Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Deep Work
Author:
Published: 1/5/2016
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It's a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy.

Key Insights

Deep Works--Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World examines the cognitive demands of productivity in an environment where technology is pulling us in many directions at once. Newport emphasizes the necessity of tuning out the ‘noise’ in order to focus deeply, an ability that is becoming increasingly rare in a society of constant multi-tasking. Through specific, action-based examples, Newport introduces readers to new strategies for engaging in deep work, ones that encourage high-level performance in a significantly shortened time frame.

Key Points

An Argument Against Multitasking

In the ten minutes, you spend reading this summary, count how many notifications you receive, whether that is emails, text messages, comments on Facebook, or likes on Instagram. Chances are, your total number of ‘interruptions’ will exceed ten. In recent years, it has become commonplace to be bombarded with notifications nearly every minute throughout the course of a day.

How can any of us be expected to focus on a single task when multiple outlets are vying for our attention all at once?

In Deep Works--Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport differentiates between two key forms of productivity: deep work and shallow work.

Shallow work primarily refers to administrative tasks that do not require a high level of critical thinking, such as checking your email, performing routine data entry, and filling out paperwork. Deep work, on the other hand, refers to a mentally stimulating, challenging task.

While shallow work can often be successfully completed while multi-tasking, deep work is negatively impacted by distractions that take-away from the overall result.

So, as you simultaneously balance your coffee mug, a toddler, and this article on your lap, you may wonder: how do we fix this?

First, adjust your perception of your productivity level.

A 2012 study from the consulting firm McKinsey discovered that the average employee spends more than 60 percent of his or her working hours using online social tools and only about 30 percent of their time is dedicated to job-related tasks.

And yet, workers feel that they are now working more than ever. Why?

In reality, more time is being spent on each task, because employees are taking more frequent breaks and distracting themselves with online and social content. Distraction is the antithesis to productivity.

Second, productivity is maximized when you focus on completing a single task from start to finish and minimizing distractions.

 Consider the following experiment with Group A and Group B. Group A was asked to complete several word puzzles. Shortly after starting, participants in this group were interrupted and told that they needed to review resumes and make faux hiring decisions instead. Group B, whose participants had also been completing puzzles, was able to finish working on the current charge before moving on to the second task.

In between the two tasks, researcher Sophie Leroy from the University of Minnesota, tested each group to see how many words from the puzzles (Task 1) they could remember.

Group A had been much more focused on the puzzle, so they remembered many of the words, but because they were concentrating so hard on that task, they were less successful in switching their mindset to the more important task--the hiring decision.

The interruption mid-way through the first task had jeopardized Group A’s ability to be successful in the second task. Plus, by jumping to a new endeavor, the group had left the first assignment incomplete.

This is similar to having a browser open with two different web pages displayed. If you switched reading--mid-way through the first page--to the second page, not only would you not get all of the content on the first page, but you would struggle to retain the information from the second page as well.

On Being Intentional

As you may be noticing, productivity does not happen by accident.

The following four approaches for achieving deep work illustrate that much of productivity is based on routines and training. A strong work ethic can be taught.

Monastic:

With this approach, you literally act like a monk and seclude yourself in a space where you do not have any distractions. There are also various Smartphone apps you can download that will allow you to ‘blacklist’ yourself from certain websites for a prescribed period of time.

Bimodal:

With the bimodal approach, you designate a specific block of time each day (such as 8 AM to 4 PM) and you get as much work done as you can--while secluding yourself--within this period. The remainder of your day stays free for personal use.

Rhythmic:

The rhythmic approach to productivity suggests breaking up your day into small chunks. Unlike the bimodal approach where you are working for a large block of time, this approach entails thirty to ninety-minute periods of deep work with breaks in between. You should also be tracking your accomplishments with a calendar for this approach.

Journalistic:

The journalistic strategy entails mapping out your day before it starts. In doing this, you identify areas where you have free time. Plus, when free time unexpectedly pops up--like when a meeting ends early--you want to maximize those precious minutes as well. It is important to remember that this strategy is intended to be methodical and not random.

In addition to these approaches, Newport encourages us to set boundaries when doing deep work by disconnecting from the Internet and turning off your phone. In some cases, he recommends leaving your home environment and trying to be produced somewhere else, like a library or a coffee shop which may have fewer distractions.

