How to use Cal Newport’s Deep Work technique to tackle demanding projects
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How to use Cal Newport’s Deep Work technique to tackle demanding projects

Post Author - Kimberlee Meier Kimberlee Meier Last Updated:

The superpower of the 21st century isn’t ChatGPT. Or Tesla’s self-driving car. 

According to author Cal Newport, it’s the ability to stay focused in a distracted world. 

Think about what our work days look like right now. Most of us have overflowing inboxes and endless meetings. And if we are in an office environment, there’s an added distraction of coworkers. It’s a struggle to find time to truly focus and get stuff done. 

This is where Deep Work—a productivity philosophy championed by Newport where we channel focus into singular tasks—turns into a superpower. 

So, how can you block out the noise and use Deep Work to focus on the tasks on your to-do list? 🤔

By the end of this guide, you’ll know exactly what Deep Work is, the rules to implement it and some expert tips on how to use it. 

We created a cheat sheet to help productivity-seekers like you get to grips with Deep Work 🤓

📋 Grab your free copy here

What is Deep Work?

Deep Work is a productivity philosophy that was developed by Cal Newport, an author and associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University. In Newport’s own words, Deep Work is: 

“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Newport’s philosophy has since become mainstream after he penned his best selling book, which talks about how to focus on cognitively demanding tasks without getting distracted. 

Before you start using, it’s important to understand the difference between Deep Work and shallow work 👇

Understanding the difference between Deep Work vs. Shallow Work

A lot of people might mistake Deep Work for just doing work. 

It’s not just about ticking things off your to-do list. Deep Work is a specific, purposeful type of productivity. Replying to a bunch of emails in your inbox doesn’t count as Deep Work, even if it is something you had to get done. Instead, it’s when you focus on something that needs 110% of your attention—like writing this blog post 👀

In Newport’s approach, the way we schedule and tackle our workloads depends on how much time we want to spend on Deep Work and what he calls “shallow” work:  

  • Shallow work is anything non-cognitively demanding. Think emails, meetings and other tasks like admin work
  • Deep work is when you knuckle down on a cognitively demanding task, like writing, researching, coding or analysis

In a time where distraction is everywhere—our phones, Slack notifications, our next Amazon delivery— Deep Work can be a superpower to get more stuff done. As Newport says in his book, people can use it to create long-lasting, productive work habits: 

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

This level of productivity sounds good on paper, but it’s also backed up by science. 

According to a study by the University of California, we only work on a task for an average of 12 minutes before we’re interrupted. What’s interesting is the same study found that after we are interrupted, it takes over 23 minutes to get back in the zone and fully focus on the task again. 

We also lose focus on what Newport calls “attention residue”, when we jump from one task to another: 

“When you switch from Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity before you switched, but even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.”

To overcome distractions, you first need to figure out how to enter a state of Deep Work that matches your workload.

Understanding the four types of Deep Work 

How you approach Deep Work has a couple of variables. 

First, you must consider your workload, productivity style and how much time you want to spend on Deep Work and shallow work. 

Newport’s framework has four different Deep Work buckets to choose from: 

🪣Monastic. An “all or nothing” approach to Deep Work

🪣Bimodal. A more realistic type of Deep Work

🪣Rhythmic. An achievable state of Deep Work

🪣Journalistic. The most advanced type of Deep Work

It’s important to remember each bucket, as they use different styles of slotting Deep Work and shallow work into a work schedule: 

Let’s unpack each bucket a little but 👇

🪣Monastic. Completely cutting out any distractions including phones, social media, messenger channels, meetings and internet time. This mode of Deep Work doesn’t have a time limit and should be used for very cognitively demanding tasks

🪣Bimodal. This strategy clearly divides your day between Deep Work and shallow work. You can either do your Deep Work in the morning or afternoon, but the main thing about Bimodal is once the time for Deep Work is over, you do not enter it again until the next day. This is perfect for people who can’t ignore emails or messages from coworkers, but have a bit of flexibility around reply times

