Deep Work – What It Is, Why You Need It, And How To Do It
When was the last time that you really concentrated hard on something doing some deep work? We all know that Facebook, Twitter, and the messages we receive throughout the day are superficial and ultimately unrewarding. Yet we engage with them anyway. There is an asian proverb which states that, ‘to know and not to do is not to know’. The programmers in Silicon Valley are engineering this addiction into our lives because monopolising our attention is the same as monetising it. Instant dopamine hits for the latest like or retweet calms us and lets us know we are plugged into the wider world.
To understand how we might learn ‘to do’ otherwise we have to look at depth. Specifically Deep Work. Although this concept is as old as work itself it has renewed currency with a new book from computer scientist and productivity tsar Cal Newport entitled, ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’. Deep Work, as defined by Newport, is the ability to focus fully on a task that requires intense concentration and stretches your brain to its limits. Shallow work, by contrast, are the rote tasks that are done while distracted and do not tax our mental capacities, e.g. powerpoint slides, emails, memos, meetings. Deep Work is about augmenting your ability to concentrate whilst decreasing your need for distractions.
Newport states that there are three types of worker who will thrive in the twenty-first century. Firstly, people who have ready access to capital for investment, e.g. venture capitalists. Second, people who work in niche fields with a high prerequisite level of knowledge e.g. surgeons. Third, elite performers e.g. top athletes. The first type is out for most of us. The second and third types of worker require that you constantly upgrade your skill set as changes in the market place dictate. This requires deep work. Newport argues that in the new economy two qualities; speed and excellence, will become integral to our work. The ability to learn quickly and to perform at a high level are the two essential traits necessary in the modern knowledge economy. ‘To learn hard things quickly you must focus intensely without distraction’. In the age of globalisation local talent will be competing against global superstars; programmers, lawyers, copywriters, consultants. All can work remotely, so why would a company hire you? Not to mention the increasing capacities and encroachment of AI. Being able to produce work that cannot be easily replicated or automated sets you apart. This is only possible by going deep. Newport’s point is that there is an economic incentive to engage in deep work. By embracing deep work we can see this new dispensation as an opportunity not a threat.
So, how do you do deep work?
First, start small. You are not going to go from hyperactive office bee to zen monk after a day, week, or even month. Have a routine. From fifteen minute chunks to thirty minutes then to an hour. Once you hit ninety minutes you’re in deep work territory. If everyday isn’t for you, try to catch time where you can. Find free days in your schedule with a couple of tasks that need undivided attention and start on those. To aid this Newport advises ‘batching’ routine admin tasks until after you’ve completed your main work.
Second, embrace boredom. Contemporary culture is ‘always-on’. Your phone is an extension of your arm and, more insidiously, your mind. Boredom is where novel, creative thoughts percolate. Ask yourself, ‘Is what am I missing out on by not checking my phone really that important to me?’. Having this micro clarity in daily life can help you achieve your macro goals. Remember, “The shallow work that increasingly dominates the time and attention of knowledge workers is less vital than it often seems in the moment”. As our ability to focus becomes rarer it becomes more valuable.
Third, turn off your phone – the main source of distraction (Newport suggests quitting social media altogether, but I’m not a monster!). Think of yourself as getting one over on those pesky Facebook engineers. It might even be better for your mental health by reducing anxiety. Alternatively reward yourself for two hours of deep work with twenty minutes of Instagram bliss. What about multi-tasking? As an intelligent knowledge worker one has to be able to switch seamlessly from task to task to tackle the ever-growing to do list. However, when we switch from one task to another some of our brain is still focused on the previous task. Newport terms this ‘attentional residue’, and crucially it leads to poorer performance on the new task.
The office itself can be one of the biggest source of distractions. Open plan offices are notorious for colleagues who pop-by unannounced. Don’t spend your workday mindlessly flitting from task to task as it arises or as a coworker demands. Figure out what matters in your working day and focus on that. Newport recommends dialogue with your manager to negotiate the deep/shallow work balance. Both of you want to achieve certain outcomes for the company, start with, ‘What work do you need me to do?’ And, ‘How can we best achieve it?’
Finally, as important as deep work is deep rest is too. Your brain needs to be able to switch off at the end of the day. It can’t do that if you’re getting work emails before bedtime. Make sure colleagues respect your boundaries. Inform them politely that you’ll get back to them. Understanding how little snippets of time leak away dealing with ad hoc requests will enable you to take control of those precious moments, which, when taken together, amount to a lot. You’ll be amazed at your productivity, your colleagues should be too.