The way most of us spend most of our time at work is terrible.
We spend our hours pushing around pieces of information, being distracted, and never being able to dive particularly deep in anything. Not only does this style of work often not feel very good (think about how you feel at the end of a day where you made substantial progress on an important project versus bounced from unimportant to unimportant task) it’s robbing the world of the type of work that produces innovative ideas, creative insights, and truly valuable contributions.
We live in a world of Shallow Work when we (and our organizations) would be better served by becoming masters of Deep Work.
“Deep Work: 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.”
“Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
Trying to squeeze meaningful and world-changing work out of Shallow Work is like trying to squeeze a glass of orange juice out of a dried apple. It ain’t gonna work and I’m not really sure why you’re even trying to do that in the first place.
Cal Newport’s new book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, provides a deep (no pun intended) and convincing dive into what Deep Work is, why it’s important, and most importantly, how we can get better at it. His basic hypothesis:
“The Deep Work Hypothesis: 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.”
Your job has a foundational task or activity that would benefit from Deep Work. If not, then the skills you need to develop in order to upgrade yourself to a job where Deep Work is valued can only be developed through the practice of Deep Work anyway. For Cal, the primary driver of his professional success is publishing academic research. As an organizational design consultant and PhD student my Deep Work practice is focused on completing complex academic projects, writing articles for the public about the future of work, and thinking through, planning, and preparing for the projects we do to help our clients. Regularly diving into intense concentration and frankly uncomfortable levels of focus are what separate the people who add value in any profession from those who dabble in the unremarkable shallows.
Developing the ability to Deep Work is definitely an individual project that requires commitment and effort on behalf of each person. However, most organizations aren’t doing much to help us get there.
In fact, most organizations promote Shallow Work while nearly systematically destroying the environment in which Deep Work can be done all while expecting the type of results that only Deep Work can produce. That’s weird, right?
The nice thing about this paradox, though, is that there is an incredible amount of room to grow when it comes to how organizations think about the way they support the Deep Work practices of their employees. Most organizations suck at it, meaning if yours gets even moderately better you will be far ahead of the pack. And those who don’t? Well, that’s basically business as usual (your mileage may vary about how useful ‘business as usual’ is to your organization).
Let’s take a look at a handful of organizational practices that are destroying your employees’ (and your own) chance at doing any Deep Work:
Open Office Plans
Open offices — great for hearing about your coworkers’ weekend and collaboration. Not so great for doing Deep Work.
The ability to accomplish Deep Work hinges on the elimination (or at least reduction) of distractions. True Deep Work requires full concentration on the task at hand. Anyone who has tried meditation knows how difficult it is to do that even when sitting in a room by yourself — it gets even harder with the visual and auditory distractions of a room full of people all doing their thing. Open office plan evangelists like to talk about the possibility of collaboration and spontaneous innovation borne from bumping into other folks and having cross-disciplinary conversations. There may be something to that, but there’s a balance to strike. At some point most ideas and projects require someone (or a small group of people) to go deep.
Does that mean you need to start looking for a new job if you’re currently forced to work in an open office setup? Of course not. But it does require that you scope out your environment for the nooks and crannies that will let you sneak away for an hour or two to really focus on the difficult work at hand. Squat in that extra conference room, claim an empty spot in part of the office where fewer people know you, or get really good at working with headphones on. An open office isn’t ideal for doing Deep Work but it can’t be an excuse to not even try.
Deep Work sessions usually only become valuable at 60 or 90 minutes. It takes time to really get into the meat of something and to push your concentration abilities to their breaking point, which is what true Deep Work requires. If you have to head to a new meeting every 30 minutes or every hour a day can quickly become so punctured with interruptions that it can’t sustain any Deep Work. Instead we just skate from Shallow Work task to Shallow Work task as we shuffle from meeting to meeting. That’s no way to live.
Try scheduling Deep Work sessions in your calendar like you would any other meeting. If you share a calendar with your colleagues and someone asks you what a “Deep Work session” is it would be a perfect time to share this article! You can be the pebble that creates the ripple that starts the Deep Work movement in your workplace (which is great for you because the more people respect Deep Work and are developing their own Deep Work practices the fewer meetings they’ll be scheduling with you). In any case, a commitment to Deep Work won’t just happen. It takes some forethought and planning on your part to protect the space.
Poor Email & Slack Hygiene
“Oh God, the emails! The emails!”
That’s right, I’m lumping media darling and vaunted email killer, Slack, into the same category as email. Don’t shoot the messenger. It’s not the tool itself that’s the problem, but the routine and habits built around how that tool is used. In this case, the vast majority of people in the world do not need to know the moment an email enters their inbox or when they’ve been mentioned in a Slack channel. If you think that doesn’t apply to you then you probably do some kind of customer service work and you can ignore this point, have responsibilities for technical uptime, or are delusional (it’s okay — we all have our delusions).
If you keep your instant communication notifications on all day (or expect your team members to be instantly reachable at all times) you are destroying all chances of Deep Work taking root in your culture. You can’t do Deep Work and use email or Slack as a real-time communication tool exclusively. It just won’t work. Don’t blame me, blame your brain.
Blurry Lines Between Work and Life
Deep Work is an intense experience. It demands the full reservoir of concentration and mental effort every time we engage in it. As such, it can only be done for relatively short periods of time (masters can maybe do around four hours a day) and it’s profoundly draining. The only way to do it consistently is to use time away from work to fully recharge.
For Cal, that means rarely thinking about work (let alone doing work) after about 5:30 PM. If you just laughed under your breath at the idea of ever being able to do that then your organization doesn’t actually care about having you do your best work every day. Deep Work means working as intensely as you’ve ever worked before while also stepping away from work regularly in a way most of us never really do.
If you’re one of the lucky folks who actually likes their job quite a bit and don’t mind thinking about it after the workday ends you may think this doesn’t apply to you. You would be wrong.
I want to share a challenge with you that I’ve been experimenting with myself (because I’m one of those lucky folks who loves his job and thinks about it all the time): when you end work for the day try to truly and honestly mentally turn off. Be deliberate about not continuing to obsess over explicit problems you’re facing in your work. I’ve discovered that keeping myself from indulging in this additional work-related thought that I am more energized and anxious to start work the following day. I keep a higher level of energy during the work day because I know that when the clock strikes 5:30 or 6:0o I’m going to take a complete hiatus from obsessing over whatever I’m working on. I’ve felt my rejuvenation to be more complete and restorative than it ever has in in the past (besides, your unconscious mind is probably going nuts trying to solve your most pressing problems so your conscious mind should use the time to take a break).
To make this work, try keeping an open text file or a page in a notebook where you jot down a quick thought when you catch yourself thinking about work after hours. It makes it easier to let go and get back to relaxing and it also gives you a fun little list to dive into first thing the next morning.
We all want to live in a world with more of the artistic creations, inspired products, and amazing ideas that Deep Work generates. It’s not enough to wait around and wait for the exalted “others” to do that work. We’re all capable of it if we care to engage our minds, learn more about the concept, and commit to practicing it over time. We can all do this on an individual level but if you’re in a position of influence over other human beings as a team leader, manager, or CEO then you can have an even greater effect.
Do yourself, and your colleagues a favor by reading Cal’s book, taking a hard look at your own Deep Work practice (modeling behavior change is often the best way to get the ball rolling), and by taking a Deep Work audit of your own organization.
To the Deep Workers will go the spoils. Don’t get left behind.
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