What Exactly Is Deep Work – And Is It As Life Changing As Everyone Says It Is?

deep work

With our increasingly busy lifestyles, and the onslaught of digital distractions, it's seemingly impossible to focus all of our time and energy on one thing. But the ability to focus fully and feel wholly inherently contributes to overall quality of life. The idea is known as deep work — and it’s making headlines for its impact on intimate, interpersonal, and professional relationships. And though it may sound like mindfulness or meditation, it’s actually more intentional and happens throughout the day, as opposed to a confined window. If you’re curious about this method of personal growth, take a page out of these expert’s rule book and learn if deep work is ideal for you.

So, what exactly is deep work?

While there might not be a clinical definition, leadership development and career expert Elizabeth Whittaker-Walkersays deep work is often classified as a set of focused and concentrated tasks and projects that call upon our highest cognitive functions. You can think of this as undisturbed and center work that’s sheltered from any distractions. “It’s work that requires intellectual rigor, commitment, and calls upon the best of our abilities,” she explains, adding that while the phrase is relatively new, the practice has been around as long as work has.

Los Angeles-based psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, PhD, says the concept was originally coined by author Cal Newport, where he defines deep work as the engaging in a practice that cultivates a person’s ability to focus on and be present for a specific task. In terms of work, you’d be free of social media. When having an important discussion with your partner, you would turn off all phones and outside voices, to zero-in on one another. When processing trauma or emotions, you may sit quietly and give your full attention to journaling or meditating. It takes many forms, but the point is to, well, dig deep.

deep work

What are the benefits of deep work?

As you might imagine, anytime you give your undivided know-all to one task, person or project, you will see an improvement in your performance and communication skills. From a biological standpoint, Whittaker-Walker says regularly channeling this energy can strengthen and massage your cognitive muscles. “With practice, you build your ability to do it better each time,” she explains. “Some people find that it builds their capacity to produce work of great depth in fixed time settings. In certain instances, it may even make it easier to think on-demand.”

Dr. Thomas also says that it goes against what most people expect out of themselves: 24/7 action. Though professionals are trained to be in multi-tasking mode all the time, when you really want to get to the heart of an issue or give your best effort to a deadline, distractions only make it more strenuous. With deep work, you may experience more satisfaction in all areas of your life. “It can be more calming and peaceful for a person to do deep work because they are able to concentrate their focus on one thing at a time without feeling interrupted, overwhelmed, or torn in different directions,” she adds.

How can you try deep work?

Considering the method is contrary to how most modern wizards function these days, it’s a learning curve to teach yourself deep work. Whittaker-Walker suggests blocking off windows in your calendar — and protecting them! This means alerting your colleagues and friends to when you want these sessions to happen and not compromising on their importance. If you can, make sure these happen every week, even if it’s just one time. “Perhaps it’s a portion of a day, or even a whole day devoted to it. You know your schedule and capacity better than anyone else. Be intentional about creating opportunities for you to delve into the practice and you’ll increase your likelihood of doing it,” she recommends.

You also want to adopt a balanced approach to ensure you don’t burnout from the concentrated method. After all, you can't be dutifully working every second of every day, or your mind would be overloaded. Whittaker-Walker says you want to do a healthy mix of deep work and what some career experts call “shallow work,” which is less mindful. “To optimize your productivity, give your brain a rest or an opportunity to reset by doing some of the tasks that don’t require as much concentration or deep thinking,” she explains. “If you know you do your best thinking in the morning, try scheduling your deep work in the morning and your shallow work in the afternoon. If you know you need a warm up before digging into meaty projects, try scheduling a little shallow work early in the day, and follow it with your deep work.” 

Most important, resist the urge to check your email or scroll through social media. Most of the time, people do this when they’re tired and not engaged, according to Dr. Thomas. “It is important to learn to withstand feelings of boredom so a person doesn't get addicted to his or her phone or internet,” she continues. “As a consequence, you may lose sight of what may be literally and figuratively right in front of them: work!”

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