Deep Work

Deep Work and Why It Matters

*bleep* it’s your phone again, letting you know that your friends in a Whatsapp group have something to say. *bleep* it’s another email from a colleague. *bleep* it’s the first time in a while that John has posted on Instagram, wanna take a look?

Today we live in a distracted world. On average an email gets looked at in 6 seconds, let me repeat that, 6 seconds. We are constantly available, but what does that bring us? Do we benefit from being one message or email away? How do we get any work done when we can be so easily interrupted?

Today I want to argue that Deep Work is the solution. It’s a way forward in productivity, a tool to get-things-done, and a counterpoint to our ever-connected world. I would love to hear what you think on the forum!


What is Deep Work?

Onno, our COO, sits at his desk with headphones on his head. He is slowly moving his head to the rhythm of the music he is listening to. Every few minutes he types away and then sits back. If no-one interrupts him, he will sit there for hours on end. During this time he is writing code for the back-end of our website, or making sure that our stock predictions are accurate to prevent those pesky out-of-stock messages.

When he is sitting there, he is not distracted by Facebook or YouTube. He is deeply engaged in his work. If it wasn’t for a shaker with Queal, he might even forget to eat something. The work he is doing can be defined as deep work. It’s not easy, it’s not the way of least resistance, but it is the work that is most rewarding. Here is a more formal definition of deep work.

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.


But today, we don’t always get the time to work uninterrupted. An average person in an office spends 60% of the time online, of which half is spent in the inbox. Add the time at the water cooler and there is almost no time left for real work. Most of our time we are doing Shallow Work, work that is non-cognitively demanding, work that we can do when distracted.

Today I will argue that deep work is increasingly valuable, that it’s becoming a rare skill, and that it’s the most meaningful way you can spend your time.


Deep Work is Valuable

Jason Fried is the Founder & CEO of Basecamp. He has built a very profitable business, wrote three influential books, and kept his cool. He knows more than most of us how valuable his time is. Therefore his schedule is 99% empty. He has about 4 meetings planned in the next 2 week, that’s all. He never has meetings on Mondays or Fridays. The rest of the time he spends working: “What do I do with all that empty space? My job! I design, I write, I think, I work!

In a world where intelligent machines (AI, machine learning, robots, etc.) are doing more and more jobs, we have to ask ourselves what we should spend our time on. Should we spend it on things that will soon be done by machines? Or should we focus on doing the things we are the best at?

Of course, we should do the latter. And to do this, we should be able to 1) quickly master hard things, and 2) be able to produce at an elite level. We should be able to deliver great work, both in terms of quality and speed. And working with intelligent machines, you need to have both skills. The only route towards this is via deep work.

To make high-quality work, you only have to follow this equation. High-quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus). By maximising the intensity of work, you maximise the output of work. There is only a limited time available to us, best use it responsibly.

Deep work only happens when you take the time to sit down with a problem and work without distraction. If you switch between tasks, you will need time to start again. If you are distracted, you will get nothing meaningful done. Therefore, deep work is a very valuable skill in our economy.


Deep Work is Rare

If you look for the writers of The New York Times online, you are very likely to find them on Twitter. Each of them keeps an active profile online. There they can interact with their readers, promote stories and get in contact with sources. That sounds great, right?

Alas, it isn’t. The job of the writers is to investigate stories, to write something that is compelling, something that not everyone with a good internet connection could have written. Twitter will not help them with this job. They might get in contact with a source, but wouldn’t they be able to do that without tweeting 10 times per day? The writers are forced to be distracted, the time they have for writing meaningful articles is becoming a rare commodity.

Because we live in a world that is constantly connected we can be constantly distracted. But, can we really say this has a negative impact on the bottom line? One medium sized company measured it, the costs were akin to buying a small company Learjet.

Many people run their work from the inbox. It’s easy, it’s available, and it’s destructive to your productivity. Imagine that you would only check your email 1 to 3 times per day, imagine the vast amounts of time you would get back.

That is what a team of consultants from BCG experienced in a clever experiment. They were asked to not communicate, internally and with the client, for 1 day per week. The company thought that the client would miss them, that they would leave a bad impression. But the opposite happened. The consultants used the non-communication day to do deep work. And the project received a stellar evaluation.

Deep work is rare because we are always connected. To do deep work we sometimes need to disconnect and focus on adding value without being constantly connected. Only that way can we make sure that we get deep work done.


Deep Work is Meaningful

A craftsman knows exactly what the result of his work will be. Ten hours working on making an artisanal knife will result in the beautiful object. Sculpting a statue for weeks on end is a process in which you slowly see a work of art emerging. Many craftsmen find meaning in their work, they feel deeply satisfied with their work.

For people working in the information economy, things aren’t always that easy. The outcome of our work isn’t always that clear. But also here, deep work can generate as much satisfaction as in the world of craftsmanship.

Neurologically you will benefit from deep work when you skillfully manage your attention. Because you focus on your deep work, you don’t be distracted by many of the smaller interruptions that might interfere with your day.

Psychologically deep work is very similar to the concept of flow. This is the moment that you’re immersed deeply in something challenging, when you stretch your capabilities and forget about the world around you. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that this is the place where we are most happy, in the moment, and creating value.

Physiologically you can find meaning in the work itself. You can cultivate the meaning that is already there, and you don’t have to search for meaning anymore. You find meaning in the process, the work you are doing, and not only the outcome.


I believe that deep work is the answer to our distracted world of today. With deep work, I think we can find meaning in the work we do and the things we create. I think it’s becoming rarer every day and that if you find yourself able to work deeply, you will have a leg up to other people.

*bleep* time to mute those phones, lock yourself in an office, and start some deep work.

When was the last time you sat down uninterrupted for a few hours? And is deep work valuable for you or do you see no benefit? Let me know on the forum!

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Floris Wolswijk

MSc in Industrial & Organisational Psychology. Floris has started two companies before. In his student life, he was President of his Study Association and Director of a Student Strategy Consultancy. He participates in obstacle runs and has energy for two. Getting the right things done is what he gets up for in the morning.

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