Deep work is the key to doing anything useful in the knowledge economy

By Martin Vogel

The premise of Cal Newport’s Deep Work is that deep work is what creates value in the knowledge economy but our culture encourages people towards distraction. Therefore opportunities exist for those who can prioritise depth. The book outlines strategies for doing so.

Newport defines deep work as:

“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.”

Its antithesis, shallow work, is:

“Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

If the thought of a life of concentration sounds exhausting, the good news is that it is not necessary – in fact, would be counter-producive – to try to spend all one’s working time in deep work. Newport says the aim should be to minimise the shallow and get the most out of the time this frees up by committing three to four hours a day to deep work. A certain amount of idleness is necessary to make sure the time spent in deep work is productive and creative.

Newport’s book is particularly strong on how to make deep work a reality, evidently based on his years of trial and error. He says simply resolving to fit more depth into your working life won’t work. Since willpower is finite, and depleted as you draw on it, you need to build routines and rituals that institutionalise deep work in your life. These include:

  • Planning your time each day so that you know, up front, when and for how long you will work deeply and on what.
  • Recalibrating your day as soon as possible, if you get blown off course, so that you give yourself the best chance of accomplishing your focussed work.
  • Creating sprints (of perhaps 20 or 30 minutes) within your deep work time in which you ban yourself from using the internet, so that you can keep focussing on your deep work task. If you need to look up something, defer it until you can next go online.
  • Making grand gestures which increase the perceived importance for you of doing your deep work task. (Like writing a blog post every day for Advent.)
  • Focus not on the desired outcomes of your work but on what Newport calls “lead measures”, the behaviours that will drive success.

Alongside rituals of deep work, to tame the volume of shallow work in your schedule (though not eliminate it), Newport advocates becoming hard to reach and very selective about answering emails. Eliminate activities that generate shallow work, such as travel (with all its attendant admin in itinerary planning) Aim to finish work by 5.30, as this will focus the mind on cutting out the shallow stuff.

Aside from the disciplines for executing deep work, there’s also advice about training one’s psyche to be better disposed towards it. Since we live in a culture of distraction, even when we’re not working it’s important to be careful about the inputs we let into our minds. There are two aspects to this. One is to spend some of our downtime doing intellectually demanding activities, which builds the mental muscles you need for deep work. The other is to embrace boredom as a way to reduce the dependence on distraction that technology arouses. Think how easily we reach for our phones when standing in queues. This entrenches a craving that nags at us when we’re trying to work. Our idle times are actually valuable opportunities to give the mind a rest from processing new inputs. Boredom can be the midwife of creative thoughts.

Newport builds on this by advising readers to quit social media. He criticises the “any benefit” model whereby people convince themselves that grazing social media is useful because there is some value, however small, that they can identify in it. What this ignores is the opportunity cost – the way social media deplete your attention available for more important activties. Only use social network, argues Newport, if its positive impacts substantially outweigh the negative impacts.

Of all the strategies recommended in Deep Work, this is the one I’ve found has the greatest impact. I deleted Twitter from my phone without noticing any adverse impacts. Occasionally I have reason to return for some genuinely productive reason and find it exhausting to contemplate the stream of consciousness that is aggregated there. The stream people signalling their dissatisfaction with political venality and incompetence merely provokes anxiety. I can get what I need to know more efficiently by reading a newspaper and so can the bulk of my reading time on more constructive fare.

Deep Work is a practical book. But underlying it is a philosophical insight about what it means to be human. The confected busy-ness that we’ve allowed into our lives is turning us into automatons. If we’re not careful, we can find we’re spending a whole day, or even a whole lifetime, simply processing stuff and contributing nothing. Practising deep work gives us a chance to build something of value. More than that, by getting off the treadmill and exercising judgment about how we spend our time, we discover the thrill of authorship of our own lives.

Deep Work by Cal Newport. Available from Amazon.

Image courtesy Pedro Ribeiro Simões.