Deep work in a superficial world

We all want to be valuable. We want to do things that are rewarding and contribute positively to the world around us. We would like the same for our children and those over whom we have influence. I finished reading a book this week that asks us to take a moment to consider carefully how we go about this. The suggestion that we need to make some specific changes to our daily lives to make it happen. 

By way of historical examples, Cal Newport outlines very eloquently how, throughout history, men and women who were highly productive and successful engaged in what he calls deep work. He argues persuasively that the creep of superficial activities which have become commonplace in our society, has the potential to either derail our best intentions or - if we manage ourselves well - make us more successful than we could imagine.

What exactly is deep work?
Deep work is professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Deep work is what is necessary to achieve every last drop of value from your cognitive and intellectual capacity. Deep work is what moves you forward in your career. To be of significant value in our modern economy, we must do two things:

  1. Master the art of quickly learning complicated things
  2. Produce the absolutely best work possible

And both of these require depth.

So what’s new?
It goes without saying that the last 30 years has brought huge changes in how we interact, with both those around us and the work that we do. The change that is singularly responsible for much of the difficulty in commitment to deep work is that of network tools. This broad category includes communication services like email, SMS, social media networks like Twitter, Facebook and information websites such as BuzzFeed, Reddit and a whole host of others whose aim is to distract you from work.

Newport demonstrates that the rise of these tools - combined with ubiquitous access through smart-phones and networked office computers - has fragmented our lives. And this fragmentation cannot accommodate deep work.

But I’m busier than ever!
And the counterpart to deep work is that of shallow work. Shallow work is by contrast non-cognitively demanding, consists of logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Unfortunately, much of our days are spent engaging in shallow tasks. It is very easy to fill a significant portion of our days, remain reassuringly ‘busy’, but not moving forward in our big plans to better the world.

The addiction of distraction
Consider the scenario: you are queuing for lunch and are going to be standing there for 5-10 minutes. You’re on a 20-minute bus journey to the city. How comfortable are you at being bored? Do you reach into your pocket for your smart-phone? Check your email, Facebook feed, Twitter updates, Instagram feed etc? How difficult is it to just stand or sit there and do nothing at all?

One of the necessities for doing deep work, is the ability to sit down for significant periods of time, focused on a single activity. Newport, through a range of examples based in cognitive psychology, leads us to the inevitable conclusion that ‘The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.’ And an important corollary of this need for practice to strengthen our 'mental muscle' is that we must simultaneously wean our minds from a dependence on distraction.

The author walks us through the uncomfortable link between our obsession with multitasking, society’s chronic state of distraction and the resulting effect both of these have on our ability to work deeply. He highlights that the use of a distracting service itself does not reduce our brain’s ability to focus. It is the constant switching from low-stimuli/high value activities to high-stimuli/low value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge. This teaches our mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.

The solution
The main of the book is etched around Newport’s 4 main rules for developing a rewarding life of deep work. These are:

  1. Work deeply
  2. Embrace boredom
  3. Control social media
  4. Reduce the amount of shallow activities in your day

Filled with evidence from neuropsychological research, Cal shows us how to work deeply, including the necessary approaches, rituals and the need for time out. He demonstrates the importance of embracing boredom and scheduling times for internet use - a way to take breaks from focus for distraction, rather than the other way around.

His discussion of daily scheduling is much like that of other GTD-style approaches, but with a focus on quantifying the depth in each of the activities we do. And he has a strong belief that not only can all this (usually) be completed in a 40-hour week, it actually has to be, to have available the required time for recharge. 

For me, his book has opened my eyes to my own overwhelming inability to just do nothing. It came at an opportune time, as I’m also spending time focusing on the importance of mindfulness meditation, so the two are complementary.

I believe that his writing is even more important for our children, whose brains have developed in this distracted and dopamine-dominated world. We need to make some of these decisions for them, and teach them the importance of his methods. Because in a world of distraction and superficial work, only those who can go deep will be the ultimate winners.

I purchased Deep Work through Book Depository. This is not an affiliate link.


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