Cal Newport defines the term “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. To perform deep work, you must think deeply to gain insight and understanding. You must be able to take all your knowledge and sensory information related to a goal or project, digest it and synthesize the raw input into something meaningful and valuable. Deep work may produce a new idea, or an improvement on an existing idea, it may lead to a revelation or deviation from an accepted premise. Whatever it is, engaging in deep work appears to be a path to quality results.
Is everyone encouraged or even allowed to perform deep work? No, unfortunately deep work doesn’t seem to be valued. Let’s face it, no one cares about your big idea or has even asked your opinion or recommendations. Yes, this sounds suspiciously like a self limiting belief, but there is overwhelming evidence confirming it. We want our Uber drivers to drive, servers to take orders correctly, accountants to fill their spreadsheets accurately and chefs to cook. Even in situations where deep work would be expected, modern knowledge workers are more engaged in superficial daily tasks than ever before. Performing their duties in a state of fragmented attention. Professionals report up to 60% percent of their workweek engaged in electronic communication with 30% of a workers time dedicated to reading and answering email alone 1. This would be the opposite of cognitive thinking and analysis: shallow work.
Imagine how this will go over in a scrum: “Sorry boss, I didn’t complete the wireframes on time for the new client application because I needed to go to my tower in the woods and think deeply about them for a few days…but look at how good they are now!” In some alternative universe your supervisor would simply laugh it off and with a warm smile on their face like a sitcom dad from the eighties say “Oh that is a good one, we have to talk about when deep work is appropriate… don’t worry about it” More likely, you will find your half year evaluation drop a few points. However, never fear, here comes copy and paste to the rescue! Badda-bing, badda- boom, send a few emails and Bob’s your uncle. I once sat in a meeting where participants from the technology team, vendors and department heads were evaluating whether new software would be a good solution for a critical member service issue we were having. The General Manager abruptly ended the meeting by saying “OK thanks, you guys continue with the geek talk, I have another meeting to attend”. Apparently it was too much to sit through and focus on a demo and 20 minute discussion of its potential and there was “real” work to be done that did not require as much thinking. Two years later, the business had not resolved the service issue.
Some workplace environments are not conducive to deep work, staff are just trying to get by and most wisely choose the path of least resistance: completing the task, marking the ticket closed. Active thinking is compartmentalized as though complex problems can be solved on an hourly schedule like clocking in and hammering widgets all day. Please don’t rock the boat, my phone may get wet..hold on a minute…let me respond to this email…. before completing this blog post…and sending…..and….. done! What a great feeling, another day in the shallows survived. OK, what were we talking about again? We soothe the painful reminder that we are not stakeholders, decision makers, thought leaders with more shallows: escaping into our social media accounts, feeds and streaming videos. A self reinforcing cycle further reducing our ability to perform deep work. Newport asserts “Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.”
Hmmm…I guess the wireframes project was not the opportunity to show off your cognitive skills after all. Or any project for that matter, it often feels like we must earn the right to perform deep work, it must be planned, it must be deliberate. When will I have the opportunity to delve deep professionally? More importantly, will I be ready when the opportunity comes? Large companies hire smaller smarter firms to do the thinking for them, to manage change, to introduce new ideas. Outsourcing or buying innovation is today’s trend. The ubiquitous talk of “start ups” is a byproduct of successfully selling deep work.
My professor explains “There are people out there accomplishing deep work every day and we want to figure out how to be those people.” I completely agree; there is overwhelming evidence deep work is occurring and being solicited. But how? How do we enter into the ranks of individuals who use their minds to earn a living, create, innovate, improving their own standing and possibly making a better world? Where is it happening? Is it just silicon valley, hollywood or wall street? Who welcomes you into the circle? What is the price of admission into this elite class?
All the readings echo the same theme: Learning how to perform deep work is a personal journey, one that requires strength, patience, sacrifice and discipline. Your former self is the price of admission, you must evolve, become the anomaly, be the first fish that grew legs and breathed beach air deeply.
Be strong and tune out. Like a habitual smoker who attempts to run a marathon, I realized this week that I may have already damaged my ability to focus for long periods of time in isolation. I will need the strength to turn off my devices. It was agony to do all the readings, stealing time throughout my days to reread and highlight alone without interruptions. Carl Jung, Mark Twain, Bill Gates and Woody Allen are just a few examples of brilliant minds who created their best work by seeking solace. Even Superman needed the “Fortress of Solitude”2 at times when saving the world was too much. It is ironic that going into “solitary confinement” is both good for deep work and torture. I need to think deeply about that some more, perhaps somewhere by myself.
