I’ve just finished listening to the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. It is a clear call for more focused work that is rare in our hyperconnected world. Focusing on cognitively challenging work, without distractions, produces rare and valuable output, whereas work that is constantly interrupted rarely produces value. It’s been a good reminder for me as I think how my typical day can be railroaded by a hundred distractions—the worst being attending to email—and I don’t get to the real work that will actually make a difference. Producing something valuable is hard, and it’s even harder to do when you are distracted.
In order to produce the very best you can, and something that is going to be of real value in your market, you need to work distraction free and push your attention to the limit—this is deep work. Distractions abound in our workplace—email, instant messaging, phone calls, spontaneous meetings, social media—all vying for our attention. We are often addicted to these distractions, getting a little dopamine hit every time we respond to our buzzing, beeping smartphone or pop-up notifications on our desktop computer. Cal Newport calls us to unplug from all these distractions and dedicate some extended time to focus on tasks that really matter and to push our cognitive ability in these times. The result will be something valuable and satisfying.
“I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.”
This is a competitive economy and we have to master difficult things quickly to be valuable in the marketplace. If you can rise to an elite level in your quality and speed of mastery, you will be in demand. This is not going to happen playing in the shallows of web-surfing, social media engagement, and spending inordinate amounts of your time responding to emails. Intense focus without distraction in consistent and long enough time chunks is what’s required. Our whole social fabric is veering away from this way of working. Massive open-plan office space encourages collaboration but also distraction.
“Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.”
What Newport offers in this book is not just a wake-up call to unplug from distractions that can suck the life out of your productivity, but some very practical routines and rituals you can employ to do deep work. Don’t trust yourself! You may have good intentions to limit distractions and do deep work, but without some hard-and-fast boundaries, some concrete routines, your willpower will not be enough—you’ll get sucked back into the vortex of the shallow distracted place that many of us have been languishing for way too long.
I’ve started a new set of routines and scheduling based on Newport’s advice and I trust that this year is going to be a more focused year of doing some serious deep work.