How much of your workday is spent reading and answering emails, rushing to meetings – and how much of it is spent making a meaningful contribution to your team, or your career as a whole?
Cal Newport, an assistant professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, and the author of the recent book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World divides working hours into the time we spend doing shallow work and time we spend doing deep work. Shallow work is the tasks we perform while distracted. If you catch yourself flicking back and forth between tabs on your PC, checking mail (even when you have not been notified on a new message) or refreshing your [insert social media channel here] feed while typing an email or report – then consider the task you can easily flip away from (even for a moment!) as shallow work.
While not all shallow work is unimportant or avoidable, shallow work should be kept in careful check and managed in a way that carves out time for valuable deep work.
What is deep work?
Deep work requires deep concentration on a challenging problem for a long period of time.
Newport defines deep work as: “Professional activities performed in the state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Its counterpart, shallow work, he defines as: “Non-cognitively demanding logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
I think focus is the new IQ, and that deep work is going to become one of the most valuable skills as our economy gets more competitive and more complex. –Cal Newport
The Brain Science to back Deep Work
When we work on something cognitively intensive without distraction, fatty threads in our brains wire neurons together—the literal manifestation of “rewiring your brain.” These neuron bundles help us do our work faster, more effectively, and more skillfully. Every time we’re interrupted, those fatty neurological threads stop sewing and don’t start up again until we’ve fully regained focus.
Newport makes a convincing case that we could be missing out on our generation’s great thinkers, innovators, and artists, because, by getting distracted and multitasking, people are working against their brains’ attempts to help them become masters.
The ability to engage in meaningful deep work depends on two primary factors:
- developing the ability to focus intensely on important work for extended periods, and
- consistently avoiding the distraction of shallow work.
The bottom line is that doing deep work is vital for any individual who wants to be the best at what they do. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robots are already doing shallow work. The people who will excel, lead and be more competitive will be the ones who can do the deep work and elevate their value by improving their skills and innovating new ideas.
The Danger of Distraction
Newport attributes our general lack of focus as a kind of psychological epidemic. We have lost the ability to be bored and allow our mind to wander and indeed, wonder. We feed our brain instant gratification. Waiting in the queue in the supermarket? Check Facebook. Early for an appointment, mess around on your phone. Hear the ‘ping!’ of an incoming message or social media notification and we find ourselves driven to check it immediately. We know this is true, but we don’t all know why it is true. And the answer is dopamine. A chemical release in our brain that makes us feel gratified in that instant. It’s an addictive feeling and we seek it out now more than ever because our social media apps feed it. Thus, we have found ourselves in this state of needing our distraction device with us at all times – to the point that we feel busy and tired all the time – but in actual fact, we achieve very little. High performing individuals often find themselves feeling frustrated with their general level of valuable output at the end of the day – and this is why. The busywork, the shallow tasks, the instant communication (which is a great tool) has been allowed to set the ridiculous norm of general availability 24/7. In order to take control of our focus, and what is worthy of our time, we need to take a few steps back and remember that we are in control of the tools and apps we use at work.
Structuring communication is key. Fix a few thirty-minute “office hour” windows during the day when your colleagues know that you’ll be at your computer reachable by instant messenger and phone. This is when you communicate with your colleagues during the day and make decisions, plan things, talk through ideas. Choose conversation over email, and use email as far as possible to only send files and information.
How to get started with Deep Work
- Train your brain to be better at focusing (example: put your phone away after dinner)
- Embrace boredom. Resist the urge to distract yourself when you have a few minutes of idle time.
- Set aside time for deep work (example: set aside six hours a week for deep work, this can be time blocked out in two-hour chunks)
- Make a move in your life that signals to yourself that you take the ability to focus seriously (example: remove social media apps from your phone; unsubscribe to emails you anyway don’t bother to open anymore anyway).
- Schedule times in the day that you answer email, make calls, run errands.
- If you are working on a research-based paper, spend time writing without the internet at hand. If you need to look something up, make a note of it to do later, this way you don’t go down the rabbit hole of the internet when you should be putting down more words.
Follow in the Footsteps of Great Minds
Many of the great leaders of our time all spend time in isolation applying their minds to complex problems and have made a huge impact in the world we live in. Carl Jung built himself a tower in the woods to get quality focus time. Bill Gates has a think week twice a year where he goes to a cabin without internet to read and think about problems. Roald Dahl had a writing hut in his back yard, and many more leaders talk about taking time out to think and apply their minds.
What will you do to wean yourself from distractions that are stopping you from having a profound sense of focus to do meaningful work?