As the saying goes, you can’t improve what you don’t measure. Measuring deep work lets you check you’re actually making progress, and helps you identify what’s holding you back so you can make effective changes. It serves a motivational function too, providing the intrinsic reward and energy to help you do more of it. For those pushing to work from home, measuring deep work also provides tangible evidence of how productive you can be in the right work setting.
So how do you actually do it? This article outlines three inter-sectional approaches for measuring deep work, as well as the tools which make tracking them effortless. It takes direction from Cal Newport’s own deep work equation: High Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus).
Lag measures describe your output: they represent the thing you’re ultimately trying to achieve. They are tangible results – like “Write a book by August” or “Speak conversational Spanish by the end of the year” – and you can only tell if you achieved them once those dates have passed, and it is too late to change your behavior.
Lead measures, in contrast, are the short-term behaviors you can control which will enable you to reach those longer-term goals. They are actions taken ahead of a goal’s deadline to increase its chance of being met. As such, by increasing your lead measure, your lag measure will likely improve as well.
So instead of focusing purely on lag indicators, Newport argues that we should prioritize lead ones. For deep work, that lead indicator would be the time you spend in a state of deep focus dedicated towards an important goal. So setting a target amount of deep work for each week and measuring how much we actually end up doing is vital. Not only does it allow us to gauge the cognitive effort we are putting into achieving our long-term goal, it ensures we can offset any dips in deep work performance as our weekly plans change.
Thankfully, tracking deep work time can be done with no cost to your productive performance. Tools like Timely automatically capture everything you work on, creating a precise private timeline of your work day. Using this, you can see how long you spent on specific deep work tasks, as well as quantifying your total deep work time.
Qualifying your deep focus
Simply measuring the duration of a deep work session can, however, form a rather two-dimensional picture of your deep work. A performative commitment to deep work, after all, doesn’t necessarily mean you are actually working deeply – you need to be able to actually qualify the quality of your focus during any given session.
This sounds tricky, but it’s actually quite simple. Intense focus means working without distraction, so a quality deep work session will be free of interruptions, low-priority tasks and context switching. Note – “deep breaks” aren’t counted as interruptions, since they actually support you to do deep work for longer.
Keeping track of these interruptions yourself would be counterintuitive to deep work, so you’ll want to find a smart tool to do it for you. The “deep work assistant” Dewo can actually monitor all of these variables in the background as you work, analyzing the quality of your deep work once you end a session.
It’s also a good idea to reflect on your state of mind at the end of each session. Immersive focus is intense – your attention is so fixed on the task at hand that you can become completely unaware of time, your surrounding environment and unrelated thoughts. If you found your mind wandering, focusing on stresses or concerns outside of your work, you didn’t quite reach your flow.
Reviewing deep work milestones
For a more macro-perspective of your progress, it’s a good idea to set short-term milestones for deep work and regularly review your progress against them. It creates what Newton calls a “cadence of accountability” – ensuring your actions stay intentional and you know what progress looks like.
Your goals should be realistic but challenging – informed by the time you usually take to achieve a certain task. If you’re writing a book and past time data shows each chapter takes about three weeks, your milestone could be to “Complete the first chapter in two weeks”. Your deadline should be feasible, but only with focused concentration. Simple task organizer like Todoist can help you map out and tick-off these milestones.
Keeping pace with your milestones provides an easy mental gauge for measuring your progress, and sets a healthy expectation for future work. Make space to review your progress – whether weekly, bimonthly or monthly, to keep them firmly in sight. This also helps you flexibly adjust plans to stay on-track, in case anything unexpected crops up.