BY CAL NEWPORT
This book divides work into two categories: 'Deep Work' and 'Shallow Work.' Shallow work is meetings, emails, phone calls, and the all those other daily tasks. The internet and social media have added even more distractions, creating more problems in time management. Getting these constant interruptions under control allows more time for deep work. Deep work is the tasks that need undivided attention and a distraction-free place. The book offers a simple formula for understanding how it works: High-quality work produced = (Time spent) x (Intensity of focus).
“Professional activities 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.”
The need for uninterrupted concentration has become more important than ever because of the amount of information and the never-ending digital distractions. While social media and other digital distractions are notorious time killers, they also provide networking opportunities that can only happen online. The key is to strike a balance with sufficient attention to the important work that needs to be done.
The digital world provides opportunities to develop skills, promote services or products, and interact, but using these powerful tools requires discipline. Developing the ability to know what's important and what isn't is the key to taming shallow work. To understand the concept of deep work, it helps to take a look at the revered concept of multitasking.
Long thought to be a desired trait for any successful person, multitasking has now been shown to be ineffective and a hindrance to deep work. Recent research shows that multitasking is nothing more than single-tasking performed by switching from one task to another rapidly. This switching makes real focus almost impossible because attention is divided and diluted. When someone switches their attention to checking email or a quick news update, it can take 10-20 minutes to get the mind to re-focus. This lapse in focus makes it difficult to give deep work the attention it needs.
“The ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.”
Deep work is “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.” Newport describes how deep work allowed him to not only complete this book but also write several peer reviewed papers during the same year. This kind of focus could only be achieved by single-tasking and getting shallow work under control.
Taming Shallow Work
Getting a handle on shallow work is tough. It takes effort, focus, and practice to break the habits that may have taken years to develop. The book offers some effective strategies for minimizing distractions and getting control of all that wasted time.
- Stop using social media. Deciding which digital tools and applications provide positive benefits requires a very selective approach. Being selective means objectively identifying time wasters and being ruthless in eliminating them.
- Use website blockers to prevent all those attention grabbers from stealing the time needed for deep work. There are also numerous applications that can be used to create more focused workspaces by cleaning up the computer desktop to eliminate distractions.
- Allot specific time slots for those daily time killers like checking email and returning phone calls. By handling day-to-day routines at the same time and in the same amount of time, they become more manageable.
- Schedule every day as tightly as possible to prevent the shallow work from finding it's way into the daily routines. When the important work is scheduled, it simply stands a better chance of being completed efficiently.
“Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants.”
A case study reveals the benefits of identifying and eliminating the damaging distractions that prevent deep work. The Boston Consulting Group conducted their own “deep work” experiment by cutting out nearly all distractions and shallow work. This “no contact day,” as they called it, was a commitment by employees not to check emails, respond to phone calls, etc. This focus on deep work instead of shallow work revealed some important and positive points. Employees became more productive and satisfied with their performance because they were able to focus their efforts. Maybe more telling, the company's customers were still happy and oblivious to this change in focus. Without all those day-to-day distractions, work got done quickly and effectively, and no one was any worse for the wear.
Why Deep Work?
Deep work is simply more productive and effective. It's an important element of success that is becoming more and more necessary.
- Deep work creates an environment where complicated concepts can be learned faster. This ability to understand key concepts is critical to working on important tasks.
- The more deep work skills are developed, the better able someone is to produce high-quality results promptly. As the skills of deep work continue to develop, guarding against the distractions of shallow work becomes easier.
- While deep work is becoming more necessary, it is also becoming increasingly rare because of all the distractions that compete for the time available. By protecting the time needed to focus, results are better, and the work is more satisfying.
- Becoming immersed in deep work that requires specific strengths and abilities brings greater meaning to work. There is something deeply satisfying about getting lost in work that is important and requires great 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.”
Tools for Deep Work
Learning how to focus on deep work consistently is a process that includes commitment, practice, and a diverse toolbox. Knowing the importance of deep work is one thing, but learning how to develop deep work skills requires different approaches and different ways of thinking.
- The Rhythmic approach to work, scheduling deep work for the same time each day, creates a routine that increases the chances of deep work becoming a habit.
- The bi-modal method is an alternative if the rhythmic method isn't effective. By scheduling only specific days for deep work, the important work still gets done, and the habit continues to develop.
- A third alternative is a journalistic approach, where specific blocks of time are woven in between meetings and other responsibilities. This method requires planning schedules ahead of time and knowing where these windows of time are available.
Deep work skills can be developed by using a variety of tools. The key is to be willing to experiment and take different approaches to find the time necessary and develop the right skills. With commitment and practice, these skills can be learned and used to create important work better and faster.