Have you ever started a project and gotten distracted almost immediately?
Your mom texts, or a co-worker knocks on your door. Or—my personal nemesis—you suddenly find yourself checking your inbox and Facebook page for no particular reason!
Before you know it, it’s the end of the week and that important project still isn’t done.
Distractions are commonplace today, and it’s widely understood that we should avoid them so we can focus and get work done.
But what I didn’t realize, until I met author Cal Newport, was the immense impact our distraction-rich workplace environment has on our collective productivity.
I had the privilege of interviewing Newport about his recent bestselling book, “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,” for our Lifehack Summit this year.
Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown with a PhD from MIT. He’s authored five successful books on learning and performance, two of which are featured on our list of 19 Effective Time Management Books for 2017, and he still finds time to manage his popular blog, Study Hacks. He claims to have the antidote for unfocused, unproductive workers—a strategy he calls Deep Work.
After applying his techniques on myself and my clients, it’s no surprise to me that deep work is heralded as “the killer app of the knowledge economy” by The Economist. It’s the ultimate skill to produce more than you ever thought possible in a short amount of time.
What Is Deep Work?
Newport is famous among his fans for his ability to accomplish superhuman feats, yet still make it home by 5pm every day. He’s a real-life case study of the dream we all aspire to, of working minimal hours but having a huge impact in our field.
As Newport describes it, his field of academia is a proving ground for how good you are with time management. A tenure-track professor is in intellectual combat with many other incredibly intelligent PhD’s from top schools to produce unique, creative research. And much like an entrepreneur, they work independently in an extremely competitive environment to produce work that adds value to their field.
“It’s a place where you have to have your A game in terms of your habits, your productivity, how you structure your work…there’s little margin for error,” Newport says.
One year, Newport published 9 peer-reviewed articles and a new book, all the while never working past 5:30pm or on the weekends.
His secret? Deep work.
Deep work is Newport’s term for focused, distraction-free work on high-value tasks. As he puts it, “Deep work is my name for the activity in which you are focusing intently, for a long period of time, with zero distractions, on a cognitively demanding task. That means zero glances at an inbox, and zero glances at a phone.”
Deep work is the activity in which you are focusing intently, for a long period of time, with zero distractions, on a cognitively demanding task.
Essentially, you’re concentrating like a crazy person to tackle your most difficult projects. This type of effort—really intense, unbroken concentration with zero distractions—can produce levels of productivity so massive that it seems like a real-life superpower.
Newport emphasizes that if you’ve trained your ability to concentrate to a high level, deep work becomes “a superpower for the 21st century economy.”
The ability to do deep work isn’t a new concept. The best scientists, writers, and business people of our time are often known for a curious ability to concentrate.
For example, Bill Gates’s powers of concentration were infamous as a student at Harvard. He would work intently at his computer until he fell asleep from exhaustion. When he woke up, he would immediately start typing lines of code again. It’s his powerful ability to concentrate that led to the start of a multi-billion dollar industry in less than a semester.“The stars tend to be stars at concentration.” - Cal Newport Click To Tweet
It’s simple, but effective. When you increase your ability to focus, it’s shocking how much value one person can produce per unit of time spent.
If there’s deep work, then there’s also shallow work. Shallow work is defined as “maintenance” work like emails and meetings that rarely push you forward. The problem with Shallow Work is that it can quickly take up your entire day if you let it.
The key, Newport notes, is to keep Shallow Work from consuming your day by defending several hours of deep work time each day.
How Can You Tell If Your Task Is Deep or Shallow?
Sometimes it can be hard to determine which tasks are deep and which are shallow in your to-do list.
To determine the depth of a task, ask, “How long would it take to train someone right out of college to do what I’m doing now?”
Ask “How long would it take to train someone right out of college to do what I’m doing now?”
Assume this college grad is bright, but has no particular skills. If the answer is “not very long” then by definition it’s something that’s likely not creating a lot of value. It’s probably not a deep work effort.
“If you’re doing something that doesn’t require hard-won skills, that a 21-year-old can be trained to do in three weeks, then by definition the marketplace isn’t going to value it that much,” Newport says.
Common shallow work tasks include answering emails, posting quips on social media, submitting expense reports and filling out paper. These are menial tasks that require little brainpower. They’re busy work.”
Put another way, “Shallow work is what prevents your startup from going bankrupt, but deep work is what allows it to grow 10x and get acquired,” Newport says.“Shallow Work is what prevents your startup from going bankrupt, but deep work is what allows it to grow 10x and get acquired Click To Tweet
Why Is Eliminating Distractions While We Work So Important?
