Productivity and GTD

Deep Work

AUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.” ~ Cal Newport
Deep work

Recently I’ve been reading the book Deep Work, by Cal Newport. If you, as myself, are too a knowledge worker that regularly needs to work a lot of hours really focused in one specific task, not only to finish it, but also to get the highest possible quality result, I recommend you to read this book.

Cal Newport defines deep work as those “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”.

On the other hand, shallow work refers to “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

Ironically, modern knowledge workers are increasingly compelled to do less deep work and more shallow work. Some factors of our current economic and technological reality, such as the omnipresence of social networks and permanent access to them from mobile phones and network connected computers, are fragmenting our attention into small portions. And it makes it really hard to finish well-done jobs.

Deep work can provide great value to your career, and undoubtedly helps you distinguish yourself from other professionals that are more concerned about tweeting 20 times a day than producing genuine, high-quality work.

Nowadays, the result of your work can reach an enormous audience, almost limitless. But you also compete with the best professionals, and that is also limitless. If what you’re producing is no more than average, your audience will find a better alternative with no effort. Giving out the best of you and getting the best possible result has become indispensable. And this kind of work needs depth.

Deep work is also necessary to learn complex things that need uninterrupted attention and great cognitive demand. In the current information economy, based on complex systems that change and evolve at high speed, the ability to learn things quickly is a great competitive advantage.

However, in order to work in depth you need an environment that most companies do not provide. In addition to having acceptable external conditions, we need to “learn” to work in this way, something that is not that easy because, in general, our ability to concentrate in something for a long period of time has decreased significantly. Surely you’ve realized what it takes to be a couple of hours focused on something without looking at the phone.

The periods to work in depth, whether a few hours or a few weeks, have to be sought. You need to schedule them and commit to them. Personally, I organize my day around a couple of blocks of deep-work time (even before knowing that they had that name), leaving the shallow tasks that are completely unavoidable for moments where I have already abandoned that kind of work. And I can assure you that three or four hours of deep work, completely focused and without distractions, allow you to produce a lot of value.

4 comments

52072736e007048ffda67d68a4e575b5
Commented 11 days ago Muhammad

He also argues on his blog that GTD system is not good for Deep Work. Do you agree?

52072736e007048ffda67d68a4e575b5 Muhammad

He also argues on his blog that GTD system is not good for Deep Work. Do you agree?

31e9edb3d10859de6e8c0396325ef3ec
Commented 11 days ago Michał

Thank you for this post. My challenge has always been getting started with work, especially creative, demanding deep focus & concentration work (and then continuing to finish it), so I always postponed doing important tasks. Now, it started to change for the better a bit, e.g. thanks to facilethings I no longer put off doing weekly review. Thanks to clear structure with step-by-step instructions I start doing it and follow through.

I wonder if it would be possible to do something similar with ENGAGE (especially for deep work) part of GTD (in facilethings)??? I have no idea how could it look like but I guess it would be awesome.

31e9edb3d10859de6e8c0396325ef3ec Michał

Thank you for this post. My challenge has always been getting started with work, especially creative, demanding deep focus & concentration work (and then continuing to finish it), so I always postponed doing important tasks. Now, it started to change for the better a bit, e.g. thanks to facilethings I no longer put off doing weekly review. Thanks to clear structure with step-by-step instructions I start doing it and follow through.

I wonder if it would be possible to do something similar with ENGAGE (especially for deep work) part of GTD (in facilethings)??? I have no idea how could it look like but I guess it would be awesome.

Fcb879f1bc70aa0f661b842011f280fb
Commented 10 days ago Francisco Sáez

Hi Muhammad,

Not at all. Deep work is not a philosophy or a work methodology, it's just a personal commitment to give the best of yourself producing high quality results. That is fully compatible with GTD.

In fact, Cal Newport mentions the David Allen's methodology a couple of times in his book, with arguments in favor of deep work. For example, the fact of capturing everything you have in your head in a system you trust -- GTD's first productive habit -- free your mind to be able to dedicate yourself better to deep work. And the fact of defining your goals and areas of responsibility allows you to say no to superfluous jobs and to devote more time to deep work.

Fcb879f1bc70aa0f661b842011f280fb Francisco Sáez

Hi Muhammad,

Not at all. Deep work is not a philosophy or a work methodology, it's just a personal commitment to give the best of yourself producing high quality results. That is fully compatible with GTD.

In fact, Cal Newport mentions the David Allen's methodology a couple of times in his book, with arguments in favor of deep work. For example, the fact of capturing everything you have in your head in a system you trust -- GTD's first productive habit -- free your mind to be able to dedicate yourself better to deep work. And the fact of defining your goals and areas of responsibility allows you to say no to superfluous jobs and to devote more time to deep work.

Fcb879f1bc70aa0f661b842011f280fb
Commented 10 days ago Francisco Sáez

Hi Michał,

So glad you've managed to focus on true-value tasks thanks to GTD/FacileThings. I find that the Weekly Review is somewhat the cornerstone of GTD -- the only way to keep focus and not falling off the wagon.

The Engage part of GTD is actually represented in the FacileThings Dashboard. First you look at today's Calendar, and if there is nothing mandatory to do at this time, you select a Next Action according to your current context, available time and energy.

Fcb879f1bc70aa0f661b842011f280fb Francisco Sáez

Hi Michał,

So glad you've managed to focus on true-value tasks thanks to GTD/FacileThings. I find that the Weekly Review is somewhat the cornerstone of GTD -- the only way to keep focus and not falling off the wagon.

The Engage part of GTD is actually represented in the FacileThings Dashboard. First you look at today's Calendar, and if there is nothing mandatory to do at this time, you select a Next Action according to your current context, available time and energy.

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