Deep Work, Part 2 — Take Your Productivity to the Next Level

By Jon Rumens on 22 May 2019

Deep work — an essential skill to get ahead in life

Last time, we discussed Deep Work, what it is, why it is important and how you can measure it. Simply put, this was the thesis:

Deep Work is work that is extremely valuable to employers. It takes deliberate effort, and it is not very easy. Although shallow work still requires a basic knowledge and intellectual capacity, Deep Work takes it a few steps further: it requires intense focus and concentration. In this distracted world of YouTube, apps and social media, the ability to perform Deep Work is not commonplace.

That means the ones who are able to perform Deep Work are very valuable commodities in the labour market, will have a larger impact in their workplace, and tend to have much better career options.

Here are some examples of tasks that don’t, and tasks that do require Deep Work.

Tasks that don’t require Deep Work:

  • Checking your e-mail
  • Entering numbers into an Excel file
  • Scanning documents

These are tasks that only require a basic level of IT skills, and don’t require a significant intellectual effort.

Tasks that do require Deep Work:

  • Writing a PhD. dissertation
  • Writing a novel
  • Creating a business plan

All the above require at least an above-average level of intellectual effort, and more importantly, intense focus. Because they are so difficult, the temptation to seek distractions and procrastinate is very high. They are not easy to replicate, and not everyone can perform these tasks.

That being said, that which constitutes Deep Work can vary from person to person.

For a five-year old who’s just begun to learn the alphabet, reading a newspaper is extremely hard and requires intense focus. For an adult, reading the paper is a pretty shallow task.

So Deep Work can be relative too.

Did you do your homework?

Last time, I also asked you to do some ‘homework’. More specifically, I asked you to keep track of the amount of Deep Work you performed during your workday.

I asked you to measure:

  • How much time you spent doing Deep Work during the day
  • What was the longest uninterrupted streak of Deep Work you were able to do
  • And how many times you got distracted and performed shallow tasks

If you were able to do this, you should’ve noticed two things.

  1. You became aware of how little time you actually spent doing meaningful work and how much time you were wasting doing shallow tasks — stuff like checking e-mail every half hour (if not more)
  2. You actively started to do more Deep Work and less shallow tasks. Once you are aware of the fact that you’re wasting your time, you’re more likely to say: I shouldn’t be doing this. This is a technique that is often used with dieters too: they have to write down what they eat during the day, so they don’t fool themselves and underestimate how much crap and excess calories they are taking in.

How much time have you wasted on meaningless tasks? Be honest.

As you might have noticed, tracking your time can be extremely valuable.

But there are other principles you can apply to increase your Deep Work and get more real work done.

Things you should do to make your time more valuable

Strategy #1 — Cultivate Deep Work Habits

As we’ve discussed in our articles about building good habits and getting rid of bad habits, you can only create true change in your life if you create routines.

If you want to be able to do something consistently, you have to build the brain circuits that allow you to perform tasks without the need for willpower and without active intervention. You should basically program yourself like a computer.

You do this by using a cue, a behavior and a reward. (check out the links above for the details).

So, for example, if you have to study for an exam (arguably deep work), you make it a habit to get up, eat your breakfast, and immediately start studying after that.

It used to be that during exam periods, I woke up, ate breakfast…and proceeded to watch YouTube for ‘a few minutes’. And you know how it goes. A few minutes becomes a few hours. In the meantime, no deep work has been done.

But making studying the first thing you do into a consistent habit makes it so much easier to do it effortless.

In this case, the cue is ‘breakfast eaten’. The behavior is ‘studying’. The reward can be anything, but preferably make it something that can’t lead to time wasted. A excellent reward would be a workout. It’s good for you AND gives you a rewarding dopamine rush.

If that’s not your thing, rewarding yourself with a few cookies will do just fine as well. Pick your poison.

On a side note, I wouldn’t reward myself with a few episodes of Game of Thrones. While I can’t workout all day, it is possible to ‘watch another episode…and another…and another…and ‘just one more’…you get the picture.

Strategy #2 — Act as if you’re a business

If you want to be productive, you have to take an example of organizations that make productivity their main focus: businesses. In business, getting stuff done is the most important thing. Businesses that aren’t productive are weeded out of the marketplace. Employees that aren’t productive get fired.

To improve their productivity and make more money, businesses implement strategies and well-thought-out plans. One such set of strategies is called 4DX — The Four Disciplines of Execution — basically a set of rules that businesses should follow to succeed.

  • The first Discipline of Execution is that you have to focus on the wildly important. People often like to spread their attention over a multitude of tasks, and pretend that this is the way to get a lot done. But the reality is that the more you try to do, the less you’ll actually accomplish. Not all goals are equally important. Choose a few ambitious goals and use deep work to accomplish them.
  • The second Discipline of Execution is to act on the lead measures. This is a concept that requires some explanation. As the famous management guru Peter Drucker says: ‘what gets measured gets managed’. Words well-spoken, but it’s important that you measure the right things, the things you can immediately act on. The amount of customers you have is what determines success, but you have no direct control over this. This is what is called a ‘lag measure’. What you do have control over, is the measures you take to increase your customers, for example increasing your marketing budget, or simply making a higher quality product. These are lead measures, and if you improve them, your lag measure (the amount of customers) will most likely improve too. In this case, the time spent in Deep Work should be your lead measure. All the rest will follow.

Managing your life as if it were a business can be a great way to become better at what you do – just don’t start asking consultancy fees when your girlfriend asks you what to wear.

  • The third Discipline of Execution: keep a compelling scoreboard. We actually already went over this one when I gave you the homework in part 1. If you keep track of the amount of Deep Work you perform, you’ll be more likely to want to increase your performance. Having reliable stats on your time spent in Deep Work will prevent you from fooling yourself. It will also provide a desire to improve. It’s like working out — you want to increase the amount of weight you can lift and decrease the amount of time you need to run 5K. If you don’t keep score, it’s hard to see if you’re improving, and you won’t get any better.
  • The fourth Discipline of Execution is to create a cadence of accountability. Businesses have meetings and keep track of everyone’s performance. This creates peer pressure and feedback about how you’re doing. If you don’t perform, others will hold you accountable. If you’re working by yourself (like when you’re studying), there is no peer pressure, but you can still create accountability by doing weekly reviews of your own performance. The most important part is that you do this regularly (hence, the term ‘cadence of accountability’).

Let’s take a small break.

For now, we’ve gone over a lot of useful strategies to implement. These strategies will greatly improve your ability to get a lot of deep work done. If you implement these, you will increase your performance and become more valuable (and better paid!).

However, trying to do too much at once is a recipe for disaster (remember the first discipline of execution).

So, what I suggest right now is that you take some time to implement the above suggestions and turn them into habits. In a few weeks, we’ll be back with more strategies to implement, which will help you skyrocket your focus and productivity.

See you next time,