Deep Work: Minutes of Focus for a Lifetime of Results

Catherine Mulder on

Woman sitting at table completing work

I have faced challenges in my ability to focus for long periods as long as I can remember. From studying for tests in academics, to writing blog posts in my professional career - it is rare an activity can keep my focus without fidgeting or side-thoughts taking control. Being born into a world immersed in electronic entertainment, followed with the birth of social media - attention spans are shortening, including mine. There is always a new notification in our work chat rooms, or an email popping up on my phone screen. Working in such a manner is overwhelming. I didn’t maximize my time efficiently and was never fully satisfied with my quality or quantity of work. Sometimes, I’d spend hours trying to focus and feel defeated and burnt out with nothing of substance to show. I have found myself trying all sorts of background noises and looking for solutions to help me become a more productive worker. I was introduced to the methodology of Deep Work, and decided to do some research. I applied these practices to my work, and here is how it has improved my ways of focus, quality of material, and overall productivity.

My Pre-Deep Working schedule looked very similar to this:

Over and over, this pattern of repetitive interruptions took control of my productivity, focus, and ability to get through the simplest tasks. Before noon, I had already engaged with peers, answered questions and lost many moments of effective work. I knew this was not a sustainable way of working.

The Deep Working Strategies

Deep Work is a term coined by Cal Newport, Georgetown University professor and author of many self-help books including: “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.” This practice consists of being able to work for long periods of time without distraction. Similar to the Pomodoro technique developed by Francesco Cirillo, which utilized the classic tomato timer and 25 minute increments of work. Except, instead of working in strict 25 minute intervals, Deep Work gives more flexibility to expand your periods of focus far beyond that time. Deep Work exercises your mind to engage for even 90 minutes to several hours, as claimed by Newport. Tasks you accomplish in Deep Work are typically those that you most dread. The ones that require precise information, complicated ideas, and a sometimes overwhelming amount of material to complete. These are the tasks that you cannot tackle while answering emails or engaging in group chats - these are tasks that require focus without interruptions. There are many strategies to implement Deep Work into your schedule, and here are the most common:

Monastic - This way requires you to focus 99% of your time on Deep Work tasks, and fully immerse yourself in the process. As well as turning away or rejecting whenever a less intense, or less important task may arise. Although this method can produce some great results, it is not the most realistic for those who balance a variety of different responsibilities throughout their week. Bimodal - Bimodal means dividing your work into long periods of Deep Work and simple tasks. Almost like a hibernation for work, this means designating two week periods to only Deep Work, and the following two weeks to those less demanding tasks. Defining and designating these periods helps the individual go into periods of focus where there are clear and concise expectations. Rhythmic - This requires proactively scheduling designated times of Deep Work into your weekly schedule. Once scheduled, it is important to remain firm in the times and dates, to really embrace the full effect of Deep Work. Deep Working then becomes an expected habit, which can be much easier to maintain. Journalistic - This approach means Deep Working whenever you have extra time, or see available time in your schedule. It is the most flexible and lenient of the processes, which occurs when you have finished your more simple tasks or have some free space. The lack of structure in this method can be freeing, but takes great discipline to maintain effectively.

Regardless of whatever method you choose, Deep Work requires a lot of self-discipline and self-reflection. It is a difficult and elite skill to master, which requires elite level work-ethic and self-awareness. You are responsible for holding yourself accountable, and being unwavering in the face of challenges. You quickly learn how to monitor your behavior, what distracts you, and what helps you focus. Being diligent is also very necessary to have a successful experience on the journey that is Deep Work. The process is far from easy, and requires a commitment to yourself and your work that is not always easy to follow through.

My Deep Work Strategies

Deep Work may look different for each person. When I first started, I aimed to work in periods of 15 minutes, which most closely resembled the Rhythmic approach. What stays consistent for each person, is the importance of creating a distraction-free environment. I mute my cell phone and my company’s chat groups, and inform my household I am not to be disturbed during these periods. I intentionally write down the times I will be Deep Working in my notebook, as well as my Google Calendar for my colleagues to reference. I prepare by setting a timer on my phone that alerts me when my 15 minutes have finished. I know that at the end, I can take a 10 minute break to eat a snack, use the restroom, or do a quick task before entering another cycle. I failed repeatedly when I first started - I could barely handle 5-10 minutes without getting distracted. I questioned if I had the mental strength, and laughed at the idea I could one day handle 30 minutes, nevertheless hours. Despite it all, I knew it was something I really wanted to accomplish - so I tried again.

I repeated this structure almost every day, and set my goal to spend at least 1 hour throughout the day working in this manner. I struggled heavily at first, it was only one hour - I didn’t even have to complete it consecutively - but it was difficult to break the negative habits I had been forming for years. At the end of the first week I felt like I could see some results, even if they were minimal. After practicing for some time, I felt I might be ready to increase the time I spent in that mindset. On week 3, I dedicated myself to 25 minutes - Pomodoro style - with a 10 minute break.

With each week that passed, I tried to add a little more time and more increments. I tried various methods such as lighting candles only when working, listening to classical music, and even turning on and off my desk lamp as I went through the intervals. I wanted to find a way to train my mind to more easily slip into these periods of focus by creating a specific ambience. It was towards the end of my second week that I finally agreed the best structure for me was a scented candle lit only when working, and some quiet classical music. Not only did I see my work quantity improve, but the quality. My brain was training itself to work hard and focus more intensely, knowing that a rest period was coming. It became more natural to tune into, and it took less time for me to enter these periods of Deep Work.

My Deep Working schedule after 4 weeks

I am strict with my schedule because I know I still haven’t come anywhere close to being an expert. Each week, I find the process a little less difficult, and an eagerness to increase the time after feeling the rewards of quality, completed work.

After seeing the results for myself, I introduced the idea to my colleagues, and encouraged them to try this process. Here is some of the feedback and methods that worked for them:

“I have tried the process 3 times since you introduced me to it. I think it worked pretty well, and it is definitely something I will do more often. I did not schedule my times, and did more of a Journalistic approach which worked best for me.”

“I have begun Deep Working at least once a day, if not more. I was able to finish a task that usually would take me several days to complete. I accomplished much more just by focusing on the Deep Work, and this is definitely something I want to start doing often. I focused on just staying open on my necessary tabs, and turning off my email notifications.”

Through my experience and feedback from others, Deep Work produces a level of fulfillment that isn’t as easily achieved when slowly chipping away at daunting tasks. I rarely find myself bored or uninterested, as these periods of focus have expanded beyond my working world and into my passions and hobbies. It is moments of hard work for long-lasting, rewarding results that have shaped the quality and quantity of the work I produce each week. The goal for those who practice Deep Work, is to advance to a level where they are able to focus so intensely, that they can work for hours on end, each day - without burning out. As a person who could barely handle the 15 minute intervals, and seeing where I’ve grown to now, I have a long way to go, but I am certainly on my way to an even more productive lifestyle.

Here are some great resources to help improve your understanding of Deep Work, and find a method that works best for you: