Deep Work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. This term was coined by author and professor Cal Newport on his popular blog Study Hacks. Deep work will make you better at what you do. Deep work will also let you achieve more in less time. Plus, provide a sense of fulfillment that comes from the mastery of a skill. In short, deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive economy.
About Cal Newport
Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University. In addition to his academic research, he writes articles and blog posts on the intersection of digital technology and culture. Cal has written for the New Yorker and the New York Times. Plus, he has a long-running blog called Study Hacks, which receives over 3 million visits a year.
What is Deep Work?
“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.”– Cal Newport
Deep work involves professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration. This degree of concentration helps you push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. In effect, deep work is something that will optimize your performance.
What Is Deep Work Not?
The opposite of deep work is shallow work. Shallow work is not cognitively demanding. Instead, shallow work is characterized by logistical-style tasks that are often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Deep Work Is Valuable
“The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”– Cal Newport
Deep work is not the only skill valuable in our economy. However, it is one of the essential skills to acquire. When you are in a flow state, the content you can produce is unique and cannot be replicated by someone else. If you can intensely concentrate and write a code that is not easily replicable, you have produced something valuable.
If you want to be a winner in the new economy, there are two core abilities you must possess.
Learn Hard Things
The ability to learn hard things quickly will play a key role in your attempt to master and perform any given skill. For example, becoming a world-class yoga instructor requires you to master an increasingly complex set of physical skills. To excel in a particular area of medicine, to give another example, requires that you quickly master the latest research related to relevant procedures.
Produce at an Elite Level
If you want to become a professional at any given skill, mastering it is necessary but not sufficient. Producing tangible results with the knowledge you have is what matters in the end.
Cal Newport outlines a formula for producing quality at your highest level:
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
Deep Work Is Rare
“If you are just getting into some work and a phone goes off in the background, it ruins what you are concentrating on”– Cal Newport
Being expected to read and respond to emails quickly is an example of distracting behavior in the workplace. Cal Newport questions whether being constantly connected at the workplace is particularly helpful. Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow found the professionals she surveyed spent around twenty to twenty-five hours a week outside the office monitoring emails. These individuals stated that they believe it necessary to answer any email within an hour of its arrival. Cal Newport views this time spent on checking emails as wasted potential time that could have been applied to more crucial tasks.
Ultimately, a tendency to check one’s emails reduces individuals’ well-being and productivity. However, this culture of connectivity in the workplace is not required. Therefore, Cal Newport sheds light on how workplace behavior can encourage unproductive activities like constant monitoring of emails.
- The Principle of Least Resistance: Without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest.
- Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity: These unproductive behaviors can arise during the absence of clear productivity indicators. In this instance, even many knowledgeable workers will turn back toward an industrial productivity indicator: visibly doing lots of stuff.
Suppose you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity. In that case, these behaviors can appear crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well.
Deep Work Is Meaningful
Our world is an outcome of what we pay attention to. So, consider the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors. Suppose you can cultivate deep focus at your work. In that case, this will prevent you from noticing the many smaller and less pleasant tasks that unavoidably populate your life.
Jobs are actually easier to enjoy than your free time. Cal Newport makes this point because, like flow activities, jobs have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges. Each of these features encourages you to become involved in your work, to concentrate, and lose yourself in the moment. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured. Free time requires much greater effort to be made enjoyable.
Embracing deep work in your own career and directing it toward cultivating your skill will require effort. This effort can transform tasks at work from being a distracted, draining obligation into something satisfying. Cal Newport describes this transformation as a portal to a world full of shining, wondrous experiences.
Rule #1: Work Deeply
Cal Newport outlines the foundation of why deep work is essential. However, he also acknowledges that focusing on your work will never be without distractions. The urge to check important emails and notifications will interfere with your prioritized tasks. We fight desires all day long. A recent study indicated that our top five desires consist of:
- Taking a break from hard work.
- Checking our emails and social networking sites.
- Surfing the web.
- Listening to music
- Watching television.
This study suggests the importance of adopting specific strategies to reinforce your deep work.
Cal Newport outlines a specific approach to cultivating a deep work ritual:
- Consider where you’ll work and for how long: Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts. This location can be as simple as your normal office with the door shut and desk cleaned.
- Consider what approach to work you’ll take once you’ve started working: Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. For example, you might institute a ban on any internet use. Alternatively, you could aim to maintain a metric like words produced per twenty-minute interval to keep your concentration honed.
