We are living in a connected world, where the pace of innovation is astonishing. Never before do we have access to so much information and can easily connect to others within seconds. The fourth industrial revolution is here, and things will only get better. Or is it?
Nothing in life is absolute (well, except for Vodka). With more connectivity, we are becoming more distracted than ever. This is more true with knowledge workers than any other profession. There are thousands of things that compete for your attention in a typical workday.
You start your day off by checking your emails. Halfway through your inbox, a colleague stops by to chat about the new restructuring rumors. Then suddenly, it is time for a budget planning meeting that lasts two hours. There go the morning.
You get back to your desk, planning to finish going through your inbox, and your boss stops by asking for that urgent report. You drop everything and work on that until 3 PM when there’s someone’s birthday. Then there is a training session about cybersecurity until 5 PM. You ended up leaving the office with a half-read inbox.
In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment. — (Newport, 2016)
A typical day, like so, gives many of us a sense of busyness, but it is an illusion. The most productive part of your day was probably the one hour working on that urgent report. This false sense of busyness will not help us grow our business, learn a new programming language, or master our writing practice.
[We are] constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction — (Newport, 2016)
Enter Deep Work. This concept was introduced by Cal Newport, a bestselling author, and professor at Georgetown University. According to him, deep work is:
“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” — (Newport, 2016)
By contrast, to Deep Work, Newport defines Shallow Work as:
“Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” — (Newport, 2016)
In this day and age, you cannot achieve greatness by just doing shallow work. You have to employ Deep Work to learn new things fast or produce at an elite level.
Why do we need Deep Work?
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Newport argues that there are three groups of people that are at an advantage in this day and age: “those who can work well and creatively with intelligence machine, those who are the best at what they do, and those who have access to capital.” Obviously, to get to the third group, you either have to be lucky (born rich, won the lottery, bet on GameStop and BitCoin at the right time) or come from the first two groups.
Working with intelligence machines (computers) is hard because the field is evolving at a breakneck speed. Typical occupations in this category are programmers, designers, content creators, etc. People working in this field have to learn a lot of new things and do it fast. Deep Work allows you to achieve absolute focus and quickly master new concepts.
The second group is those who are the best at what they do. Some people who fit this definition are consultants, marketers, writers, architects, etc. For this group, the ability to produce and do it at an elite level is a must.
Talent is not something you can buy in bulk and add, there is a premium to being the best — (Newport, 2016)
To work deeply, we need to eliminate distractions and focus intensely. There are two kinds of distractions: internal and external. Internal distraction is when your mind starts wandering, and you lose focus on the current task. External distraction is when there is something in the outside world that yanks our attention away. Let’s look at some of the strategies to eliminate them.
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We start with internal distraction. We often lose focus when we feel bored about the task at hand and think of something else. For example, sitting in an irrelevant meeting, you will start to daydream or plan what to do tonight. This is completely normal, and everybody does this.
The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained — (Newport, 2016)
We have so many options to get rid ourselves of boredom nowadays. Studying something new over the weekend, what will you do if you get bored? You can browse your favorite news site or social network apps. You can also watch endless Netflix or play video games. So with our brains wired to seek on-demand distractions, it takes time and effort to learn how to focus.
Start with something small and aim for consistency over quantity. Commit with yourself to focus on working on something for a certain period of time and stick with it at all costs. For example, you can promise yourself that you will focus intensely only 30 minutes a day, but you will do it every day. If 30 minutes is too much, you can start with 15 minutes. The key here is consistency over a period of time.
As you start doing a deep work session, you will find your mind wandering to something else. Instead of giving at the earliest sight of boredom, try to embrace it. Turn off all external distractions, set your phone timer for 30 minutes, and resist the temptation to open up Instagram.
Here is where the practice of meditation can be extremely beneficial. The goal of meditation is to clear your mind and focus on the current moment. You will find this impossible to achieve, even for the most advanced meditators. But just like an athlete training their muscles, you can also vastly improve your focus muscle with the practice of meditation.
Change your notifications from push to pull.
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Another source of distractions that we discussed is external. Unlike internal distractions, we have greater control over external sources.
Newport discussed an experiment back in 2004 at Boston Consulting Group when a Havard Business School professor asked consultants to turn off their phones in the middle of a working week. In other words, no email, no phone call for a full day, in a working day. The experiment was scary to the consultants and the partner, as staying connected is a crucial part of their job.
To their surprise, the client did not mind the downtime at all. In fact, the productivity of the consultants was actually increased. The experiment discovered that “perpetual connectivity was good in the short term — not so much in the long term.”
With our smart devices, we can connect, but we also have the option to disconnect. Start by changing your notifications options on all your devices from push to pull. Instead of letting the apps decide when we pay attention to what, we take back control.
For example, when you are working on that urgent report, and there is new email notification, your attention will be fractured. You will only check email at a scheduled time or when you need to by changing to pull mode.
From there, you can turn on push notifications for apps that you absolutely need access to real-time updates. Push notifications from email, instant messaging, social networks, shopping apps… are good examples of the ones you should have off. Another strategy that you can use is to implement separation by devices. That means having personal notifications on your phone and work notifications on your computer.
Optimize your downtime
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Deep Work is definitely not something you can do 8 hours a day, five days a week. According to Cal, the limit seems to be about 4 hours a day. After this, our ability to focus diminishes, and it is hard to stay focus.
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. — (Newport, 2016)
If you prioritize four hours of deep work in the day, there is plenty of time left in the evening to do other leisure activities. The breaks will help replenish our ability to do deep work with a well-rested mind. It also helps improve our thinking. Did you ever encounter a problem that you could not solve, took a break, and eureka?
Choosing a good leisure activity for our downtime is important too. The more popular leisure activities nowadays are watching Netflix or scrolling social media. Those activities are low-value forms of leisure, activities that you will not add many benefits to your life.
Rather, you should do activities that add more value to your life. For example, you can learn a musical instrument, read a quality book, spend quality time with friends and family. These activities will help loosen the effects that social media apps have on our attention.
Establish a Deep Work Routine
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Like building a new habit, focusing on the process or ritual is recommended instead of the result. It would help if you established a routine that takes into account the following considerations:
- Location: choose a place that minimizes distraction and allows you to work for a long period of time. If you cannot find such a place, consider investing in a good pair of noise-canceling headphones to minimize distractions. A library or a quiet book cafe can be a good place to do deep work too.
- Duration: determine how much time you are committed to spending before a deep work session. The session length should not be too short (minimum 15 minutes) and too long (maximum 2 hours). It is recommended to start small and increase the duration as you get better at focusing.
- Structure: define some ground rules that you must follow during the deep work session. For example, I usually set my phone on Do not disturb mode that will text anyone trying to reach me a message saying I am not available. It is also good to set a goal for a session, such as I will finish writing an article, read two chapters of a book, or finish this report.
- Requirements: After a few sessions, you will have the requirements to support deep work. They can be water or coffee to drink, noise-canceling headphones, or a specific type of music. Always have everything before you start a deep work session.
Deep work is a potent tool that can help you learn faster or produce at an elite level. Like a physical muscle, the more you train yourself to do it, the more effective it will be.
There are several strategies to integrate deep work into your life. They are: embracing boredom, changing notification from push to pull, optimizing your downtime, and establishing a Deep Work routine.
A deep life is a good life — (Newport, 2016)
Happy Deep Working!
Check out my other articles:
- Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World