How Digital Minimalism Makes Deep Work Happen
Imagine the craziness…before the digital deluge, you had to physically dial a number to call someone, and ‘surfing the web’ wasn’t a thing yet.
Our attention was like a laser beam, undisturbed by the chaotic cacophony of notifications, pop-ups, and the irresistible urge to sneak a peek at the latest meme.
And today, the digital world feels like a never-ending tango with an octopus – too many tentacles are pulling us in every direction.
Email here, social media there, cute puppy video over there – it’s a miracle we manage to get anything done…
But how about reclaiming your focus again…Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
When you master digital minimalism, you unlock the door to that coveted state of deep work (flow states).
And how digital minimalism makes deep work happen will cover today’s article.
I will discuss…
- What deep work is
- The four rules of deep work
- A critical view on the four rules of deep work
- Examples of deep work and whether they can even exist
- How deep work is linked to digital minimalism
- How to practice digital minimalism for deep work
First Things First…What Is Deep Work?
“Deep work” is a concept popularized by Cal Newport in his book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.”
It’s the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.
It’s a flow state where you can produce high-quality work in less time.
You can also picture it in the following way…Suppose you’re an author, and you’ve been stuck on the first chapter of your novel for weeks.
One day, you turn off your phone, close your door, and plunge into your story.
Hours fly by. You’re not just writing; you’re living in the world of your book.
When you finally take a breather, you’ve written several chapters. That’s deep work.
So this is like diving deep into an ocean, away from the surface noise and distractions, reaching a place of tranquility and focus.
It’s challenging, but it’s also where you find your most precious pearls of productivity and creativity.
However, concentrated, undistracted focus is no invention of Cal Newport and predates the author’s work.
People have been harnessing the power of intense focus for centuries, from ancient philosophers to great artists and inventors.
What Cal Newport did was recognize, formalize, and popularize this practice in today’s context of constant digital distraction.
He coined the term “Deep Work,” and described it as a critical ability for thriving in our information-rich, fast-paced society.
So he didn’t invent the concept of deep focus but gave it a name and articulated its importance and benefits in a modern setting.
He brought it into the spotlight, highlighting how it can help us navigate the sea of distractions we often swim in.
So, while the practice of “deep work” has always existed, Newport outlined it as a crucial skill, defined its rules, and suggested ways to cultivate it in our lives.
And What Are the Four Rules of Deep Work?
In his earlier-mentioned book Cal Newport outlines four practical rules to help us engage in deep work.
Like keys to a secret garden of productivity, these rules supposedly unlock the door to the focused state of mind that defines deep work.
1) Work Deeply
This rule encourages you to establish rituals and routines that promote deep work.
Maybe you schedule specific blocks of time for intense focus or find a quiet, distraction-free environment to work in.
The idea is to make engaging in deep work a habit rather than a sporadic occurrence. It’s about turning the chaos of open-ended work into the structured rhythm of deep focus.
2) Embrace Boredom
In our hyper-connected world, we tend to reach for our phones at the first sign of boredom.
Newport suggests resisting this urge.
Instead, embrace moments of boredom as opportunities for reflection and creative thinking. Let your mind wander.
It’s a bit like training a muscle – the more you resist distraction, the stronger your ability to concentrate becomes.
3) Quit Social Media
Newport argues that social media is often more of a distraction than it’s worth.
While he doesn’t demand total abstinence, he encourages a mindful and controlled use of these platforms.
It’s about using social media to serve you rather than letting it distract you and gobble up your precious time.
4) Drain the Shallows
This rule involves minimizing shallow work – tasks that don’t require much cognitive effort, like answering non-urgent emails or attending unnecessary meetings.
It’s about prioritizing tasks that align with your goals and contribute significantly to your work.
Think of it as clearing the clutter in your workspace, making room for deep, meaningful work.
A Critical View on The Four Rules for “Deep Work”
From what I discussed earlier, we can agree that the four rules aim to reach a flow state so you can do deep work.
But what has science to say about reaching flow states?
According to a Medical News article, flow states often happen unintentionally, and you can’t always reach such a state.
This article partially matches the above four rules: creating the right circumstances for a flow state.
However, the article also differs in many aspects regarding “deep work,” hence reaching flow states…
It suggests a much more individual approach.
So, for instance, you want to find out on which occasions you previously entered flow states.
And you may want to note which type of task, environment, and mental state made you reach a flow state.
The article more or less matches the four rules again regarding creating and protecting the environment where a flow state (deep work) can happen.
- Allowing enough time for a flow state, thus focusing on longer tasks (not the dull, repetitive tasks).
- Avoiding and minimizing interruptions
The article adds, however, (not mentioned in the four rules) to practice mindfulness since the skills to be mindful are similar to the ones needed in a flow state.
