Embracing Deep Work

One book I’ve come back to a few times the past few years is Cal Newport’s “Deep Work.” For those of you not familiar with the term, “deep work” is focused work without distractions. Basically, instead of just doing “shallow work” - emails, talking upon talking, etc. – deep work is something that requires you to actually think & create. I strongly believe it’s one of the missing pieces to avoid being overwhelmed by the waves of uncertainty of our times.

Newport lists three reasons Deep Work matters.

  1. It’s meaningful - the more you do it the better you feel;

  2. It’s valuable - it’s the source of new insights and innovation – research, books, films, cooking, art - creation require focus; and

  3. It’s scarce - it’s as rare as a hen’s tooth since our society has the collective attention span of cocker spaniels.

Newport’s main thesis is that while deep work is the most valuable, in our current world most of us can’t do it – we’ve forgotten how. When I’ve suggested Deep Work to people on my team in the past, a number of times I’ve hear them say they’ve forgotten how to focus for more than a handful of minutes at a time. This isn’t only a teenager immersed in TikTok - this is people in their 30s and 40s. There are too many distractions around us all and distraction is the destroyer of deep work.

So what’s the trick? How do we break this anti-pattern and get the sweet nectar of deep work?

First, you need to make time for it. It turns out most people are too busy to work. To break this pattern you need to squash all the shallow attention nippers - reduce your distractions and focus. Some suggestions for this are to massively reducing your use of social media, creating slots on your calendar to have focused work (and sticking to them!), and only checking email a few times a day instead of checking all the time. If you analyze very productive people they max out at around 3 hours of deep work per day, so that’s a great goal if you can achieve it. If you sit down and need a technique to start, I’d also encourage Pomodoros as a technique (25 minutes “ON” and 5 minutes forced breaks) (I wrote more about that in, "Parable of the donuts, or, How to stop procrastinating.”)

The second key to deep work is you need to find ways of increasing your concentration during focus time. If you sit down and you have the attention span of a sparrow, you aren’t likely to have a very productive session. Attention is like a muscle - it gets better with use so it helps to train your attention. Three great ways of doing this are increased memorization (memory palaces and speed memory challenges are two good approaches - e.g., memorize decks of cards and time yourself), increased & frequent meditation sessions, as well as monotasking throughout the day.

Finally, the last important step is to rest your brain when you’re not working. You have to get really good at relaxing. If you don’t build in periods of real rest (in a fractal way), then you will not be able to be focused when you need to be. And to clarify, by rest I mean actual rest, not doomscrolling. A few suggestions for this are to embrace deep rest, embrace device free sabbaths and to monotask during your resting days as well.

This note is my reminder to myself to do more deep work. Anytime I abide by what I mentioned above I feel more productive, more creative, more focused and happier.

The rest of the Deep Work book is also fantastic so if this resonates at all, I highly recommend picking it up.