By Eric Goebelbecker September 10, 2018

How Deep Work Will Supercharge Your Career

There’s never enough time. We need 40 hours a week for the day job and another 40 for family and side projects, and that won’t even cover taking care of ourselves.

One way to recover time is to track how you use it and make sure you’re focusing on what’s important.

Another is to use the time you have as efficiently as possible. For a developer, that means mastering deep work, a technique that any knowledge worker will find useful.

What Is Deep Work?

In his book by the same name, Cal Newport defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”

Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown. In the 10 years after he finished his undergraduate studies, he published four books, finished his doctoral research at MIT, landed his tenured position at Georgetown, and published a large number of papers.

This is a remarkable amount of work in a relatively short period. Newport credits it to his ability to focus on difficult tasks—deep work.

I’ve seen significant increases in my productivity after applying what I learned from Newport’s book to my career. I have a day job that comes with a lot of distractions, but I’ve been able to get a remarkable amount of additional work done by taking advantage of the time I have. I learned to focus faster and accomplish more in a shorter period.

This ability has also helped with my side projects. I can complete writing jobs that would take days in the past in one sitting.

The concept of focusing on work and eliminating distractions is not new, but Newport posits that deep work is a skill that can be improved with practice or lost with neglect, rather than an inborn quality.

Designing software and developing software are cognitively demanding tasks. A superior ability to focus is a skill that can set you apart from others. And developing this skill will improve your work and help you accomplish more in less time.

It also results in more job satisfaction. We’ve all experienced that great feeling after writing an excellent piece of code or solving a difficult problem. Imagine finishing the day with that feeling more often.

How Deep Work Can Help You

Most of us are surrounded with shallow work: streams of emails, phone calls, and meetings. Many offices reward busy-ness and the appearance of productivity as much as actual production.

Developers find themselves struggling to find time to code. But when they finally can, job satisfaction increases, and they have an opportunity to show their employers what they are capable of.

We’re in the shallows outside of the office too. Tweets, statuses, selfies, memes, and short videos are all designed to be consumed like popcorn, and they’re just as useful as popcorn to a career or satisfaction. There’s a battle for our attention, and the most important rule is that each salvo must be short, shallow, and meaningless.

Our brains like to play tricks on us and make us focus on less important but somehow more “urgent” tasks. The day-to-day routine of the office, and the nature of the internet, conspire to cloud the difference between urgent and important. Being mindful of the difference is critical.

The things we genuinely find memorable are the result of deep work: novels, movies, music albums, and investigative reporting—the stuff that sticks comes from focus and creativity.

Newport calls deep work valuable, rare, and meaningful. Work that takes time, effort, and maybe even a little pain is often the most personal.

Work Faster

But deep work needn’t be an endless slog. Improving your ability to focus means you get more done in less time.

If you’ve worked on a development team, you’re familiar with how damaging interruptions are. Each context switch costs you not just the duration of the interruption but also the time it takes to get back to work. Depending on what you were doing, that can be substantial. Four hours of continuous focus is worth more than four hours of concentration with hourly interruptions mixed in.

Work Better

Programming requires focus and concentration. While parts of the job become easier over time, doing a complete job requires our attention.

Newport proposes a formula for how time and attention work together:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

If you give a task 80 percent of your focus for one hour, you’ll accomplish twice as much as with 40 percent. I’d even say that giving a task twice as much focus results in more than double the output.

You’ve heard it before: Attention is a resource. It’s something you usually hear about advertising and the “attention economy,” but it’s true for your job too. Your attention is a resource, and you must manage it to produce better work.

Developers are infamous for outbreaks of activity followed by infestations of sloth. Lather, rinse, repeat.

We’re streaky.

Deep work can overcome this. Developing the ability to focus on work and then treating that focus as a resource creates steady and sustained output.

Work Happier

You’ve probably heard of the mental state called “flow,” or of being “in the zone.” It’s the state we’re in when we’re so immersed in an activity that we lose our sense of place and time and is usually associated with outstanding performance.

It’s a state often described by athletes, but it can happen to anyone focused on any task, including coding.

One of the prerequisites for entering a flow state is intense and focused concentration. You can’t enter a flow state with your email and Twitter up on one screen and your IDE on the other.

The flow state is also associated with positive experiences and general happiness. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the psychologist that named the phenomenon, even associated the feeling with reduced delinquent behavior in children.

There are few feelings like the one you have after you finish a challenging project. Satisfaction, relief, and pride, all at the same time. It’s why we do what we do.

What would you do to get that feeling more often?

Deep work results in more productivity, more time for work that is satisfying, and increased happiness on the job and overall.

How to Implement Deep Work

Deep work means scheduling the time to focus and training yourself to concentrate on a single task.

Newport lays out four rules in his book. Let’s review them and see how we can apply them to our jobs.

Pick a Scheduling Algorithm

A time and place to block out distractions and focus on important work are critical. How can we do this?

Newport describes two approaches: monastic and rhythmic.

Monastic means going to a quiet, disconnected, isolated place and working there for long stretches of time.

Donald Knuth, a name you should know if you are a developer, adopted this style more or less permanently.

Newport quotes him:

“I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.”

Authors Neal Stephenson and Jonathan Franzen are two more examples of successful creative workers who work in isolation for long stretches of time.

Unfortunately, developers, especially those of us with day jobs, have important meetings in noisy open offices to attend. For us, Newport recommends the rhythmic approach.

Rather than trying to spend long periods of time in isolation, schedule intervals for important work that requires focus and concentration. For some, it might be a few hours a day, for others, specific days. A good example is those of us who can work from home one or more days a week; those days are excellent opportunities for quiet, uninterrupted work sessions.

