Introduction to Deep Work

How to get things done and demonstrate great results?

Intellectual work requires a high level of concentration during a significant period of time. It is not as easy as it sounds because the world is full of distractions.

You are not the only one struggling with this problem. Even the most successful and intelligent people in world history found it difficult to avoid distractions.


Did you know that …

1. Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885)

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Initially, Victor Hugo was given a deadline of one year to finish his new book titled The Hunchback of Notre Dame. However, the author didn’t manage his time properly: during the first 6 months, he was enjoying his life and constantly delaying his work. Therefore, in the end, Hugo had just less than 6 months to finish his book, which was almost impossible.

What did he do? Hugo decided that extreme measures should be taken to beat his procrastination and encourage concentrated work. The author collected all his clothes and locked it throwing away the key so that he would not have any suitable clothes to go outside and his only option would be to stay inside and work.

Surprisingly, his plan worked. Hugo stayed at home working hard during next months and he managed to finish his book even before the deadline.

2. Carl Jung (1875 – 1961)

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After returning from his trip to India, Carl Jung – a famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who introduced the concepts of the collective unconscious and extraversion/introversion – built a house in a small Swiss village of Bollingen. He thought that moving away from hectic city lifestyle would help him to increase concentration and advance his work on the nature of unconscious.

Even though Jung had a lot of work in the city and many patients relying on him, every month he took a week off to leave everything and go to Bollingen, where he locked himself in the study room to make some progress in his work without being distracted by other people, electricity or daily duties.

Bill Gates ( 1955 – now)

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One of the wealthiest and most famous people today – Microsoft Co-Founder & ex-CEO  Bill Gates – is known for the concept of “Think weeks“. Twice a year he devotes a week to isolating himself from business needs and other people to do nothing, but reading and thinking about big issues like the future of technology.

Many Microsoft strategic initiatives like developing an internet browser, creating a tablet PC, providing a higher security software or entering the online video game business, were catalyzed during “think weeks“.


Deep work

The idea that unites all these above-mentioned extremely successful people is deep work. The concept of deep work was introduced by one of my favorite authors, bloggers & public figures – an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, Cal Newport.

In his recent book on Deep Work (highly recommended for those who are interested in the topic), Cal defines Deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push our cognitive capabilities to the limit”.

The main idea of his book is that “Deep work is one of the most valuable skills in our economy and it is becoming increasingly rare. Therefore, if you master this skill, you’ll achieve extraordinary results”.

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Indeed, we live in a world dominated by multi-tasking, hundreds of emails per day, social media and availability 24/7. It is incredibly hard to achieve a high level of concentration and to work without interruption.

However, at the same time, there is plenty of scientific research confirming that deep work and concentration lead to better performance results.

For example, 300 Michigan State University students were asked to take the same computer test twice. The first time they were interrupted by pop-ups that required them to enter a code. The second time there were no interruptions.

The results demonstrated that with a 2.8-second interruption, students made twice more mistakes then without being interrupted at all and with the 4.4-second interruption, the error rate quadrupled, which shows that even a small distraction from the focused work leads to a decreased quality of the results.

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Pomodoro technique

I would like to share several basic time-management tricks that you can use to master deep work skills.

When I was in primary school, I used to do all my homework by myself  while my parents were working. Looking back now I understand that even though I was just a small kid, I used to have a really well-thought-out approach to doing my homework. Using a timer, I devoted 40 min to working on each subject without any distractions. Then I had a 15 min break before starting the next subject for another 40 min and like this until I finish all subjects for the next day.

Of course, back then I didn’t know that what I am doing actually is an extremely popular time management method called “Pomodoro technique“. This method is based on the concepts of deep work and timeboxing and on the idea that frequent breaks can improve your mental agility. The name comes from the standard “Pomodoro” kitchen timer that is used for cooking.

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1. Make assumptions

“A Pomodoro” is one single approach to work without any distractions that is followed by a small break after completion. First, we need to define the length of “a Pomodoro” and the length of a break.

Original theory suggests using small “pomodoros’ of 25 minutes each followed by breaks of 5 mins and rewarding yourself with a longer break of 20 min after completing 4 “pomodoros”. However, in my opinion, there is no such thing as an optimal duration of “pomodoros”, because it really depends on your individual abilities to concentrate.

According to the book “Twenty Minute Break” by Rossi, a person can work effectively for two hours and after that he should take a break of 20 minutes to avoid so-called Ultradian Stress Syndrome – when someone gets tired and loses his mental focus, which leads to making mistakes, getting irritable and having accidents.

Therefore, I think, that we need to develop our concentration abilities by increasing the length of one Pomodoro from 25 minutes to 2 hours step by step.

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2. Set the schedule

After you have determined the “Pomodoro” length, look at your to-do list and try to understand how much time each task requires and how many “pomodoros” are needed to complete everything. Plan your day accordingly.

Another thing you need to do is to select a right timer. Of course, you can always use a traditional kitchen timer (but if you are in the office it will probably distract your colleagues) or just built-in timer in your mobile phone or computer. However, I find it more convenient to use a specially developed mobile app like Pomodoro Keeper or google chrome add-on like Pomodoro timer.

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3. Work without distractions

However, having a good time-tracker is not enough to keep you away from distractions.

Exactly at the moment when you decide to work only on a special task trying to concentrate, your boss will suddenly call you to ask a question about yesterday presentation, you will receive many “important” emails from clients or a person you like will text you on FB. As a result, instead of focused work you were supposed to do, you are surfing the internet in a search for something “crucial”, chatting with your friend or answering constant emails. You feel like you are working, but actually, you are not, because you are not making any progress in your initial task.

