3 Lessons Freelancer’s Can Learn from Cal Newport’s Deep Work


If you’re one of those people who likes to read books on productivity and find out about how successful people reach their goals in unique ways, you will love Cal Newport. A 35-year-old professor in computer science at Georgetown University, Newport not only has a Ph.D., but has also written several highly successful books ideal for freelancers.

His newest one, called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, is one such book. If distractions are a thorn in your side, you should really read what it’s about.

What is Deep Work?

Deep work, is first of all, about freeing yourself of distraction. It is becoming increasingly more rare and, at the same time, increasingly more valuable. “Deep work is when you focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task,” Newport writes. “You work on it as hard as your brain is capable for an extended amount of time without any distractions.”

Deep work is rare. In today’s world, distractions lurk everywhere. From constant emails through social media all the way up to structures like open offices. These all have their value, but don’t allow for deep work. Multitasking is, according to the ideas behind deep work, virtually non-existent. You cannot do two things at once. What you are actually doing is splitting your brain between two tasks, jumping from one to the other. Compared to going in a straight line for your goal, this fragments your time and prevents concentration. This is basically what the book calls “shallow work”.

It also generates indispensable value. Deep work isn’t just about avoiding distractions though, it’s also about generating value. The author of the book argues that the really high-quality stuff people come up with come from focused short-period sessions. The things that matter and are hard to replicate by others, can be done much more easily with deep work. And that is why it’s getting more valuable today.

Deep work isn’t supposed to be 100% of your work time. In fact, the book suggests one to four hours, depending on how comfortable you are with the technique. Here are a couple of strategies that Newport suggests:

1. Ritualize the process

Routines are key to getting work done. But it can be much harder to set them yourself when they aren’t externally enforced. You’re a freelancer – you don’t necessarily begin work at the same time each day, you might not even do it in the same place.

Here are a couple of ritualization techniques that Newport suggests. Try them out and find out what works for you best:

The monastery approach – this is the hardest one. It requires detaching yourself from all distractions for a long period of time. And that means all distractions. This includes your cellphone, your internet connection and anything else that might take you detaching yourself from as much stuff as possible, turning off your phone and internet.

Bi-modal – this is the monastery approach in its light version. You jump between the monk state and a regular state by establishing a boundary. For example going into the library for your deep work sessions. Changing locations and knowing that you are in a certain place with a game plan can change the way you work.

Rhythmic – this one works for me, personally. It involves setting a certain rhythm – like trying to have two one-hour sessions of deep work each day. If you know that you are committing, it becomes a habit after a while, allowing your brain to switch easily into a concentrated state.

Journalistic – Imagine you’re a journalist. A story breaks, you have to write a half-page article before the newspaper comes out of the presses the next day. You can emulate that by setting yourself a tight deadline. Newport writes that he personally favors this kind of ritualization process.

2. The “20 percent less rule”

Setting deadlines is fine and dandy, but we regularly tend to make it easy on ourselves. Cutting your work time by 20 percent can help you utilize the intensity of deep work and dive into a project with all of your mental efforts. If you know that time is extremely short, you will block out distractions much more efficiently.

3. Shutting down completely plus embracing boredom

Last but not least, Newport’s book isn’t just about working yourself to your limits. In fact, it is about learning to rest as much as anything else. Create a sharp distinction between work time and leisure time. Without proper rest, it is impossible to actually do deep work.

On that note, Newport also suggests we should embrace boredom. We are so used to getting stimulations from all over – music, TV, internet, podcasts – we have forgotten to just shut down for a while. Your brain is meant to be bored once and again. Let it happen and don’t instantly take out your phone for a glance.

Feedback is greatly appreciated – tell us what you think of this article and the idea of deep work in the comments below!

Viktor Marinov

Viktor is the voice behind the freelancermap blog. Every week he comes up with helpful hints, checklists, and guides for freelancers and independent workers. If you would like to know how to find remote jobs online or how to niche yourself as a freelancer, don't miss his freelancer tips!

By Viktor Marinov

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