Deep Work 101: How to learn and accomplish anything faster

Deep Work 101: How to learn and accomplish anything faster

David is a new data analyst at an established financial consulting firm. In his new role he’s expected to filter through massive amounts of data, consolidate it using SQL Server and make sense of the data for management. His background is in business operations but he has no experience with SQL server. During his first few weeks, he struggles to learn the software language and soon becomes discouraged. I know this feeling all too well and understand the struggles that come with learning a difficult concept from scratch. What techniques can David implement to ensure that he not only learns the software, but excels in his position? Let’s find out:

Deep Work

Concentrating - Deep Work

The concept of Deep Work is a term discussed at length in Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work”. In the book, Deep Work is defined as important work that is tackled in bursts of intense and uninterrupted concentration. In order to achieve this level of concentration, Cal shares the story of the world renowned psychologist Carl Jung.

When Dr. Jung wanted to work on his theories on analytical psychology, he would go to his cabin in the woods and isolate himself from the rest of the world. He would then set out blocks of time where he would focus and attack his difficult tasks. In between his periods of concentration, he would go on walks in the woods to relax and allow his mind to wonder. Using this strategy, Dr. Jung was able to trail blaze a new area of psychology and become one of the most well respected scientists of the modern era. Let’s break down each section of Dr. Jung’s strategy using today’s terminology.

Quit checking email and social media

social media - Deep Work

Just as Dr. Jung would isolate himself from the rest of the world, you too must do the same. The difference today is that you can be in a room all by yourself and still be connected to the rest of the world via email and social media. When you check social media or email in between tasks, it takes longer for you to get back on track. This is because when you check social media or email, a phenomena called “attention residue” kicks in.

Attention residue defines the part of your attention that is still focused on the previous task. On average, it takes 11 minutes to get rid of all attention residue left from a distraction. If you check your social media or email multiple times a day, you can see how your productivity can falter. Make the commitment to only check social media or email in allotted blocks during your day and remove push notifications to your phone. Don’t worry about your colleagues getting mad at you. If you make it clear that you will answer their emails at those times, they’ll be accommodating.

Bunch difficult tasks together

Bunching tasks - Deep Work

We have a limited amount of willpower in the day so maximizing our use of it on important tasks is crucial. Bunching your difficult tasks together will ensure you can maximize your productivity during your deep work time. In Dr. Jung’s strategy, he would set aside 2 hours in the morning to tackle his difficult tasks. This is because in the morning he felt rejuvenated and in the right state of mind to perform deep work. These time periods of concentration should not last very long because you need time to let your mind wander.

Success coach Darren Hardy recommends setting aside 90 minute blocks of time to intensely concentrate on tasks. Once your 90 minutes are complete, it’s OK to take a short 10-15 break to recharge your mind. Like Dr.Jung, Use this time to take a walk or practice deep breathing exercises. This will help rejuvenate your mind and enable you to tackle new problems that lay ahead.

Eliminate multi-tasking

Multitasking - Deep Work

This productivity killer is an activity that’s still being encouraged in many organizations.  Multitasking is the act of performing multiple tasks simultaneously with the hopes of completing them all at once. As depicted in Dr.Jung’s strategy, it’s most effective to focus intently on one task until it’s completed before moving on to the next task. This will ensure that your attention is not fragmented amongst many tasks. Based on over a half-century of cognitive science and more recent studies on multitasking, we know that people who multitask do less and miss information. This can translate into an efficiency drop of almost 40%! When other tasks begin to creep in on your productive time, make sure to ignore them and continue your deep work regimen.

Bringing all together

When David’s performance was rated poorly in his quarterly review, he knew he had to take a new approach to learning the software. David bought a SQL Server guide and dedicated 1 hour in the morning before work to focus on learning this new skill. At work, he blocked out 90 minute deep work intervals to practice using the program and referencing his guide. When his deep work time block had finished, he would take a 10-15 minute break to recharge. David also decided to turn off all push notifications and silence his cell phone while in the office. This eliminated most of the distractions that he had experienced during the day. After a few months of this intense regimen, Darren began to see some results.  He began understanding the software and his performance was well received at his next review meeting.

Dedicating time to perform Deep Work may seem daunting. With all the distractions present in today’s work environment you may feel that you’ll never be able to accomplish it. Just as David has, you too can set aside time during the day to practice deep work habits. All it takes is the commitment to eliminate distractions and setting aside time to focus intently on important tasks. Now that you have the tools necessary to establish a deep work regimen I challenge you to set aside one 90 minute block this week to test it out. I’m confident that you’ll be pleasantly surprise with your increased output. Do you have any techniques that you use to get in a deep work mindset? I would love to hear from you.


My book recommendation for this article is “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. In the book, Dr. Newport explores the concept of deep work and describes its importance in today’s ultra-competitive society. It’s an extremely insightful book that I highly recommend. Check out the link below:

Click here to check out the book “Deep Work” by Cal Newport