Cal Newport’s Deep Work is an antidote for a world where the human attention span has dropped to a mere eight seconds. In this book, Newport introduces the concept of deep work, as well as its opposite, shallow work. He makes the argument that cultivating your ability to focus and think deeply are necessary for professionals to maximize their value, and offers four rules to help improve your ability to work deeply.
Newport defines deep work as, “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” Similar to the way muscular strain created by working out helps grow physical strength, we need a state of mental strain to improve our cognitive abilities.
Newport believes that without sustained periods of deep work, we can’t reach our intellectual limits or maximize the output we’re capable of. The problem is most of us spend too much time doing shallow work which is “non-negatively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.” Unsurprisingly, this type of work doesn’t lead to the breakthrough moments that help us create major impact.
As Newport puts it, deep work as valuable, meaningful, and rare.
It’s valuable because it gives you the tools you need to thrive professionally: the ability to quickly master hard things and create high quality work quickly and efficiently. Deep work is meaningful because it gives us a sense of satisfaction and flow, a satisfying mental state we feel when we are voluntarily stretching intellectual limits.
Yet despite how important it is to work deeply, most of us get bogged down and spend all of our time working on tasks that make us feel busy but add very little value, rarely giving us the opportunity to stretch our intellectual muscles.
Even with all the benefits that come from performing deep work, it requires discipline to resist the path of least resistance provided by shallow work. Newport offers four rules to help you carve out time and minimize distractions that compromise your ability to work deeply.
It’s hard to work deeply in a world that is full of distractions, especially the pull of email and other messaging in a culture where people expect instant results. Newport suggests that you begin by figuring out your deep work “philosophy” and scheduling time for deep work. Deep work can be done “monastically” by blocking yourself out mentally or physically for several days or weeks at a time or “rhythmically” by blocking off entire days or particular time each day to work deeply. Regardless of your style, the idea is to find and schedule time when you can disconnect, creating rules and rituals that allow you to work deeply and improve your ability to concentrate.
After concentrating deeply, our first reaction is to break it up with a distraction. Newport argues that we should be taking breaks from focus and rest our brains rather than engaging in activities which are distractions. The reason we default to our distractions, like checking email or other messaging systems, is our brains aren’t wired to be bored anymore. However, brains need downtime, and turning off completely instead of working on nonessential tasks helps us improve focus during periods of concentration. It turns out constantly switching back and forth from focus to distraction, or from distraction to distraction, actually trains our ability to multitask, i.e. switch our attention between multiple priorities. We may justify this by feeling more productive, but over time, it hurts our ability to deeply focus. For example, many of us are guilty of checking our email constantly. We are better off checking email infrequently as opposed to constantly refreshing the page in hopes of a new message. Not only does this reduce the amount of time you spend checking emails, it also improves your ability to concentrate.
Quit Social Media
Newport is not a fan of social media because it’s another distraction that fragments our time. In order to master your ability to work deeply, you need to resist the temptation of diversions that are trying to steal your time and attention. He acknowledges that completely disconnecting from social media might not be realistic for many and he suggests starting out by checking into social networks less frequently. For example, checking your Facebook account only once a week will still let you stay in touch with what your friends are posting, while avoiding the mindless hours spent browsing social media feeds the other six days. He also suggests weighing the benefits of social networking usage against the benefits of what you could be doing with the time you are spending on them, and suggests cutting back the number of social media sites you use.
Drain the Shallows
In the final rule, Newport points out that it’s easily for meetings, calls, and other scheduled events to eat into the amount of time you have for deep work. He suggests scheduling your day in advance and setting aside blocks for shallow and deep work. He also suggests stopping work at a fixed time which forces you to focus on completing your tasks during the day and ensures your brain has time to rest and recover at night. Finally, he makes some suggestions to tame your email inbox, such as creating processes and templates to handle the types of email you’d commonly receive.
While Newport’s advice makes sense to me and my work requires focus, it’s been hard to change all of my bad habits. That said, I’ve cut down social media usage to once a week. Now it’s time for me to recommit to tackling email. I’m going to start by turning off email at night.
What are you going to do to improve your ability to work deeply?