Recently I asked some of my followers whether they have any deep work sessions incorporated into their lives.
To my surprise, 50% answered NO.
25% said they have a 1-hour session, 12.5% have a 90-minute session, and 12.5% – longer than 2 hours.
From my perspective, not using the power of deep work sessions is like burning 50-dollar bills.
Short, intense, focused work sessions are often the best investment of our resources. You do some meaningful work first, and then you can rest guilt-free!
Not enough time or not enough attention?
We’ve all experienced the nagging sensation of time slipping through our fingers. The pressures of daily life make it easy to believe there’s never enough time. But let’s pause for a moment: is it really a problem of having more time, or maybe it’s down to focusing our attention, right?
Put 80% of your energy and focus into that 20% of your time and reap the benefits.
Carve out some time and protect your attention during that session.
What is a deep work session?
It’s a designated time to work on a specific task in a focused, distraction-free mode.
Deep vs. Shallow Work.
Let’s start by clarifying what I mean by “deep work.”
Deep work refers to the ability to concentrate without distractions on cognitively demanding tasks.
It produces high-quality results and is increasingly rare in today’s world. Think: writing an essay or reading a research paper and creating notes or solving a problem with some second-order thinking.
Deep work is structured and deliberate.
It’s the opposite of “shallow work,” which is often just busy and reactive work:
- Answering emails.
- Browsing the internet.
- Multitasking (or rather: task switching).
- Admin work that doesn’t require our full focus.
Shallow work is a part of many people’s reality, especially in an office setting, but sadly, also just as popular among solopreneurs.
Shallow work feels like work, can be stressful and exhausting, but usually doesn’t produce anything significant.
You can spend 4 hours of your day (and I’m being conservative in my estimates) jumping between Twitter, Reddit, email, Slack, and Google, but at the end of the day, you have very little to show for the effort.
Nothing of substance got done; you didn’t really move the needle in any particular direction.
It’s easy to see the relatively low value of shallow work. So why do we still do it?
Because it FEELS better – until it doesn’t, of course. It’s not unlike eating candy: feels good at the moment.
Shallow work is like empty calories: easy and convenient but far from nourishing.
Shallow work’s allure is that it gives us instant gratification and feeds our foraging brains more dopamine. Maybe we’ll come across something interesting, maybe not. If we do, we have even more reasons to carry on ‘foraging.’
Shallow work is often a respite from boredom, and boredom knocks on our door when we lose attention. The problem is, these days, we also know we don’t have to be bored – we have this magical invention of the internet and social media that we can always turn to when a glimmer of boredom appears.
So it’s not just that we’re victims of the evil, addictive technology, with its pings and buzzing; we simply want to look for distractions to spice up our lives.
The cost of task switching
While multitasking may feel more entertaining than going deep, there’s a serious cost to it.
Every time we switch between different (unrelated tasks), it takes some time to refocus. It’s the “where were we” feeling every time something distracts us, and we need to locate ourselves again.
Put the big stones first, then add some pebbles and sand.
If you feel busy, stressed, and overwhelmed and at the same time like you’re not making significant progress with what you say is important to you, maybe it’s time to shake things up a bit.
You might have heard the story of filling in your ‘jar’ with bigger stones first and sand later, where stones represent the important stuff, and sand – the menial things.
I suggest you build your day’s work around a stone of a deep work session: a longer, focused time to do what really matters.
Flex your focus muscles.
Deep work session requires sufficient focus – something we struggle with as our attention spans get shorter.
The good news is we can strengthen it by addressing some external and internal issues.
First of all, it’s essential to know what and why you want to achieve during the session.
Even when we know our motivation for our work, it’s natural to lose some of our motivation after working for a while. No one is expecting you to be excited about writing a report for 90 minutes straight!
The point is not to not have any urges come up but to simply not give in to them for a scheduled amount of time.
Preparation: Setting up the stage.
Time to rollup our sleeves and prepare our environment so it doesn’t get in the way and helps us get things done.