The Pomodoro Technique is an example of rhythmic work at the “micro” level. With this technique, we schedule sessions of productivity and brief breaks. The rhythmic method is a similar idea—scheduling periods of deep work in between sessions of shallow work.

The most important aspect of a rhythmic approach is regular scheduling. Pick a time and stick to it. I’ll cover this more below.

Embrace Boredom

Have you ever struggled with a problem for an hour or so and then had the answer pop into your head only after you left your desk?

Or maybe you struggled with something for an entire day, only to have the answer appear out of nowhere the next morning while you’re in the shower.

Intense focus requires periodic breaks. Newport says the mistake we make is “taking breaks from distraction instead of breaks from focus.” For example, he talks about the popular practice of taking an “Internet Sabbath,” where we spend an entire day away from our computers and phones. While these breaks can be healthy, they don’t solve the problems caused by switching between distraction and focus during a normal day.

Newport’s second rule is “embrace boredom.” He wants us to turn off our screens, take out our earbuds, and deliberately let our minds wander. We need to do this in between working, not just once a week.

One reason for this is the examples I started this section with; we’ve all walked away from a problem and had the solution appear out of nowhere sometime later.

But we don’t just need a break from work; we need a break from distraction too.

Spend some time in meatspace. Take a walk. Take a shower. Knit a sweater.

If you spend your time distracted by social media or binge-watching video, then you will train yourself to crave those things. Nicholas Carr, an acclaimed science and technology journalist, describes how social media and the web are changing our brains in The Shallows. In the book, he cites research in neuroscience and compares and contrasts it with the work of famous philosophers such as Marshall McLuhan and Plato. The book was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction.

Carr says, “[the internet] turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”

If you spend your time working deeply and taking breaks, you’ll train yourself to crave deep work (and maybe knitting sweaters, but think of the money you’ll save during the holidays.) In The Shallows, Carr says, “We usually make better decisions … if we shift our attention away from a difficult mental challenge for a time.”

I commute for an hour or so three days a week. I used to use the time for Facebook, Twitter, and reading. Now, I deliberately leave my phone in my pocket and just let my mind drift once or twice a week (although I still use Twitter to complain about bus delays). This deliberate embrace of boredom often yields a flood of ideas about projects I am working on. Rather than grabbing my phone, I write them down so I don’t end up diverting myself back to social media or the web.

Quit Social Media

Criticizing Facebook seems gratuitous at this point. The site is taking flak from all sides for both its problems and its attempts to address those problems.

And there’s no denying the loss of productivity Facebook causes. Five minutes on Facebook is five minutes you’re not working on more important things. Moreover, five minutes on Facebook is never just five minutes. It’s 60 minutes. Or Tuesday.

Newport contends that the impact of social media (and television) goes beyond the time spent on them. He cites Carr’s work in The Shallows, as well the work done by Tristan Harris, a former Google employee who has spoken about the addictive nature of technology.

As I said earlier, spending time on shallow activities changes your brain. They are addictive by design. When you dedicate time to them, you crave more.

But we shouldn’t sell short the cost of the time spent. If you’re online posting pictures of your feet on the beach, your latest restaurant meal, or the cutest kids in the world, you’re not creating important work. Anyone can do those things.

Just like anyone can start building an app or a website. But finishing it? That’s another story. (I’ll get around to it soon. Have you seen my dog? Isn’t she adorable?)

There are many solutions available for reducing time spent on social media. There are blocking applications like Freedom and RescueTime. There’s hacking your hosts file and leaving your phone in another room.

There’s also deleting your accounts. Soon after reading Deep Work for the second time, a news story broke about Facebook attempting to collate medical records with its users, and I decided I had enough. You might not be as cranky as me, but it worked. I’ve finished a lot of projects that I would have never completed if I still had Facebook around.

Drain the Shallows

The fourth rule, and the most important, is to drain the shallows. Get the shallow distractions out of your life, and get to work on the important stuff.

The first and most fundamental step is to schedule your time carefully. If you are familiar with Getting Things Done then you know that a critical productivity concept is that you should always know what you should be working on at any moment.

My solution, which I picked up from Newport’s website, is to “block” my time. Every morning, I look over my Bullet Journal and give each task the amount of time it needs.

So, for example:

deep work

This adds a set of self-imposed deadlines to my day. If I end up distracted, I have to look at my schedule and think “I should be working on this design.”

I get derailed some days. Several people can rearrange my priorities for me at the drop of a hat. That’s life. But most days I know exactly what I should be doing, and I have no excuse.

Shallow work is not entirely unavoidable. My schedule above has time blocked out for email, Jira, and the daily standup meeting. I can’t make them go away, but I can quantify the amount of time they need compared to more important, more profound work.

Last, try to become harder to reach. If you’re easy to contact, you’re easy to interrupt.

This may seem like career-limiting rather than career-expanding advice, but it isn’t. We’re not Knuth and Stephenson, but the opposite doesn’t mean being available to answer every email within five minutes. Remember, email is not instant messenger, but if you make a habit of immediately answering every message, people will expect it.

Email and chat are, by definition, shallow work. If it’s critical, your co-workers will get out of their chairs and come find you.

Advance Your Career With Focus

If you want to advance your career as a programmer, learning new technologies isn’t enough. You need to improve your ability to execute too.

Deep work can maximize your time and help you to produce work that sets you apart from your peers. You can train yourself to get to work more quickly and create something exceptional.

What are you waiting for?

About the author

    Eric Goebelbecker

    Eric has been developing software for the financial markets since 1990, after an 8-year career in the military. You can find his blog here and his tweets over here.