Deep Work: Training Your Focus to Reach Your Goals

At Refining Gentleman, we are firm believers in the idea of constant self-improvement (or refining, as we call it). While we advocate taking pride in the man you are, that also means taking pride in the potential you have. Of course, the best way to do that is to always strive toward that potential. As a result, a man who is serious about self-improvement will always have goals he is working towards. In order to achieve these goals, there are several techniques a man can implement to increase his odds of success. Today, we’d like to focus on one known as “Deep Work.” If used well, Deep Work can help a man achieve all of his goals: personal, professional and academic alike.

What is “Deep Work?”

Deep Work, coined by Georgetown professor Cal Newport, refers to a state of intense focus and attention on a given item. Activities performed in a state of Deep Work are those that create value, improve your skills and are “hard to replicate.” As a result, these are the activities that are most important in reaching your goals.

The problem, of course, is that our current environment isn’t one that encourages Deep Work. Instead, most of us spend the day doing things that aren’t all that important or useful. For instance, Newport refers to a study that found that the average American worker spends 30% of their workday responding to e-mails. This probably sounds a lot like your own workday. Beyond that, most of us keep checking our work e-mails long after the workday has ended. If you add text messages to the list, we spend even more time responding to things that have little importance. These activities describe what Newport calls “Shallow Work.”

While there’s no doubt that some e-mails and text are important, most of them don’t help our goals very much. Yet they take up nearly a third of our work time. While this may sound like terrible news, Newport argues that this reality also makes Deep Work very valuable. As a result, those who can employ Deep Work in their lives become very valuable as well. As Newport puts it “Deep Work is becoming rare at the same time it is becoming valuable.” Let’s take a look at why this is.

Why Deep Work is Important

In some ways, it’s obvious why Deep Work is important. If you’ve ever trained for a sport or spent hours working on a project, you’ve realized this yourself. At the same time, you probably realize that those are special cases. You aren’t always training for something or working on projects. This makes focus the exception to the rule, even though it’s when you produce your most valuable work.

More often than not, we divide our attention between multiple things. Four or five tabs are open on our internet browsers. We talk on the phone while we shop for groceries. We watch a TV show while looking up facts about the main actress on Wikipedia. While we believe we’re doing two things at once, we’re really just shifting our attention from one to the other. The result is that we’re switching between two things and not doing either of them very well. For the examples above, that’s not a big deal. After all, those aren’t very important things and don’t require our full attention. But if we’re working on a goal or a task at work, this can be devastating. Not only does dividing our attention result in low-quality work, that work often takes longer to complete.

Deep Work shuts out all other distractions. This leaves all of our attention focused on one important thing. When this happens, we can come up with our best ideas or learn new things quickly. Both of these help us achieve our personal goals and also make us highly valuable employees. Think about it: if you’re the CEO of a company and you have an employee who pitches profitable ideas or can learn skills faster than anyone else, wouldn’t you do all that you could to keep that employee around? You can be that employee.

Creating a Deep Work Habit

While Newport’s book is filled with information, we’d like to cover a few pieces of advice for creating a Deep Work habit for yourself.

Learn to Be Bored

The more often you train yourself to be bored, the more it will take to bore you.

Yes, seriously. Nowadays, boredom is considered a curse to be avoided at all costs, like the DMV. However, boredom is a beast of our own creation. It is the result of us taking advantage of the ways we have available to constantly entertain ourselves. How often do you check your phone at a red light? Do you record your favorite TV shows so that you can fast forward through the commercials? Do you count down the seconds until you can skip the ad on a YouTube video? We do these things simply because we can. But that ability means that it takes a lot less to bore us in the first place. This means that focusing on one thing is a lot more difficult for us than it should be.

So the first step is learning to be okay with being bored. This means getting in line at the grocery store and just waiting. It means leaving your phone untouched your entire drive home. This sounds like a punishment, but there is good news (hooray!). The more often you train yourself to be bored, the more it will take to bore you. Suddenly, waiting three minutes to buy your coffee won’t seem like an eternity. Working on just one thing at a time will be easier and you’ll find yourself paying much more attention to that thing. That’s actually an incredible reward. Not only will you produce better work, but you’ll even enjoy your entertainment options more. With your full attention, you’ll notice all the things you missed before in your favorite TV shows (though we apologize if the increased focus means you realize your show isn’t all that good).

Limit or Quit Social Media

Uh-oh. There’s a good chance that suggestion upsets you. “But Facebook is fun. Twitter is fun,” you may be thinking. And you’re right, they are. What they aren’t, though, is great for your productivity. How much time have you spent mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, looking at memes and photos of people you haven’t talked to in years? Yes, Facebook lets you see that Brittany from high school got a new dog and it’s ADORABLE. But it’s a time sink. Had you spent that time working on a business plan or practicing your basketball shot, you’d have more to show in the long term. Instead, your free throws suck and your three-pointers are a joke. But at least Brittany’s dog is cute.

cute puppy
Just LOOK at him!

Was that harsh? Yeah, but not enough for us to delete it. The point is this: social media is fun and it has benefits. But those benefits aren’t worth the time they cost. We turn to it when we’re bored as a way to alleviate that boredom. That’s doing the double harm of hijacking our time and limiting our patience. Pick something else. You don’t even have to be working during that time. Even watching a movie, reading a book, or taking a walk would be more beneficial than browsing profiles and reading tweets. It’s honestly more enjoyable too.

There is an exception. If you are a public figure or run a business, some social media presence can be useful. George Takei, for instance, has used Twitter to promote causes that are important to him and reach a much larger audience than he otherwise could have. Your business, too, may be able to benefit from advertising or the customer interaction that this allows. However, treat those moments as work tasks and limit them.

Let Yourself Be Lazy

Homer Simpson asleep on the couch with donuts

At first glance, that advice seems strange. After all, this whole post has been about focus and attention. Even the term itself has “work” in it. But “Deep Work” isn’t “constant work.” At its core, Deep Work argues that we have a limited amount of willpower and attention, and that these things can be used more productively than they are. But trying to push them past those limits will only result in exhaustion and a drop in quality.

Instead, use what you have to its full capacity in the most productive way. But when you’re out, you’re out. Don’t try to squeeze out five more minutes of practice or study if your brain is exhausted. Allow it to rest, just like you would any other muscle. Stop where you are. Write out a plan for your next steps and then walk away. You can return to it tomorrow after your brain has had time to rest.

Your Assignment

Your assignment today is to take the first step in adopting a Deep Work habit. This means increasing your attention span and your capacity for boredom. So, make it your mission today to avoid pulling out your phone the moment you’re bored. You can still use your phone, of course, but not simply as a means of distraction. Don’t touch your phone during your commute. Keep it in your pocket when you’re standing in line. And, seriously, don’t take it into the bathroom with you.

To learn more about Cal Newport, check out his site. You can also buy his book, Deep Work, at a local bookstore or on Amazon (affiliate link).