Cal Newport defines deep work as ‘professional activities performed in a state of distraction free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.’ Deep work is necessary to allow each of us to fulfil our potential in any cognitively demanding domain.
The rise of social media platforms has challenged the ability of knowledge workers to work deeply. Frequent use of email and instant messaging services fragment our time and leave us in a constantly distracted state. We find ourselves unable to focus on the task at hand. ‘If I organise my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around a long time…there are a bunch of email messages that I have sent out to individual persons.’
In contrast to deep work, shallow work includes ‘non-cognitively demanding, logistical style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.’ Rather than focusing our efforts on formulating a new business strategy, we may fill up our day with email exchanges, project planning meetings and web surfing. Under the illusion that we are working productively, we unknowingly place a ceiling on our own success. Through denying ourselves the right to uninterrupted stretches of time, we prevent ourselves from achieving greatness.
On the bright side, this societal trend towards shallow work offers the opportunity for those of us who prioritise deep work to reap substantial benefits.
In ‘Atomic Habits’, James Clear argues that we should shift our focus from achieving goals to creating systems of habits. We can see Newport’s strategies as an application of Clear’s framework to the habit of working deeply. Creating systems can help us to cultivate this habit because reaching a state of deep work is cognitively demanding. Through creating a routine with a specified time and location, we can reduce the friction associated with focusing on important tasks. Here are some of the strategies presented by Newport that I found the most insightful:
Maintain a strict end to your workday.
This strategy is based on the idea that there is a natural limit to the amount of deep work one can achieve in a day. ‘For a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours – but rarely more.’ Therefore, if we focus our efforts on reaching this limit earlier on, it follows that any further work we complete in the evening will necessarily be of lower quality. Through imposing a strict time to end our workday, we are not missing out on the kind of work which will be influential in helping us to advance our careers. We also free up more time to recharge our minds.
Give your brain a break.
Training your body at the gym necessarily involves tearing your muscles apart. Therefore, it is vital to allow your muscles time to repair and renew themselves after working out. Similarly, rest is a crucial part of training our minds to work deeply. When we give our brain a chance to relax, it improves our ability to concentrate when we get back to work. Consciously allowing ourselves to take a break also gives our unconscious mind a chance to work its magic.
If we find ourselves struggling to write a challenging essay question, we might decide to take a walk in the park. Whilst walking, we focus on the beauty of our surroundings and enjoy the fresh air. Our unconscious mind, however, is working hard on collecting our thoughts and planning out the essay. ‘Some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle. In other words, to actively try to work through these decisions will lead to a worse outcome than loading up the relevant information and then moving on to something else while letting the subconscious layers of your mind mull things over’.
Schedule time to give into distraction.
Distraction is an addiction. When we constantly allow our concentration to be disrupted by new stimuli, our brain adapts to this behaviour. It becomes challenging to maintain our focus when we sit down to work. Switching from a state of distraction to intense focus is cognitively draining. Therefore, Newport recommends that we schedule blocks of time where distraction is allowed. Outside of these specific blocks, we should focus on working intensely. This is a powerful strategy because it trains our brain to resist temptation. Pushing through the final few minutes of your daily workout when you feel like giving up can produce remarkable fitness gains. Similarly, when we refuse to open the Facebook app until our designated time slot for distracting activities, we push our minds to the limit. This hones our ability to concentrate.
Some knowledge workers may argue that this strategy is impractical because they have an obligation to remain connected. If we take it too far, we might fail to respond to an important email from our boss for hours. Newport argues that this strategy can still be implemented by individuals who are expected to be responsive. For instance, we could schedule time to check our email every 20 minutes if necessary. The important part is sticking to the schedule and refusing to give into temptation.
Choose your network tools wisely.
The ‘Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection’ is the view that ‘you’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.’ Under this approach, we might justify using Facebook purely on the basis that it offers us the chance to maintain a relationship with an acquaintance. Admittedly, this might offer us a small benefit. But the flaw with the Any-Benefit Approach is that it fails to acknowledge the cost of maintaining an active social media presence. The opportunity cost of engaging with network tools is the time we could be spending focusing on projects we care about. The logical course of action seems to be to weigh up the costs and benefits of engaging with each tool on a case by case basis. We can then choose to use only those social media platforms, if any, which offer us a net benefit.