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Deep Work

02-19-16 Patrick Simpson

Distracted work is costly. Patrick shares ways to help you shut out the noise and work with discipline.

We live in a world full of distraction. Day-in and day-out, I am constantly bombarded with Tweets, emails, Slack messages, Facebook status updates, text messages, and a myriad of other visual/audible noise. When I’m distracted, I end up making poor decisions in my work, and tasks take much more time than they would otherwise. Distracted work is costly. I’m sure you wouldn’t want your next surgery done by a distracted surgeon. While your code might not physically hurt someone (usually), it can still cost a project if you’re working while distracted. Lately, I’ve been on a distraction cleanse ever since I picked up Cal Newport’s “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.” Using Cal’s suggestions and others I’ve found, I’ve focused on three modes—shallow work, deep work, and recharge—and I’m seeing big benefits not only at work but with my family too. Here’s how.

Shallow Work

Shallow work is generally work that does not require a lot of cognitive thought and can be done easily amidst distraction. It is tasks like returning Slack or email messages, making phone calls, ordering lunch, etc. You have to do it, so don’t ignore it too long. Shallow work, by nature, is easy to do and does not require a lot of skill to complete. To work effectively, I focus on shallow work in short blocks during the day.

Deep Work

Deep work is the cognitive, taxing work that requires your expert skill to complete. This is the real work clients hire you to do. To work deeply, I have to shut down all distractions as much as possible. I aim to be completely focused on a task, working on one thing at a time. I devote my entire attention to the task until it is completed. To work deeply, you can easily turn off Slack (instant messengers), email, and social media, but you may need to go beyond that—turning off the internet entirely and scheduling out deep work sections on your calendar.

“Working this way is a commitment to yourself, your clients, and your loved ones.”

Working deeply isn’t without its difficulties, and it impacts more than just your personal work. You should inform your co-workers when you’re working deeply and that you’d simply prefer to not be distracted unless for true emergencies. You can use a sign or a signal to indicate when you’re focusing. If you work in an open office space, like me, invest in a good pair of headphones, and listen to relaxing music or white noise (for me beach sounds, rain, thunder, or 10 hours of Star Trek engine noise). Everyone is different, and your degree of distractedness will dictate what action you’ll need to take.

During deep work sessions, I do take breaks but keep them short and infrequent. This helps keep my mind fresh and focused when getting back to work. You can take a mental break by opening up your social media or reading a little hacker news or playing ping pong or taking a walk—whatever you want to do that is not work-related and will give your mind a chance to relax. The point is to take a brief break, so avoid anything that will send you down a rabbit hole of distraction, and instead stick to something refreshing that will allow you to jump back to deep work a few minutes later. And do your best to fight giving in to “boredom” by reserving these breaks specifically to keep your brain from being overtaxed, instead of just trying to avoid work.


While I do take a few minutes to reset my brain during deep work, I also need to step away from work completely to recharge. We value our family and off time at Sparkbox, and working after hours is often discouraged. For me, this is very important. When I’m not working, I don’t work. I don’t even open up Slack, email, etc. The moment I do, I’m no longer recharging, I’m distracted. My wife needs me to be home when I’m home—spend time with the kids, read books, watch movies, work on personal projects. I have to extend the same respect to my life outside work as I do my work. And what I’ve found when I apply this rule to home life, I’m much more focused on work at work.

Practice being offline next time you’re in line at the supermarket and have the itch to check email, Slack, Instagram, or Twitter. Don’t do it. You need a break from filling your head with so many things. They’ll distract you from the moment. You need to let your mind gear down. Instead, try to schedule shallow entertainment for certain times of the day, or once a week (or never).

Pro Tip: To optimize the time you do spend on social media, unfollow loud, irrelevant noise producers and try to focus solely on friendships. For example, I don’t need “Breaking News” in my Twitter feed. Instead, I can read a news-specific website when I’m seeking that kind of entertainment.

Start Working with Discipline

Each person and work environment is unique. You’ll need to develop your own individualized routine, like I did.

Working this way is a commitment to yourself, your clients, and your loved ones. It’s intense, but it’s worth the work.

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