Deep work sounds pretty simple in principle—just get some quiet time and focus on a piece of work for a while. But it actually takes quite a lot of discipline and thought to continually repeat. There's a whole supportive framework behind deep work to ensure you actually get quality work out of it, whatever your role and responsibilities, whatever you're working on. This article breaks down the basics, so you can start your own very first deep work experiment.
Doing deep work is hard and takes some effort to get going, but it’s not meant to be a bore—it’s the intense kind of concentration you only get when you’re super into something. Think of your first encounter as a test of your attention, self-control and exploratory abilities. You’ll probably learn something unexpected about yourself along the way.
If you’re trying it out in an office, find an undisturbed space: book a meeting room, block out time in your calendar, turn off your phone, put your headphones on, trigger your out-of-office message and let people know you’re not to be disturbed. Do everything to make sure you have your own undivided attention.
But be realistic—whilst Cal Newport suggests deep work means roughly 90-minute stretches of uninterrupted time, you may not get there immediately. Don’t put yourself off it forever by diving too deep, too fast.
Choose one of the “depth philosophies” which best suits your lifestyle and the way you work:
Unless you’re an academic professor or writing a book, the rhythmic philosophy is probably the most realistic option, especially for getting started.
Actively protect that time and schedule it into your working day. Newport likes to do this 4 weeks in advance, but to begin with you’ll probably just want to do it the week before starting.
Decide what you want to prioritize and block off time working deeply to achieve that. It’s a good idea to think about what time of day you are most productive and focused, and save that for your deep thinking. Don’t agree to any appointments or meetings during this protected period.
Deep working isn’t just for nobel-prize winners of people producing "profound" work. It’s accessible to anyone, no matter what small task you want to achieve. Understand what success means for you and set a challenging deadline to get there.
Ask what you want to achieve by the end of your deep work session and commit to it. Our brains love having a set goal they can focus all their resources on. The more challenging, the more rewarding – and you might identify where your workflow could be improved.
You can’t rely on the force of your willpower alone – it’s fleeting and mood-driven. So create structured habits and rituals to sustain your deep thinking. Decide where you’ll work and for how long, gather everything you’ll need to do that work, remove distractions and catch yourself if you find your attention drifting.
Try deep working for similar blocks of time twice or three times a week. You might want to start with 1-2 hour segments a day, and then gradually work your way up to longer, more frequent stretches.
All communication outside your deep working space can wait until you’re done. You need to be ruthless to make sure all your attention is focused on your set task. Mute your office communication tools, log out of email, delete your social apps and turn off your phone, if you can face it. Alternatively, get AI to auto-enable “Do Not Disturb” mode across your devices whenever you enter deep work.
Train yourself to acknowledge and resist your distractive tendencies. Setting up rules on where social media fits into your life is a big one here. You might want to try going without it for a week to see if you actually miss out on anything, or if you absence was even noticed.
The motivation to do deep work only works if you have clearly defined parameters. You need to agree with yourself when to stop and honour that promise. Newport actually uses a spoken shutdown ritual to do this, and chants a “closure phrase” to end each session. (You don’t need to do this).
Always ensure you end deep work in a comfortable place, so there’s no friction or confusion when you pick up work in your next stretch.
Did you achieve what you promised yourself you would? Take an unforgiving stance on this – deep work can unlock new levels of productivity, so if you’re not getting enough out of it reassess your approach. Without reviewing your performance, you can’t improve.
Track how you spent your time and keep a score of how many deep work hours you’ve spent to create a sense of progress and productive pressure. Some people like to set milestones for each week (e.g. "read X number of pages" or "write X number of words") to keep them working to a set rate.
Long stretches of intense concentration should be balanced with quality rest. So once you’ve completed a session of deep work, take a deep break. These are designed to give you a cognitive breather without introducing new distractions or stresses, so you can also use deep breaks to create healthy pauses throughout a longer deep work sessions.
There are loads of different ways you can take a deep break, from going for a short walk and doing something practical, to reading an article. The only rules are that the activity you choose should be self-contained, unrelated to your deep work task, and ideally take no longer than 15 minutes to complete.
Whatever you’re doing, be fully in the moment. Having presence and giving your full attention is essential to focusing for long periods of time. It also just makes you a cooler human to be around!
🎉 And you’re ready to start your first deep work experiment! Enjoy your brain.