🪣Rhythmic. This approach is the “beginner” approach to Deep Work. You schedule Deep Work blocks into your day and add shallow work breaks to do admin tasks like emails. Rhythmic helps create a Deep Work daily habit. Over time, this habit makes it easier to branch out into other buckets, like Bimodal or Monastic, when more cognitively demanding tasks land on your desk

🪣Journalistic. The most advanced style of Deep Work. The Journalistic method takes advantage of any block of free time in your calendar to schedule a Deep Work session. If your calendar is a little unpredictable or you regularly get hit with last-minute tasks, this approach is for you 

The beauty of Deep Work is you can pick and mix between these four buckets. One day you might be feeling Bimodal (Deep Work in the morning, with emails in the afternoon), and Monastic the next (bust out a project in the morning and then take the afternoon off). 

Just listen to how Newport ruthlessly cuts Deep Work from his own schedule: 

“I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.”

🤓Tl;dr: Test out different Deep Work buckets and see what works best depending on your task list.

The pros and cons of Deep Work

How to do Deep Work (even when your team needs you)

For most people, the idea of Deep Work makes total sense. But putting it into practice is harder. After all, how many jobs allow you to just go offline for hours at a time?  

Here are my top tips 👇

Tip 1. Figure out your Deep Work nemesis

We all have one thing that kills our focus. For me, task jumping is a problem. But the biggest Deep Work hater in my life is….

☝️yup, Slack.

I’m not going to hate on Slack. But I do want to give Slack some, erm… constructive criticism. As Alicia Liu points out, Slack’s best quality—making communication easy—is also its biggest drawback. 

“Because Slack is so easy to use, the barrier to initiate communication is greatly lowered. Just drop a thought into a channel, maybe add an emoji, and voila! You’re now free to bask in the dopamine hits of getting emoji reactions and instant replies,” Liu says. 

“Using Slack has the effect of feeling productive, when it may actually be extremely counter-productive. Trying to discern when using Slack is productive or not requires awareness and thought too.” 

For me, resisting the urge to fall into an unproductive black hole in Slack is easier by using a Deep Work method. When I have control over structure in my day—minimal meetings, not a lot of collaborative tasks in the pipeline—I’ll use a Rhythmic approach to Deep Work. 

The shallow work sections (the ones with dashes ☝️) are for checking Slack or replying to emails, and the Deep Work sessions are off-limits. 

My advice is to be brutally honest about what the biggest blocker(s) are in your day, whether it’s Slack or social media or just procrastinating. Then, decide which Deep Work bucket is best suited to minimize these blockers so they don’t ruin your focus streak.

Tip 2. Start small

When I first discovered Deep Work, I went a liiiiittle OTT 😬

The productive part of my brain thought it was the answer to all my procrastination problems. If I could just focus on singular tasks during the day, I would be able to get way more work done. Right?

In theory, yes. In practice, it’s more complex. 

Deep Work is just like any other productivity skill or method. It needs to be trained, like a muscle. If you go too hard too early, you will hit a wall. Newport suggests in the book to start with small Deep Work sessions (nothing over 90 minutes) and gradually build up your focus stamina from there.

Again, this is backed up by science. 

A study from the University of Illinois focused on a phenomenon called Troxler Fading. It’s when we pay continuous attention to a stationary object, but it can lead to that object’s complete “disappearance” from view if we do it for too long. Researchers found the test group’s ability to focus decreased if they worked on a task for too long. 

“From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task.”

🤓Tl;dr: Deep Work is good, but it becomes less productive without regular breaks. 

Tip 3. Time Block your tasks

What’s that corny saying that’s thrown around on productivity blogs—By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail?

Turns out, I (secretly) buy into it 🫣

Planning out your tasks on a calendar is a good starting point. But Deep Work requires focus on singular tasks, and for this, you need to take a step up and use time blocking in your calendar. It’s a technique where you split your day into small segments and block out time to work on one task at a time. 

At the time, Newport used a good ol’ sheet of paper for time blocking. He divided each page into two columns—the left column dedicated two lines to each hour of the day. It was then divided into blocks labeled with specific assignments. In the right column, Newport added explanatory notes about what these blocks were: 

Newport also adds a buffer zone to his tasks in case something unexpected pops up during the day. 