So mindfulness practice can enhance flow states and thus your ability to reach “deep work” (source).
According to another study, flow states are often reached when a task’s challenge matches your skills.
The task challenge and your skill level must be high enough.
So I would complement the four rules from above with some three additional rules, confirmed by scientific studies, to reach a flow state, hence “deep work”:
- Become aware of occasions you entered flow states and take note of it
- Practice some form of mindfulness
- Identify tasks that are challenging enough but also match your skill level
The four rules still make sense to use to make sure a potential flow state occurring is protected.
Examples of Deep Work: Can They Even Exist?
From the above, it is wrong to just list examples of deep work or tasks supposedly suitable for deep work.
As I mentioned earlier, a flow state is a highly individual thing.
For instance, during my research, I found sources mentioning researching as an example of deep work. (And no…I didn’t reach a deep work state during this research.)
And, yes, to some, it may be an ideal deep work task…It will also depend on the topic and the “researcher” ‘s interest.
Then, again, additionally, it depends on how well this task challenge matches the researcher’s skill level.
So I am not on the same page, suggesting this task is generally suitable for deep work.
What’s more, I argue that there aren’t any examples of deep work that will guarantee deep work for you.
Some also use examples of shallow work and how they won’t give you deep work experience.
That’s also wrong with what we learned from the above science.
Let’s use a “data entry” task… Many like to use this as an example task for shallow work.
What if the person doing this task meets all the above criteria and enters a flow state by doing data entry?
So to them, it’s a challenging task and matches their skill level…
By definition, it would be deep work.
See, in both ways, there can’t be universal examples for deep work or shallow work because we all perceive tasks as challenging in different ways and all have different skill levels.
How Is Deep Work Linked to Digital Minimalism?
Let’s first define digital minimalism to know if and how we can link it to deep work (flow states).
In my article about the benefits of digital minimalism, I mentioned that digital minimalism is applying the core principles of minimalism to the digital world.
And they are the following:
- Deliberate decisions about the usage of technologies, how to use them, and make sure they add value to your life
- Simplicity (getting rid of digital clutter, reduction of unnecessary digital files, apps, emails, and the like)
- Eliminating unnecessary digital possessions and focusing on a few high-quality tools
- Mindful usage
- Prioritize offline over online
Looking at the above core principles, you may realize that more or less all can contribute to helping create an environment where deep work/ flow states can happen.
So they can increase their likelihood.
However, they are unlikely to cause them, as we could learn from the science behind the occurrence of flow states earlier.
Consequentially, practicing digital minimalism increases your chances of experiencing deep work and flow states.
However, they could also happen without digital minimalism.
How to Practice Digital Minimalism for Deep Work
Practicing digital minimalism for deep work involves reducing distractions and optimizing your time for focused, meaningful tasks.
As we learned from above, by doing that, you create a “high-odds” environment for deep work/ flow states to happen.
This is provided the task challenge is high enough and matches your skills.
So here are some steps you can take to get started:
Recognize the Problem: Start by acknowledging the issue – that being constantly connected to digital devices can be counterproductive and distracting.
Audit Your Time: Record your time on different digital platforms for one week. There are several apps available that can help you track your usage. This audit can be an eye-opener and a powerful motivator for change.
Set Clear Goals: What do you want to achieve with your deep work? Are you a writer aiming to finish a novel? A developer trying to code an app? Once your goals are clear, you can design your digital habits to support them.
Limit Use of Digital Tools: Not all digital tools are equally distracting or useful.
Identify the essential tools for your work, and limit your use of non-essential tools.
Set specific times of day when you check email or social media rather than allowing them to interrupt your work at any time.
Organize Your Digital Space: Keep your computer desktop and folders organized. A cluttered digital workspace can be as distracting as a cluttered physical one.
Digital Detox: Consider doing a digital detox – a period when you significantly reduce or eliminate your use of digital devices.
This can be a great way to reset your digital habits.
Time Blocking: Schedule specific times for deep work and eliminate as many digital distractions as possible.
For instance, turn off your phone and close any irrelevant tabs or apps on your computer.
Mindful Usage: Try to use digital tools more mindfully. Before you open an app or a website, ask yourself why you’re doing it and whether it’s the best use of your time.
Implement Tools: Use website blockers or apps supporting digital minimalism like Freedom, RescueTime, or Focus to help manage distractions from social media or other websites.
Digital Declutter: Regularly review and clean out unnecessary digital files, emails, apps, and subscriptions. Just like physical clutter, digital clutter can weigh you down.
This article has been reviewed by our editorial team. It has been approved for publication per our editorial policy.