Removing external distractions:
Before each deep work session, you want to remove – or at least limit- possible distractions, both external and internal.
That means clearing your visual field, like cleaning your desk, as well as getting rid of any distractions: disabling all possible notifications on your computer and your phone (ideally putting your phone in another room), using an internet blocking app if necessary.
Removing Internal Distractions:
Remember how I said we want to be distracted? Yes. That’s our human reality: apart from external distractions, there are internal ones.
Take care of those as well! You don’t want a rumbling tummy, but you don’t want to be stuffed either; if you need your coffee – go ahead; just don’t have so much of it that you need to run to the bathroom every 15 minutes (and take your smartphone with you).
Not every itch needs a scratch.
The moment you lose a bit of motivation, you’ll start looking for something new to get your attention. You will remember things you didn’t do or want to do; you’ll give ideas, some might be great.
And, of course, you don’t want to lose all that, but you don’t want to act on them either.
So just prepare a piece of paper where you can quickly jot down whatever pops into your mind for later. If you haven’t called your grandma in 2 months, an extra hour won’t hurt (I hope!).
Why is your brain coming up with all those sensations and thoughts? Because while you’re trying hard to focus with the help of your executive attention, there’s another type of attention running in the background: the alerting attention.
Alerting attention is driven by primitive brain structures and is easily distracted by external stimuli; it helps us to focus on opportunities or threats. It’s there to make sure you’re investing your energy right and ready to alert you when it spots something more promising (Hello, Shiny Object!).
In a deep work session context, the “mise-en-place” technique refers to the practice of setting up your environment and organizing your materials in advance. It originated from the culinary world, where chefs meticulously prepare and arrange ingredients before cooking. Maybe you don’t need to be meticulous about every detail, but you don’t want to hurt your focus – and possibly even flow- by searching for the right file, either.
Set an intention.
You may block some time for your deep work session, but if you don’t know what exactly it is you want to achieve, time will fly by. So take a moment to figure out what is the objective here and what would be the outcome of a successful session.
It’s good to take a moment to calm down before the deep work, especially if you’d been running around like a headless chicken earlier.
A simple breathing exercises takes minutes and works great.
Are short sessions hurting your focus?
Many productivity advice suggests working in a Pomodoro style technique, with roughly 25 minutes of focused work and 5 minutes breaks, where you can schedule as many cycles as you like.
This may be a good starting point, but I would suggest a more scientific approach and schedule some longer sessions, without ones that default you to taking a break when you don’t need it.
Another problem with breaks is that if you don’t have a lot of self-control, it can easily get out of hand, and a 5-minute break becomes a 50-minute break.
I like to schedule longer sessions of 1 hour to 2 hours, with 90 minutes being my sweet spot.
We don’t get a chance to reach the flow state of optimal focus and engagement by chopping up our work sessions. You start working on something, get involved, and all of a sudden, it’s time for a break.
When you’re starting out, it’s good to have a ‘deep work session worksheet’ to check in with yourself on how long is too long for you. The more you practice, the easier it becomes.
Embrace deep work rituals.
It takes some time to move a behavior to a different part of your brain where habits live, but it’s an excellent investment of your time and energy.
Creating a routine (or a ‘ritual’ for the more sophisticated folks) can help you do just that. Routines signal to your brain that it’s time for some deep work.
This could involve creating a dedicated workspace, getting your coffee, doing some grounding exercise (breathing or meditating or for visual focus), setting a timer, and… Lift off!
Deep work doesn’t necessarily mean working long hours. It’s about working intensely and efficiently, achieving more in less time. Time blocking and scheduling can help optimize your productivity.
Work, then rest.
After you’ve completed a deep work session, allow yourself ample time for rest and recovery. Engaging in leisure activities and detaching from work during downtime replenishes your mental resources and enhances your ability to perform deep work.
After a deep work session, you can also schedule a shallow work session. The opposite rarely works, courtesy of dopamine.
Give deep work a try – it really is a game changer!
And if you need some more support and structure, drop your email below and get your Deep Work Worksheet 🙂