- Consider how you’ll support your work: Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets support to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, your habit ritual could include starting your working day with a cup of good coffee. This coffee should help quicken the speed at which your brain wakes up. It is then crucial that you make sure you have access to enough healthy food to maintain energy. Finally, you should consider integrating light exercise, such as walking, into your working routine. Exercise can help keep your mind clear.
Separate Life and Work
You should also inject regular and substantial freedom from professional concerns into your day. For example, try to avoid worrying about work matters when you are not working. These worries will ruin your well-being and will only hinder your working hours. You will be tired and stressed when you get back to work. By providing yourself with idleness during your non-work hours, you can actually get more work done.
At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning. Therefore, you should never check your emails after your dinner. Plus, you should not be replaying work conversations or be planning for your upcoming working week. Shut down completely and enjoy your relaxation time.
Cal Newport provides three ways that downtime can significantly improve your work performance:
- Downtime aids insight.
- Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply.
- The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important.
Rule #2: Don’t Take Breaks from Distractions. Instead, Take Breaks from Focused Work
Rule #1 teaches us how to integrate deep work into our schedule and support it with routines and rituals. These routines are rituals designed to help you consistently reach the current limit of your concentration ability.
Rule #2 will help in significantly improving this limit. Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it. Motivated by this reality, this strategy introduced by Cal Newport is designed to help you rewire your brain to a configuration better suited to staying on task. To succeed with deep work, you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli. This doesn’t mean that you have to eliminate distracting behaviors. Instead, it is sufficient that you instead eliminate the ability of such behaviors to hijack your attention.
Cal Newport provides Theodore Roosevelt as an example of an individual who would have adopted a similar strategy to the one that Newport suggests. Newport recommends identifying a task that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d usually put aside for an obligation of this type. Then, give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time estimation. If possible, commit publicly to the deadline. For example, you could tell the person who will be receiving the finished project when they should expect it. If this isn’t possible, then motivate yourself by setting a countdown timer on your phone and propping it up where you can’t avoid recognizing it as you work.
Work With Intensity
At this point, there should be only one possible way to get the deep task done in time: working with great intensity. This intensity expectation will prevent you from taking email breaks, daydreaming, Facebook browsing, or taking repeated trips to the coffee machine. Cal Newport recommends that, like Roosevelt, you attack the task with every free neuron. If you commit to true intensity, then your task will give way under your unwavering barrage of concentration.
Start by trying this experiment no more than once a week. This will give your brain practice with intensity but also give it time to rest in between tasks. Once you feel confident in your ability to trade concentration for completion time, you can then increase the frequency.
Rule #3: Quit Social Media
“To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing, is a transformative experience. The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid email messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.”– Cal Newport
Our Limited Willpower
Cal covers this topic deeply in one of his famous Ted talks. Cal Newport argues social media has been addictive since it was first introduced years ago. We increasingly recognize these tools fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate.
Willpower is limited. Therefore, the more enticing tools you have pulling at your attention, the harder it’ll be to maintain focus on something important. Based on this, to master the art of deep work, you must take back control of your time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them.
Social Media Isolation
This strategy asks you to ban yourself from all social networks. This includes Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, Snapchat, Vine, and so on. You do not have to permanently delete your accounts, but you should start by deleting the apps for 30 days. Importantly, you should also avoid mentioning online that you’ll be signing off. Instead, stop using these social media platforms altogether.
After thirty days of this self-imposed network isolation, ask yourself the following two questions about each of the services you temporarily quit:
- Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
- Did people care I wasn’t using this service?
If your answer is “no” to both questions, then you should quit the service permanently. If your answer was a clear “yes,” then return to using the service. If your answers are qualified or ambiguous, it’s up to you whether you return to the service. However, Cal would encourage you to always lean toward quitting. Adopting this approach should significantly reduce the amount of time you waste engaging with unimportant procrastination.
Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
Finally, Cal Newport provides an outline of exactly how his strategy works.
Divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks. For example, you might block off from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. for writing a client’s press release. To fully engage with this approach, you should draw a box covering the lines corresponding to these hours. Then, inside the box, you should write “press release.” The minimum length of a block should be thirty minutes.
When you’re done scheduling your day, every minute should be part of a block. You have, in effect, given every minute of your workday a job. Now, as you go through your day, use this schedule to guide you.
There are many chances that your schedule will get interrupted, so revise your plan accordingly and execute it.
Comment below and let others know what you have learned or if you have any other thoughts.
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