The Worthy Pursuit of Deep Work

Reflections on Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World By Cal Newport
Written by John Mullett

We live in a frenetic, fast-paced, increasingly connected world, driven by rapidly advancing and changing technologies. The internet, social media, email, chat and messaging tools have created a world where information and entertainment are almost always only a click away, and the ability to communicate is almost instant. This has led to an unprecedented number of companies, people, and things, simultaneously and constantly vying for our attention. This is true both at home and at work. However, our attention and ability to focus is a finite resource – restricted by time constraints, bandwidth, and energy reserves. We can choose what to focus on, and what we allocate our time and energy to; or we can allow the forces of the moment determine it for us. Newport’s main point in writing Deep Work is not to focus on the problem, or what is being lost. Rather, he is calling out the opportunity and what stands to be gained.

Go Deep

Newport presents convincing evidence that this is real – both the problem and the opportunity- then he gives strategies and ideas how to become better at doing deep work and to be more efficient with our time. Deep Work, as defined by Newport, means, “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.” He argues, given the world described above where many tasks and jobs are becoming automated or commoditized, the skills and type of work that are becoming increasingly more valuable require the ability to consistently and frequently enter a state of deep work. Conversely, this emphasis on connection and instant communication has resulted in a work force that is busier than ever, but busier doing what?

Shallow Work
To quote Newport, “the average knowledge worker spends more than 60 percent of his/her time in electronic communication and internet searches, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time spent in reading and answering email alone.” Newport uses the analogy of human routers to describe this massive effort in moving information around. He defines this type of work as Shallow Work: “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to recreate.” This growing divide between jobs/tasks that require deep work to achieve true excellence, and “shallow” or more easily commoditized jobs/tasks, represents an opportunity to those who are willing to prune the shallow in their life, and train themselves to go deep. Those people will be in the best position to succeed and take advantage of key opportunities that arise, whether a position of employment, or their own business venture.

Entering a deep work state is a discipline and requires mental muscle that can be strengthened when we intentionally and regularly exercise it. As Newport explains, this is a difficult thing to do, not only because of the myriad distractions we are constantly bombarded with, but also our natural tendencies. It turns out, as evidenced by scientific research, constantly receiving new alerts and refreshing a page to find new posts (or tweets, stories, etc… depending on the platform), shares, and likes, is addicting behavior as are periods of distraction (in and of itself). Our brains like easy entertainment and are seemingly always seeking to avoid boredom. Every time we give in, we strengthen that addiction and weaken our ability concentrate deeply, to the point where may simply no longer be capable of doing so, without intervention and rigorous re-training.

Takes time, but it’s worth it
For the person who wants to truly benefit from the ideas and principles in Deep Work, it will likely require lifestyle changes. Changes that will need to be made incrementally and consistently over time. It’s easy for me to get discouraged when I look at the big picture, with an everything-at-once-mentality. Newport didn’t get to where he is today all at once. He started by implementing certain guidelines for himself, then tweaked and improved them over time. Career or job changes, moving, and different family life stages, are all likely to require or offer opportunity for adjustments and additional improvements. For the person looking to reduce the noise in life and maximize the quality of his/her life and work, Deep Work is a worthy pursuit.

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