I’ve made no secret on this blog that I think qualities like deliberate practice, grit, a growth mindset, resiliency, essentialism and vulnerability are all critical to success. Just because I say these things and believe them doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with them sometimes, though. Like many people in the modern workforce, my days are filled with meetings, as well as a constant barrage of notifications and distractions from instant messages, Slack, personal emails, work emails, news updates, web surfing and the occasional phone call.
As these distractions continue (and increase), it becomes increasingly difficult to focus on work. So when a colleague told me to read a book by Cal Newport called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, I jumped on it. I’ve been struggling to regularly do deep work, despite the fact that both my work and personal lives demand it.
What Is Deep Work?
Newport’s thesis is simple: Spending time on our smartphones and in our growing number of inboxes hurts our ability to focus on activities of cognitive worth (what he calls deep work). He describes deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. Their efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
In contrast, Newport defines shallow work as “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much value in the world and are easy to replicate.” He uses examples such as texting, social media and “the shiny tangle of infotainment,” like BuzzFeed and Business Insider.
Who Benefits From Deep Work?
According to Newport, everyone. Writers, coders, professors, entrepreneurs, farmers and even blacksmiths can use deep work to excel in their fields. Newport himself is a tenured computer science professor. He also writes extensively on a variety of topics, but he ends his workday by 5:30 and spends quality time with his family in the evenings and on the weekends. He achieves this work-life balance, as well as a high degree of productivity, with deep work practices.
Deep Work and Multitasking
Multitasking has become the norm in our society, and Newport asserts that it’s the key culprit in preventing deep work. Research has shown that multitasking is really just accomplishing individual tasks with rapid switches of attention between them, which makes focus much more difficult for most people and impossible for some. When you switch your attention to check email or Slack (like I do way too frequently), for example, the effect of changing gears like that leaves behind up to 10-20 minutes of what Newport calls “attention residue” in your mind. Attention residue then acts as a distraction when you try to accomplish other tasks.
The Four Strategies of Deep Work
Newport outlines four basic strategies for achieving deep work.
It may seem a little recursive for this to be the first step, but the point is that deep work doesn’t just happen; it’s not a switch you can turn on and off. Put simply, deep work takes a lot of effort; you have to work really hard to remove distractions and achieve focus.
Newport uses Bill Gates, of Microsoft fame, as an example. When Gates learned about the first personal computer in the 1970s, he dropped out of Harvard and spent the semester writing an operating system. Stories about Gates talk about him working so hard and so deeply that he would regularly fall asleep while coding, only to wake up a few hours later and continue where he left off. This is an extreme example, but it’s illustrative of the potential benefits of deep work.
I often tell my peers that I miss the days when planes didn’t have the internet. I used to get so much good reading, thinking, writing and planning done during long plane trips. The plane provided a distraction-free environment that allowed me a few hours of deep work time.
According to Newport, there are ways we can create that distraction-free environment in our daily lives. He recommends forming daily rituals and habits, ensuring our workspaces are free of the distractions that compete for our attention and setting deadlines that create a sense of urgency. If you’ve ever successfully crammed for a final exam in college, these techniques will sound familiar to you. Think about how much you accomplished in a relatively short time by simply applying yourself and shutting out distractions.
Seek Out Boredom
When was the last time you were bored? Do you remember those long car rides as a kid without any smartphone or DVD player to distract you? We now have a device at our fingertips that allows us to alleviate boredom at a moment’s notice.
Awhile ago, I went on a 10-day meditation retreat. I didn’t speak for 10 days, and I meditated for more than 12 hours every day. The first five days were, honestly, hell. I craved distraction. I was bored. But at some point midway through the retreat, I calmed down. To simply wait and be still has become a novel, unusual experience in modern life. We have so many ways to entertain ourselves at all times that we simply don’t allow for boredom anymore.
Newport believes that “productive meditation” is a key ingredient to deep work. This is where you are occupied physically — walking, driving a car, running — but you can focus your mind on a specific problem. It works a bit like mindful mediation: Every time you find yourself distracted, you bring your mind back to the problem you’re trying to solve.
Newport advocates strengthening your “distraction resistance muscles.” Part of this is achieved by improving our ability to concentrate and to think deeply and creatively, but Newport also concedes that you cannot live an entirely distraction-free life. “Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction,” he suggests.
Quit Social Media
Many will disagree with this, but Newport isn’t a big proponent of social media. He sees it as “mediocre” entertainment and a way to foster “lightweight” friendships. I tend to agree, though I can imagine that during the Arab Spring a few years back, the use of Facebook and Twitter was critical to those quasi-revolutions.
I love maintaining friendships and keeping in touch, but I find that social media is a big drain on my time and creates a lot of noise. Networking tools can be harmful if you don’t use them mindfully. Like many such innovations, social media is a tool in the modern white-collar world. Like any skilled worker or craftsperson, you should choose your tools wisely, weighing the pros and cons against each other. Newport’s advice is to identify the core factor that determines success in one’s professional and personal lives, and adopt a tool only if the benefits substantially outweigh the drawbacks.
I think it’s important to note that Newport doesn’t advocate total or even near-total abstinence from social media. Instead, he recommends using social media and email very sparingly. These tools can be useful, but they’re also distractions that keep us in the shallow end of productivity. I’ll probably continue to struggle with this practice, but as with so many problems, awareness of the problem is a big step toward solving it.
Drain the Shallows
Shallow work too often dominates our time and often masquerades as more important work. Deep work is exhausting because it pushes you to your limits; even the most disciplined deep workers among us can only engage in it for up to four hours at a time. For most of us, that number is closer to one hour. Thus, we can safely spend half the day wading in the “shallows” without impacting the deep work. That said, Newport recommends “draining” the shallows and offers several strategies to do so:
- Schedule every minute of your day. Schedule your day in blocks of time and use mixed blocks if you don’t know how long the task will take. Schedule spontaneity into your day and schedule time to check email and social media if you need to, but only if it’s essential.
- Do more work when you send and reply to emails. Scheduling a simple coffee meeting can lead to a six-email chain, sent back and forth over a week or so, and that email chain occupies space in your mind the whole time. David Allen, the author of the Getting Things Done system, recommends closing the loop. Focus your emails on identifying all the key issues needed to complete the next task. In the case of scheduling a meeting, lay out potential dates, times, places and so forth in your initial email to reduce the back-and-forth conversation.
- Don’t always respond. If you’re like me, you have an urge to be always available to those who need you. I use a zero inbox strategy, both personally and professionally. The challenge in doing so is that it’s exhausting and possibly unnecessary. I fear snubbing people by not getting back to them, but often the emails I get are open-ended and non-specific. Put the onus on the other party to get specific. This is a tough one, particularly when email is an important part of work communication, but not every email needs a response.
I tend to agree with Newport’s advice and ideas. At Learning House, we are focused on growth as one of our core values. With growth comes struggle, and if we’re willing to struggle to use our minds to their fullest and accomplish things that matter, working deeply generates a life rich with productivity and meaning.
How do you work deeply throughout the day? What distractions keep you from working as deeply as you could?