Patience is a form of strength. Delaying gratification and understanding that deep work is a process not a result. In his book “The Shallows”Nicholas Carr writes “digital technologies are training us to be more conscious of and more antagonistic toward delays of all sorts” and “intolerant of moments of time that pass without the arrival of new stimuli”3. Like a never ending Netflix autoplay series I am disturbed by the fact that my sons consider sitting through a movie or binge watching a series “long form” as compared to youtube videos and gaming.
The latest push back on addicting applications is growing. When faced with complaints about the new more aggressive Netflix app preview plays. Netflix director of product innovation Stephen Garcia told Fast Company that the video previews were designed with the goal of cutting down on your browsing time”. Basically, hurry up and get on with the next one. Don’t dilly-dally, there is plenty more time you can spend on our platform. Garcia also argued that the quiet, serene Netflix browsing experience in earlier versions was, in some ways is counter-intuitive. “Television has decades’ worth of expectation that when you turn it on, the video and audio play,” Garcia said. “So it’s actually quite strange to have a silent experience.”4Indeed like this blog post, it just goes on, and on….. and on. Warped by constant stimulation, silence is strange, pausing is delay, delay is discomforting. Humans would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 10 minutes. The human attention span was designed to be distracted, the visual cortex was supposed to scan, to look for dangers. Concentrating on one thing actually makes you vulnerable from a biological perspective.
Ignore natural selection! Exist in the moment, take your time, scroll away, write notes in the margins. I miss flipping through old cds in flea market bins, running my fingers along book spines at the library. We have lost tactile exploration as part of any experience. When possible, schedule or build in time to reflect on your efforts. This will clarify your perspective and analysis. Information is food, digest it properly. Jean-Paul Satre 5 would be proud of your exhibiting enough patience to just exist.
Sacrifice the things that truly do not matter. Give up the behavior that detract from your goals. Can I live and pursue my dream on less income? Do I need to go out tonight? Do you really need to shop right now? Am I leaving the comfort of a job I know for the unknown? Do I really need to post a photo of that awesome bagel I had this morning? Is my friends cat video that fascinating? Ask yourself if the intent of the action, am I using my phone right now to appreciate the moment or escape from it? How much are you willing to give up to produce deep work?
Discipline yourself to establish peace and balance. New behavior patterns are established through routine. Do not stop taking care of yourself to design something new. Exercise regularly and be healthy. The mind needs a strong healthy body to produce great work. The best personal improvements happen in a gradual and deliberate way.
As I return to school, pursuing my masters degree in interactive media, in part motivated by the desire to find and engage in work that matters, I welcome the concept of deep work. My reasoning going into the commitment (debt, discomfort, risk) would be that the higher degree would somehow validate my ability to perform deep work for others. That someone would look at my resume and say “Look he has a masters, he must be able to produce deep work” validating my ability to contribute to the economy like a commercial drivers license allows you to drive a truck on the freeway. My “geek talk” would be respected and notable. I realize that this is naive and this new beginning is not just about getting a higher paying job that I can tolerate… but becoming the person who can fill that role. Apparently, I will even need to break with evolution. Sorry Mr. Charles Darwin, I really need to concentrate on this book right now and the only predators I worry about wear pinstripe business suits and review mortgages.
I wrote this blog post in the middle of the night with my family sleeping upstairs. The house was dead silent, all tvs, game consoles, chattering, cooking, kicking, fighting, screaming, laughing had ceased. I presume this is an act of “deep work”. Hoping that by the time I have paid the price, there are still available seats.
Shawn is an Information Technology manager in Washington D.C. and a graduate student at Quinnipiac University pursuing his masters in Interactive Media and Communications.
Graphic by Shawn Torres, underwater photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash Royalty Free Stock images.
- NEWPORT, C. (2018). DEEP WORK : rules for focused success in a distracted world. S.l: GRAND CENTRAL PUB.
- Fortress of Solitude – Wikipedia. (2018, August 26). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fortress_of_Solitude
- I have forgotten how to read. (2018, February 09). Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/i-have-forgotten-how-toread/article37921379
- Jackson, D. (2018). Netflix Does Not Care if You Hate the Auto-Play Trailer Feature. Thrillist. Retrieved from https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/netflix-autoplay-previews-turn-off-hack#
- Jean-Paul Sartre – Wikipedia. (2018, August 31). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Paul_Sartre
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