This approach works, but it’s pretty old school. Most of us work on a computer, so I recommend going digital and time blocking in a Google or Outlook calendar. 

Also, don’t be afraid to steal ideas from others on how to make time-blocking more effective. Years ago, I read about blogger and podcaster Tim Ferriss’ approach to time blocking emails. He checks emails twice a day and schedules his replies to be sent later. When people reply to him, he’s already out of his inbox so there’s no risk of getting stuck in a reply loop. Pretty genius. 

Here’s a quick look at how I time block my week:

It looks intense, but each block is in a place for a reason. 

🟩🟦 is for shallow work. Tasks like emails, Slack replies and meetings 

🟥🟨⬛ is for different kinds of Deep Work. Tasks like editing, writing and research

🟪 is for (much needed) breaks 

Color coding helps me quickly identify what tasks I have for the day and whether anything needs shuffling around based on importance. 

But color coding might not work for you. And that’s fine. 
Test out different time blocking approaches. Steal tips from others. And then create your own way to do it, because there is no wrong way.

Tip 4. Build a Deep Work Toolkit

Another thing Newport suggests in his book is to build a Deep Work toolkit to help stay focused. 

There is a lot of advice online on how to do this, but my advice is to get the basics down and create a Deep Work-friendly environment. Here’s what’s in my toolkit:

🤳No phones or notifications. Your phone is the ultimate distraction. Put your phone on silent. Put it in flight mode. Turn off any unnecessary notifications (yes, your Slack channel can wait an hour or two) to get you into Deep Work mode. Researchers who studied “brain drain” found your phone becomes a distraction when it’s next to you, even if you don’t receive any notifications or messages. So do what I do—put it in another room.  

❌Use site blocking apps. If you are anything like me, your self-control sucks. I use the Freedom app to block distracting sites so I fully focus on a time blocked task. If (like me), you need access to sites for research, just exclude them from your blocked list in Freedom. 

🎧 Listen to lyric-free tunes. I’m a sucker for a sing-a-long. But this behavior doesn’t vibe with Deep Work. A Journal of Cognition study found that when we listen to music with lyrics, it is overwhelmingly distracting (even when it doesn’t impact our performance). Only listen to playlists without lyrics to get in the zone and cut out external noise—here is one of my favourites!

Your toolkit doesn’t have to look the same. Add whatever you want with one caveat—it makes you more productive 🧰

Tip 5. Champion asynchronous work

Asynchronous communication is when you have open lines to talk and collaborate with your team without the immediate need to reply. 

Before I go any further, I want to add a caveat to this tip: I am lucky enough to work in a company that lives and breathes asynchronous communication. At Toggl, our team of 130+ people collaborates, plans and brainstorms everything inside Slack. But as I said in tip one, Slack also happens to be my productivity nemesis, so I also need a way to block it out. 

So, how does asynchronous work help us focus? 🤔

Toggl has a communication etiquette around how we should use Slack. It encourages us to turn on the Do Not Disturb feature or leave channels if they make too much noise. There are also clear guidelines around communication expectations and reply times:

These clear expectations eliminate guilt around any messages waiting in Slack. Team members know they’ll get a reply when the other person has time. 

If you work remotely and don’t have an asynchronous policy in place, there are still ways to take control of your time. Joachim Eeckhout talked about how to get your team to buy into using asynchronous communication using “rules” like delayed responses and uninterrupted time blocks. 

“We’ve all met these people who can’t stay focused for five minutes on a task without checking their emails. Companies often encourage this behavior by rewarding employees who are always “reactive” or “fast to answer.” However, this is a very shallow view of employee performance that leads to highly stressed teams,” he explains. 

“If you want your team to be happy at work and in life, the best gift you can do to them is offering a stressless communication practice, so they can use most of their working time to focus on tasks that matter. Go asynchronous, reclaim your time, and find deep focus.”

If all else fails, send your boss this blog post and explain how we do asynchronous work over here at Toggl 😉

We created a cheat sheet to help productivity-seekers like you get to grips with Deep Work 🤓

📋 Grab your free copy here

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