It is normal. It has always happened and It will always happen. You just need to develop a strategy to fight all these distractions. Below you can find some useful tools that can help you with it.


  • Control your activity & do not surf the net during “Pomodoro”

    I use RescueTime app for tracking my daily activity. It tracks your time spent on different applications and websites providing you with detailed reports on your productivity. You can personalize the app settings based on your work duties. Analyzing RescueTime reports helps you understand how you spend your time and what your main distractions are.

    If you are unable to fight againts these distractions by yourself, you might like the premium version of RescueTime that allows you to  set daily limits on different activities and to block “distracting” websites for a certain period of time (for your “Pomodoro” e.g.). For the same purpose, you can also try Anti-Social.

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  • Do not use your mobile phone during “Pomodoro”

    I perfectly understand that it can be difficult not to check your mobile phone every 20 minutes, but this is a rule. There are many ways to fight your mobile phone addiction, but now I will mention just one – probably the easiest and the most effective one – turn on an airplane mode on and put your mobile phone away from the table.

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  • Do not check your email during “Pomodoro”

    Turn off email notifications not to be tempted to check your email all the time. Whatever it is, usually it can wait for 1 hour until your “Pomodoro” is finished. If there is something truly urgent, the person will always be able to call you using a fixed line.

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  • Prepare a paper/notebook for distractions to use during “Pomodoro”

    However, you can easily get distracted even if you have completed everything stated above. In case you receive a call from someone or you suddenly come up with a good idea for another project, you should try to spend on the distraction as less time as possible. Just write it down and come back to it after you complete your “Pomodoro”.

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4. Take a break

After you complete your “Pomodoro” you can have your well-deserved break during which you finally can come back to your list of distractions and check your email to understand if you should adjust your schedule based on the new information you received.

Do not forget that a break is not only for dealing with distractions but also for having some rest and increasing your energy level. Take a walk, go for a coffee, chat with your colleague and reply to the person you like on FB, so that you would be full of strength and energy for the next “Pomodoro”.

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5. Start again from the beginning

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I understand that the Pomodoro technique has many limitations. The biggest one is that it is rather difficult to follow this method in a “multi-tasking” environment, where the constant communication with colleagues/customers/suppliers is required. However, this method works for me for already quite a long time and I think it always can be adjusted to your individual needs.

If you want to learn more about the Pomodoro technique and apply it to your daily life, check out this instruction offered by its founder Francesco Cirillo.


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12 Comments

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  1. I guess I operate a bit like Bill Gates. I set aside certain days to do my deep thinking and produce the difficult work. I know from being a professional writer since 1993, that I cannot force the creative process. When my mind and muse are ready to write, the words will flow freely and the writing will be good (to excellent!) If I try and force the creative process, the results will not be worthy of my standards.

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  2. I like the concepts of the Pomodoro technique. When I get immersed in “deep work” it is easy to ignore distractions and keep working. However, sometimes it is hard to get past the distraction and have enough concentration to get into deep work. The technique might help me with that.

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  3. I can see where the Pomodoro method would work very well for some people. However, it would – frankly – drive me crazy. I’m an Introvert – the extreme variety if any of those personality assessments are to be believed – so focused quiet time is a matter of survival for me. But I also rebel against too much structure as evidenced by the fact my favorite way to travel is to wing it and make my itinerary up as I go. Still, I absolutely see the value in this process so thanks for sharing, I’m sure many of your readers will benefit greatly!

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  4. I love this!

    Multitasking is overrated. After a while you become frazzled and muddled in your mind when running back and forth between tasks.

    I agree that when taking a break, you should refrain from surfing the Internet and checking emails. I have a tendency to try to fill the gap and it really is of no benefit to me. We are so preoccupied these days with the soar in social media and the many apps on our phones. Every now and then we should detach.

    Thank you for bringing this back to me.

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  5. As I read your blog, I kept thinking: “Breathing space provides fresher oxygen for the mind.” It seems that Carl Jung and Bill Gates got that. I think also of something my personal trainer used to say: “The rest between a set of exercises is as important as the exercise itself. Taking that rest will make you stronger.” It makes sense then that taking breaks in the midst of what you call “deep work” is a good idea. Btw, I like how you started by referring to three famous creative men.

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  6. Of all the brilliant things that technology has brought us in the last couple decades, a dubious byproduct is perpetual distraction. Surely that is only going to get worse. Imagine trying to do deep work and having text messages or emails pop up on the wall you are facing? So ‘pompdoro’ type approaches are going to be mandatory to get anything done, and maybe to just stay sane.

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  7. I like the way Bill Gates is thinking with his Think weeks. I would love to do that. I do know that when I go on vacation, I great the best ideas. So, maybe I should go on vacation more often. =) Thanks for sharing. Great post by the way.

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  8. Great article and some useful tips.

    Just on a side note though, the highlighting of random words makes no sense and is really distracting. Also a usability nightmare as you make the user think they are link due to your links being the same colour. e.g “When I was in primary school” – it makes no sense to highlight primary school, the article will read so much better without these highlights 🙂 Apart from that, great read, thanks!

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  9. Great ideas here. I’ll have to bookmark to review this over again. Thank you! Debra

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  10. This is a fantastic post, one of the best productivity posts I have come across. Some really useful tips here that I will certainly use. Thanks for posting this; it’s exactly what I need to get me motivated!

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  11. Thank You for sharing..i found it really inspiring and the way you have expressed it in points and dictums

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