Personal Performance Breakthrough Through Deep Work

Deep Flow 2

xraydelta follower Cameron, in response to the recent post Think Better, recommended the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. This post features some reactions to the book by The Art of Charm and a link to their podcast with the author.

I liked the book and the podcast because it provided food for thought on the benefits of focused work and the perils of distraction and a misguided belief in “multi-tasking.”

As I see it, what Newport calls “deep work” is the essential element to developing rare and therefore valuable skills. Conversely, a life spent almost entirely in shallow, distracted work will not generate in you, your team and your organization, the skills and intellectual capital that will make you, your team and your organization one of those who thrive, not just survive.

A few quotes:

You can’t separate the part of your life where you really want to focus from the part of your life where you’re incredibly frenetic and not tolerating a moment’s boredom. In other words, if you spend an entire evening on Facebook, and the tablet and the computer switching back and forth at the slightest whim, then the next day when you show up at the office and say “now I want to concentrate really intensely”, you’re going to struggle.

You have to regain a comfort with boredom to reset the foundation for concentration.

Without deep work you’re not going to get to the elite level in your field that will allow you to succeed in the new economy because it’s only through deep work that you produce things that are rare and valuable.

This is an economy that will reward people who are comfortable doing hard concentration on things that matter. You don’t want to be one of the numbed masses that is just receiving click bait little treats so that so their attention can be mined and sold for pennies to advertisers all day until you look up one day and your boss says ‘hey, we have a bot now that can move emails around so we don’t need you any more’.

Multi-tasking died as a concept. In the early 2000’s, late 90’s there’s this notion that you can do several things simultaneously – be on the phone while you’re doing an email, while being in a meeting or something. The research that has come out, especially Stanford, established that that doesn’t work. When you’re trying to do multiple things you’re doing each of the things worse. Even when people are doing one thing but every 15 minutes do a quick check of the email inbox or a quick check of the phone, we now know based on research that these quick checks have a devastating effect on your ability to produce at your full cognitive capacity. Every time you change your attention even briefly to another target like an inbox, that shift in attention leaves behind a residue that researchers call “attention residue” that reduces your cognitive capacity for up to 20 to 30 minutes after that shift happens. Most knowledge workers work with constant quick checks. That means that most knowledge workers are operating with a severe impairment on their cognitive capacity,

It sometimes feels like we took a whole generation of millennials and convinced them that they’re going to be social media consultants for large companies. The fact that you’re connected all the time is great because you’ll be valuable and can set up Twitter accounts for companies. That’s like being a light bulb changer. I couldn’t think of something more of a commodity in the market place.

You’ve got to be careful about what tools you bring into your life. You don’t want things in your life that are going to be like cognitive junk food.

What a lot of people say is ‘well in my job I really got to be in touch with my clients all the time or it’s important to keep up with my team all the time.’ That type of work is not so hard to replicate and it’s not the case that your job really depends on that stuff. A lot of time when people say ‘my job requires non-deep work’ what they’re really saying is ‘my job, the way I run it now doesn’t give me any time for deep work.’ But that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t do it even better if you radically rethought it to focus on depth.

The Art of Charm podcast covering Deep Work with the author Cal Newport:

or download the mp3.

From The Art of Charm:

In episode 515 of The Art of Charm, Cal talks to us about the difference between shallow work — what most of us experience — and deep work — a focused approach that makes us happier, healthier, and more productive — as outlined in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, his latest book.

Productivity is a tricky bag. Some of us consider ourselves productive when we can accomplish a workout at the gym and grocery shopping in the same day — but we’re always wondering how the hours keep flying by without notice. And then there are those seemingly superhuman overachievers who manage to squeeze every second out of every day at their job and still have time left over for a fruitful personal life.

Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, would say the difference between the two may be in the former being occupied mainly with shallow work, and the latter employing deep work.

Shallow Work vs. Deep Work

Just so we have a reference point, here’s what Cal considers the difference between shallow work and deep work:

Shallow Work: Noncognitively 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. (Low value)

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. (High value)

Why Deep Work Matters 

We have all this chatter out there about how it’s important to have a brand online and serendipity and be connected by the network and you get to moderate your social media presence and be easily accessible. None of those activities are rare and valuable. None of them are something that a 22-year-old right out of college could not also spend his or her whole day doing. If that’s what’s eating up most of your time, you’re in an incredibly fragile and somewhat dangerous position. It’s only [in] deep work, which is where you push your brain and your existing skills to their limit, that you’re actually producing real value — things that the market actually values.

The Deep Work Hypothesis 

If you feel like your ability to concentrate on any given task enough for it to qualify as deep work is diminishing, you’re not alone. Thanks to the ever-mounting number of distractions we have available in the world today — from smartphones to social media to streaming media — focusing long enough to engage in deep work is increasingly difficult and rare just as it’s becoming increasingly valuable to our economy.

Those of us who can manage to cultivate the ability to perform deep work will have an incredible advantage over the majority of the existing workforce.

“I’m not about saying distractions are bad,” Cal says. “I think we’ve forgotten, however, how valuable their opposite is. We’ve forgotten how much value is produced by deep work. Not only does it produce a lot of value, but it’s producing an increasing amount of value.”

Deep Work Isn’t Easy

“If you haven’t been practicing concentration, you don’t really know what true concentration really feels like,” says Cal. “The people who cultivate it, they’re not just a little bit more productive than everyone else; they’re massively more productive. These are the people who are stars in their fields.”

Deep work isn’t easy. If you’re doing it right, mental strain is inevitable — but necessary for getting better. It’s making use of the deliberate practice principle (as we discussed with expertise researcher Dr. Anders Ericsson recently on the show) that requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone to improve.

“The better you are at deep work, the more efficiently and quickly you can learn complicated things.”

Embrace Boredom

For those of us who are constantly going from app to app or browsing between Facebook, Twitter, and clickbait throughout the day, learning how to really concentrate enough to engage in deep work can be a daunting process. Because we’re so accustomed to this bombardment of stimuli, we need to reacquaint ourselves with its absence — or learn to embrace boredom, as Cal says. But don’t expect it to be easy.

“If most of your life is spent in fragmented attention, you are hurting your ability to concentrate when it’s time to concentrate,” says Cal. “I think — and I have anecdotal evidence to support — that you can get that back, but it’s going to be hard work.”

How Much Focus Do We Need for Deep Work?

“The differentiating factor in the 21st century is going to be those who can focus and those who cannot,” says Cal. So if we’re trying to regain our ability to focus, how much focus do we need?

“It depends on what you do for a living and what other demands you have,” Cal says. “At one extreme, you have people who do nothing but deep work, like professional fiction writers. And they’ll do five hours a day every day and that’s it. On the other hand, you have people who are maybe in a management position and they have to balance their deep work time with other obligations they can’t get out of, so maybe it’s more like five to 10 hours a week — but they’re really intense, deep hours.

“How much you do can depend on the realities of your job. But the better you are at it, the more you’re going to get out of it. And you need it happening on a regular basis.”

Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to learn more about the groups that will have an advantage in the deep work economy, why multitasking is dead, how spending the same number of hours in deep work as you would in shallow work can double your results, why open office spaces and Slack don’t facilitate deep work, what valuable positions don’t really require deep work (spoiler: you’re probably not in one), what a metrics black hole is, the positive neurological effects of focus, how a life committed to depth can be satisfying to the business and personal life, why a life of fragmented attention is conducive to anxiety and depression, the passive and active ways you can begin paving a path to deep work, what to eliminate from your life to make deep work more possible, and lots more.