Deep Work by Cal Newport was an enjoyable and informative read that rightly has me questioning the way that I work on a day-to-day basis, and to an even larger extent, live my life. Most of us, including myself, probably fail to reach “deep work” on a regular schedule. So we are on the same page, the following is how the author defines “deep work” and consequently, “shallow work”:
Deep Work: 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.
Shallow Work: 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.
So, why is it so hard to achieve deep work in today’s world? I am sure most of us could answer this, but here is how Cal puts this (emphasis mine):
The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: network tools. This is a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit. In aggregate, the rise of these tools, combined with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers. A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone.
Sound like your typical day? If not, congratulations!
When I read that for the first time in the book I realized that I had a problem. If I take stock of my typical day, I spend too much time on shallow activities. Using those tools is not necessarily bad, but the problem is that when I pause to think about my personal values and what I want out of my life, spending time on these network tools does not add to the bottom line…it detracts from it.
From a personal fulfillment standpoint, that stuck out right away, but there is also the economic standpoint to think about:
The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
We hear a lot about robotics and AI taking jobs away from the masses. We hear a lot about how the current education systems don’t actually prepare young men and women to thrive in the new global economy. The scary part is that the writing is on the wall already. If you can realize that and start to focus on becoming an expert in a certain field or in a smaller niche within that field, you will at least be giving yourself a chance at success.
In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.
The challenge of course is how to incorporate deep work into our lives. Some professions, such as the authors, have a seemingly clearer path. I can think of a few professions off the top of my head that have clearer paths: Authors, Attorneys, Professors, Programmers, etc. For some professions though, the path is not so clear. In fact, the author admits that some people do not gain much from deep work at all. Sales professionals stand little to gain by blocking off their schedules for hours at a time. As do most high-level managers.
Most of us would probably benefit from incorporating deep work on at least a smaller scale, even for those who jobs may have little benefit from the exercise:
Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.
The author gives us a few different ways to incorporate deep work into our daily lives. The most practical options in my opinion are:
The bimodal philosophy of deep work. This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else. During the deep time, the bimodal worker will act monastically—seeking intense and uninterrupted concentration. During the shallow time, such focus is not prioritized. This division of time between deep and open can happen on multiple scales. For example, on the scale of a week, you might dedicate a four-day weekend to depth and the rest to open time. Similarly, on the scale of a year, you might dedicate one season to contain most of your deep stretches (as many academics do over the summer or while on sabbatical).
The rhythmic philosophy. This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep. The chain method is a good example of the rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling because it combines a simple scheduling heuristic (do the work every day), with an easy way to remind yourself to do the work: the big red Xs on the calendar.
The truth is that achieving deep work on any level is a huge challenge in today’s work environment. I truly believe that it is a worthwhile endeavor though. One of the biggest benefits I have already seen for myself is how much less time I spend on today’s networks. I deleted Facebook from my phone. I check Twitter much less. I also have only started to use Instagram and Snapchat for videos of my son which my wife takes while I am at work or away on the weekends. The positive feelings from the absence of those networks is noticeable already.
It will continue to be a struggle to always be doing something that is aligned with my values, but reading this book is a great way to re-evaluate what is really important in your life.
What activities add real value and purpose to your life? What do you currently do that detracts from those values and life’s mission? That is what this is all about at the end of the day and this book was a great reminder of that.
For those that have read it, what were your thoughts?
Have some fun out there!