“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.”
According to a 2012 McKinsey study cited in the book, 60 percent of the average knowledge worker’s time is spent on email and internet searching. If you factor in meetings and other administrative tasks, that doesn’t leave much time for value-added work, which is what knowledge workers are hired to do. Newport makes a case for carving out time in our busy days to disconnect, concentrate, and make an effort at producing at our peak.
Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, has written several books, including So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and is also the author of a popular blog. His latest book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, is a blueprint for developing the ability to focus in today’s hyper-connected society. Before reshuffling your schedule to add deep work rituals, it’s vital to realize the importance of doing deep and meaningful work.
The Big Idea
Deep Work is Valuable in the New Economy
"In the 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."
Newport begins the book with examples of winners in the new economy, and describes the unique skill sets needed to succeed in today’s workplace. Of the three skills listed in the quote above, becoming the best at what you do is the key theme of his book. And the most efficient way to do that is by mastering the ability to do deep work, which he defines as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”
Two essential competencies that he believes are instrumental in being able to do deep work are: the ability to quickly master difficult things, and being able to produce at an elite level. Both of these skillsets require the ability to work for extended periods of time with full concentration. This is easier said than done, with all the social media and network tools available to us today. That is why it is so important to intentionally schedule deep work, and restrict social media for that period of time. Ritualizing deep work is a great place to start.
Ritualize Deep Work
"The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration."
Newport lists several ways one can add a deep work ritual to their schedule. The right ritual or method to incorporate deep work into one’s schedule depends on the individual and project. The first step is to decide where and for how long. Where will your deep work efforts be performed (office, conference room, library, etc.) and how long will you commit to doing deep work? It’s important to schedule a specific time, since willpower is a finite resource—you want to preserve your mental energy to focus on the deep work and not worry about scheduling conflicts.
The next step in ritualizing deep work is to add some structure, and rules or metrics, to measure progress. If you are a writer, you may measure progress by writing a certain number of words, or a certain amount of time spent researching a particular problem. It‘s vital that these metrics be determined ahead of time so that you know what’s expected, and at what point you can stop. Clarity is key.
The third and last step to adding a deep work ritual is to ensure that you have all the necessary tools needed for a successful deep work session. Examples provided are environmental factors, such as coffee, food, and any other raw material or supplies needed for the actual work. Newport urges that this support be “systematized so that you don’t waste mental energy figuring out what you need in the moment.“
Flex your Concentration Muscle
"The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained."
According to Newport, the key to valuable deep work is to train your mental muscles to do it. This will improve your concentration abilities as well as decrease your “desire for distraction.”
The first exercise tip suggested is to schedule internet use in advance. In other words, plan on focusing on work-related tasks without the use of the internet or email for predetermined times throughout the day. This will acclimate the brain to tolerate and accept focus without distraction or boredom. As you practice focusing for longer periods of time, it will get easier to resist the pull of checking email or surfing the internet.
Newport also suggests something he refers to as productive meditation. He describes this as focusing your attention on a specific problem that’s troubling you while you’re doing a physical task such as walking, running, or showering. This is useful for strengthening your distraction-resisting muscles and sharpening your concentration.
According to Newport, spending time in nature also builds concentration. He cites studies supporting this assertion and believes this “allows your directed attention resources time to rebuild.” The reason for this replenishment is that our brains can take a break when walking in a park or forest preserve because it does not have to navigate busy streets and crowds. If you’re a city dweller and not close to a park or forest preserve, listening to music or going for a run can have similar benefits to a stroll in the park.
If you’re looking to replace the shallow task-filled days with more meaningful duties, this valuable book is a great hands-on guide. Create a plan and ritual to boost your concentration and go develop the deep work for your focused success.
How will you be creating time and space for deep work?