Our brains aren’t like computer processing systems. In fact, they operate completely differently. While computers can execute one task after another with no care for the context, our brains need time to get into “flow” on a particular project.
“It turns out that actually firing up our brain to work on something is a messy, long-term process. It’s something you have to rev-up and get going,” Newport says.
Context switching, or switching rapidly between unrelated activities, has an incredible cost on your productivity. Anytime your phone dings or you check your inbox, you’re switching your context.
What’s crazy is that the duration of the switch doesn’t matter.
Whether it’s 1 minute or 10 minutes, every switch has the same impact on your performance. It’s called attention residue.
Every time you “just check” your inbox, your performance will drop. And it drops for a while.
“Every one of these “just checks” has a massive attention residue effect, which puts you into a state of self-imposed reduced cognitive capacity. You don’t even realize that the approach you’re taking to your work is significantly reducing your brain’s ability to produce value,” Newport says.
The solution, of course, is to resist the urge to distract yourself. But it’s easier said than done. With many knowledge workers being distracted or distracting themselves once every 3 minutes, it can be challenging to practice deep work for the first time. But keep at it, and you’ll build the skill fast.
Why Is Deep Work Such a Valuable Skill?
The ability to focus at a deep level is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy, while at the same time becoming increasingly rare. This tips the balance in favor of people with the ability to concentrate for long periods of time.
The ability to focus allows you to learn new things quickly, an important skill in a world where most industries are revolutionized every five years, and it also allows you to produce work at an elite level. As many jobs are automated, outsourced or replaced, the winners of today will keep up with a complicated world and produce at an elite level. Deep work is the fuel to do this.
Because so many people have succumbed to the pleasures of the distraction culture, there’s a huge business opportunity for those with an ability to do deep, focused work. It’s simply economic scarcity—fewer and fewer demonstrate the ability to focus, while at the same time focus becomes an increasingly valuable skill.
That means that if you take the time and effort to master it, you’re going to enjoy outsized rewards.
Newport’s 4 Steps to Get Better at Deep Work
Step #1: Optimize Your Environment and Your Schedule for Deep Work
If you have the ability to physically relocate yourself to a quieter, less distracting space, do it.
Deep work is not something you will stumble into. Schedule it to happen on a regular basis and start developing focus as a habit.
We have to stop thinking about focus as a luxury and constant distraction as inevitable. As Newport puts it, “Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.”
Step #2: Let Yourself Get Bored
If your mind has been trained that at the slightest hint of boredom it will get a shiny treat from our phone, then when it comes time to do deep work, your brain won’t tolerate it. “Deep work by definition is boring because there’s not a lot of novel stimuli,” Newport says.
So in order to improve your ability to focus, you should allow yourself to be bored on a regular basis. Put strict time limits on watching Netflix. Leave your phone at home regularly. Break the Pavlovian connection that boredom equals distraction!
We need to retrain our brains so that it’s much more willing—and even happy—to do deep work when the time comes.
Step #3: Delete Distracting Phone Apps for 30 Days
Newport’s TED talk on quitting social media has 2.5 million views, a testament to how relevant this topic is with Millennials today. Newport himself has never had a social media account, pointing out that such accounts would be massively distracting to his workflow while providing little value in exchange.
Newport asks that you be a lot more critical in the cost/benefit analysis of using social media and other distracting apps. By taking the app off your phones for 30 days, you can conduct an experiment to see how useful they are while removing them as a mental crutch for your boredom. This experiment allows you to be smart about what you allow to have access to your time and attention. You’ll be shocked at how many services you don’t even miss!
But at the very least, treat social media like a professional social media manager does. They put structure around their activity, instead of checking it in front of the TV when they’re bored. Instead of a source of entertainment, treat it like a business tool that’s useful and that can be used in an optimized way.
Step #4: Get Shallow Work off Your Plate
Shallow work is always necessary, but if you allow it to take over your time, then there’s none left for deep work.
The more tasks you can outsource or automate, the more free time you’ll have for focused concentration. Think about your deep work time like mining diamonds—the more time you spend chiseling, the more diamonds you’ll have.
If you want a promotion, or to launch a new business, or build a new product in 2018—deep work can truly revolutionize your output. By no means is it an easy transition. But the result more than speaks for itself. Opinions expressed here by Contributors are their own.