finance, and the likes.

Most “knowledge work” gets derailed by email management, meetings, and other distractions. Some meetings and emails are necessary undoubtedly, but no one was hired because of their ability to keep inbox zero or sit in on a lot of meetings without tiring.

In Cal Newport’s Deep Work, the author identifies practical ways (and reasons) to minimize the time spent on shallow work and instead spend more time on deep work, the reason you’re in your job in the first place.

Deep work is uninterrupted time working on one task, often for at least 90 minutes. Doing this has a positive impact on the amount of work accomplished in a set amount of time.

The amount of production is simply the amount of time spent working multiplied by the intensity of the work. By increasing the intensity of the work, the total production increases.

This is true for academia and writing, but it’s also true for the rest of the real world that can't lock themselves away for days on end without consequences.

Maximize your career by getting the most out of your job, both for your employers and yourself.

Takeaway #1: Attention Residue Matters

Attention Residue, (which I’ve written about before) is the name for that feeling of distraction when you start a new task. Instead of shifting focus immediately to a new task, it can take 15 minutes or more to be able to focus on a new task.

If you’re switching tasks every 15–20 minutes, this means you’re never fully focused on what you’re doing, so you’re not operating at your peak.

Instead, we should be batching our work together. Batching is the idea of documenting all similar tasks of a type and doing them all at once. Responding to 10 emails in a row every few hours instead of one at a time throughout the day, filling out all the forms needed at the end of the day instead of throughout the day as they come up.

Some of this isn’t possible, as occasional emails are time-sensitive. But a lot of them aren’t. If your work permits, set an auto-response on your email that states,

“I am replying to emails in batches at 9am, 12pm, and 4pm this week as an experiment. If an issue is time-sensitive, text me at 123–456–7890. Thanks for understanding.”

For most jobs, this will be possible. And in an emergency, there’s still a way for your boss to contact you and get you immediately.

Takeaway #2: Bimodal Work is the Most Realistic Form of Deep Work

Bimodality is the idea of having two modes.

All in or all out.

When working or attempting deep work (working on one task without meetings or emails), block out as many distractions as possible. Disable social media with an app like Offtime or Freedom and close that email tab.

Do this for 90 minutes, (set a timer), and really focus on your work during this time.

Once 90 minutes is up, you can catch up on email and check social media to make sure the world didn’t burn down. But it likely didn’t.

And when you’re not doing deep work, be hyper-accessible. Turn on notifications on Slack and your phone and check your emails (still reply in batches).

Being hyper-accessible and helpful when you’re not in deep work mode will train your boss and colleagues to trust that your deep work time isn’t time you’re checked out and that you’ll catch up on everything once that timer rings.

Stop trying to multitask, and instead focus on what’s in front of you. Work all in or all out.

Takeaway #3: Use the Chain Technique to encourage Deep Work in yourself.

Jerry Seinfeld used the Chain Technique to form new habits and write jokes every day. He leveraged it to become one of the most popular comedians of all time.

Here’s how it works:

Get a big calendar and put it up in your office where you’ll see it every day. Each day you block distractions for your deep work time, put a big red X on that day.

After a few days in a row, you’ll see the Xs build a chain and that visual motivation will help on days when it’s hard to do the work.

Takeaway #4: Use your breaks productively to solve problems at work

Sorry to commandeer your smoke break, but as you take 15 minutes throughout the day, go for walks and think about the project you’re working on.

When you have a problem, this practice will help you to solve it by getting out of your normal space and out of your context.

These walks are a form of productive meditation. This isn’t just rest for your brain. Instead, this is about thinking abstractly about the task at hand without running into distractions.

Our minds find inspiration when we get out of our typical context, and taking a short walk can do this for you.

Takeaway #5: When you’re not at work, don’t work

In our remote environment, it’s even more challenging not to bring work home. The temptation to just check some emails and get caught up before tomorrow morning comes is always knocking at our mental doorstep.

However, if we aren’t truly unplugging, we aren’t allowing our subconscious mind to work on our problems. That’s a problem. Our subconscious minds are powerful in ways we can’t imagine.

Logging off and staying logged off until tomorrow morning is a way to let our subconscious minds get to work, but it also lets our minds rest and recharge. When we get back at it in the morning, it’s easier to focus and be productive if we are rested.

Takeaway #6: Be discerning about what tools we accept.

The “any benefit” mindset states that if a tool, (social media, slack, email, asana, calendar, a new pen, etc.) provides any benefit to us, it is worthwhile.

However, this doesn’t account for the opportunity cost of the time spent learning the new tool and using the new tool.

In reality, a tool like Twitter provides some benefit, staying connected to news and the world at a breakneck pace. It also has negatives associated with it. It takes time to learn how to navigate the platform, there are a lot of garbage accounts out there, and it takes up a lot of time to stay that connected.

With the any benefit mindset, we should be using Twitter because of the benefit. But instead, the shortcomings of the platform and the opportunity cost may not be worth it.

We should be discerning about which tools we use and accept. Each benefit comes with a negative tied to it and that negative might outweigh the benefit, causing an overall detriment to our work and our lives.

Takeaway #7: Process-Centric Emails

We already discussed managing emails in batches to save time and avoid the nagging worry that we should be checking it.

But there’s another way that we should manage emails.

Email conversations often cause a lot of needless back and forth with several emails simply to schedule a meeting or review a task. It can take more than 30 minutes of email back and forth to schedule a 30-minute meeting. This doesn’t feel like a good use of time.

Instead, we should become overly process-centric in our email correspondence.

Take this example, which we’ve all been on one side of.

Hi Tom,
I’m working on this new project and wanted to get your thoughts on it. When’s a free time to meet this week to go over it?
Joel

But compare that to this email with the same purpose:

Hi Tom,
I’m working on a new project revising next quarter’s sales projections in light of the election cycle and our work with government clients. I’ll need 30 minutes of your time this week to review how your clients will be affected by the election.
I can do any of the following times:
Tuesday at 10am
Wednesday at 1pm
Thursday at 2pm
Please confirm which of these times works with your schedule and I’ll send a calendar invite to you with the meeting link.
Joel

This second email takes more time for me to write, but it is direct, clear, and Tom knows exactly what I need his help on. Tom is able to send a reply that says, “Tuesday” and the email correspondence is finished with a meeting scheduled.

Spending a few more minutes on each email before it’s sent out can save easily an hour’s worth of back and forth.

Deep Work is about using time well. Shallow work is not the end of the world, and it’s necessary for an office-setting. But it’s important to spend your time getting things done, and Deep Work is about making that happen.

Is it unusual? Yes. But to be exceptional, you must act differently.

Does it all fit in every work environment? No. But some of it does fit in any work environment. We all manage emails and get invited to meetings. We can all make an effort to batch our repetitive tasks and process emails more effectively.

You don’t need to lock yourself in a remote cabin to get some value from Deep Work. You just need to think more intentionally about the way you handle your work.

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Joel Sigrist

Joel Sigrist is a writer, sports analyst, and media creator exploring several fields. Visit Joel’s website joelsigrist.com to find out more.


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