When writing the seventh Harry Potter book, J.K. Rowling checked herself into a hotel in order to avoid her chaotic home environment. Obviously this would not be a possibility for everyone, but even just a slight change in your space could make a big difference. Newport even recommends putting a “do not disturb” sign on your door!

Finally, when implementing the strategies described above, be sure to work self-care into your routine as well. Make sure you are giving your body what it needs, whether that’s some exercise, food, water, or a caffeine fix. If you do not take care of these basic necessities, you will not be able to sustain deep work for a long period of time.

Selective Technology Use

Inherently, we crave the distraction. Wherever you look, people are on their phones playing games or sending text messages, even when they are out in a group with other people.

So, who’s to blame for this phenomenon?

Evolution

From the time we are young, our brains are wired to crave distraction. Distraction often presents an opportunity and/or a risk--both of which are appealing to a curious mind. For instance, if you stop doing your work to play a video game, you will finally have the opportunity to win the final battle. For some, this would be worth risking the quality of the work.

To combat our inherent tendency to seek distraction, Newport recommends a productive meditation strategy.

Productive meditation aims to rewire the human brain by taking moments of idleness (standing in line at the grocery store, waiting for a phone call), and channeling them into problem-solving opportunities.

In doing this, you are giving your brain a workout and hopefully saving yourself time later on. Ask yourself targeted questions and prioritize your most pressing challenges first.

Newport also asks readers to consider a social media cleanse. While it might be too difficult to quit social media completely cold turkey, the author recommends that you start with a thirty-day elimination. Then, when that’s over, ask yourself if your life really suffered without social media. Did anyone really care that you gave it up?

Based on your answer to those questions, you can decide how to proceed from there.

Energy Restoration

We are all creatures of habit. Our post-work routines provide comfort and purpose, even when they include surface-level tasks like watching TV, checking our phones, and scrolling through our computers.

While the minutiae of these daily habits might not feel significant, we actually end up completely drained by the time we go to bed, because we are physically and emotionally exhausted.

So, how can we break the cycle of working all day and coming home burned out?

Effective scheduling

If you start each morning by mapping out your workday in thirty-minute chunks, you can then plan out both productivity-related and personal tasks such as catching up on email, meeting up with a friend, or eating a meal. Being more mindful of how we spend each hour of the day makes us more aware of where our time is going. That way, we do not arrive at bedtime and think...did I really just spend the last five hours scrolling aimlessly through my phone?

It’s okay if the tasks you have planned and blocked out during the day need to be re-ordered. Things change. The overall goal is not to stick to a specific itinerary so much as to cultivate an understanding of who and what is getting the majority of our time.

Relatedly, Newport suggests that we always leave our work at the office. Mixing our personal and work lives limits our mind’s ability to separate these two distinct aspects of our existence. Set boundaries, such as not checking your email after a specific hour of the day.

When you are thinking about your evenings and weekend, plan your activities around family and friends, revitalizing your mind and body, and avoiding the Internet where possible. Your mind needs space to shut down and it craves time without the constant stimulation of the online world.

Main Takeaway

Distraction is an inevitability in our world today. Everywhere you look, there is something new demanding our full attention. In order to reach our most productive selves, we must find strategies that work for us personally and allow us to be the efficient and deep-thinking people we know we can be. Whether this is setting appropriate boundaries, finding a scheduling pattern that keeps us organized or taking a hiatus from social media, we each have a responsibility to ourselves to strike an appropriate balance between our personal lives and productivity, in spite of the many distractions around us.

About the Author

Cal Newport, Ph.D., is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and the author of six self-improvement books including Deep Work (2016). He was born on June 23, 1982. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 2004 and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2009, Newport completed a postdoctoral role in the MIT computer science department where his work focused on distributed algorithms and communication systems in nature. Other titles by Newport include How to Win at College (2005), How to Be a High-School Superstar (2010), and How to Become a Straight-A Student (2006). He also has a blog, Study Hacks, which he started in 2007. Currently, Newport resides in Tahoma Park, Maryland with his three sons. He has NEVER had a social media account.

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