Deep Work: How to Improve Focus & Concentration

Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

In today’s knowledge economy, it is imperative for all to perform cognitive tasks with a deep focus and concentration. Students especially when they are studying for exams they must study with complete focus. In today’s distracted world, deep work is an important skill that is invaluable for everyone. In this article, I’m going to give you a summary of how you can perform deep work and benefit from it.

Deep work as described by Cal Newport in his book “Deep Work” is a professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

One to two hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, can produce a lot of valuable output. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill of going deep, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

If you are more of a visual learner, this video will help you learn all about deep work and how to deploy it in your daily life:

Deep Work Video

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.

It’s because every day we are bombarded with emails from co-workers that expect us to answer them immediately. Bosses want us to work in open offices, with massive distraction all around us.

So Cal argues that this type of work doesn’t allow us to go deep. He calls this type of work, shallow work. It’s noncognitive demanding, often performed
while distracted, doesn’t create much new value in the world and is easy to replicate.

There are two core abilities for thriving in today’s economy:

The ability to quickly master hard things

The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

But to learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.

If you’re trying to learn a complex new skill, like programming, in a state of low concentration, for example, while having your Facebook feed open. You’re firing too many circuits simultaneously and your brain can’t focus properly. This is called attention residue.

Let’s say you’re working on a deep work project, for example writing an article. And you happen to glance at your email box and you see a few emails that need answering.

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Now even if you return back to your deep work, you’re going to be producing at a much lower rate of cognitive capacity, because there has been a residue on your attention from that quick distraction.

When you switch from Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow. Even if you finish Task A before moving on,
your attention still remains divided for a while. So to produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task, free from distraction. No emails, no Facebook, no co-workers asking you what they should eat for lunch. There is a way to incorporate deep work and escape the constant distraction.

Strategies to Perform Deep Work

Here are a few strategies you can use:

Transform in the Habit of doing Deep Work

The easiest way to start deep work sessions is to transform them into a regular habit. Adding routines and rituals to your working life is designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into a state of unbroken concentration.

If you suddenly decide in the middle of a distracted afternoon spend web browsing, to switch your attention to a cognitively demanding task, you’ll draw heavily from your finite willpower to direct your attention. Such attempts will therefore frequently fail.

On the other hand, if you deployed smart routines and rituals — perhaps a set time and quiet location used for your deep tasks each afternoon
– you’d require much less willpower to start and keep going.

In other words, to generate a rhythm for this work removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep.

For a novice, somewhere around 1 hour a day of intense concentration seems to be the limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours.

Deep work is best practised early in the morning. Typically at that time, you will have no distractions.

Allow yourself to be lazy.

Regularly resting your brain improves the quality of deep work.

So when you work, work hard. But when you’re done, be done.

Another key commitment to succeed is to create a shutdown ritual. Only the confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day.

Put another way, trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done if you had instead respected a shutdown.

Schedule in advance

When you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside of these times. Write it down on a notepad and record the next time you’re allowed to go online. Until you arrive at that time, absolutely
no network connectivity is allowed — no matter how tempting.

The point is that we increasingly recognize that these tools fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate. This is especially dangerous after the workday is over, where the freedom in your schedule enables the internet to become central to your leisure time. Such behaviour is dangerous, as it weakens your mind’s general ability to resist distraction, making deep work difficult later when you really want to concentrate.

In other words, when it comes to relaxation, don’t default to whatever catches your attention at the moment, but instead dedicate some advance thinking to how you want to spend your free time.

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Muhammad Sarwar

Muhammad Sarwar is an Electrical Engineer by profession and a blogger by passion. He loves to teach and share knowledge. He's a Fulbright scholarship awardee. He reads books, play games, blogs and program in his spare time.

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