In An Age of Epic Distractions, How Do You Make A Dent In The Universe?
You sit down to work in your open office. You are beginning an important project that needs undivided attention for successful execution.
You glance at your inbox to see fifteen unread emails since you last checked. Your smartphone buzzes with updates from your favorite social networks. Your Slack notifications demand immediate attention for tasks that you are working on. Your colleague starts a discussion on last night’s debate and you get pulled into the conversation.
Before you know it’s lunch hour and you haven’t made any progress on your assignment. How do you make the hours matter when outstanding work is the barometer for career success?
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport shows you how to deliver without burning out. Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University and the author of five books, including the bestselling So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
What exactly is Deep Work and why does it matter?
Deep Work is all about “professional activities performed in a distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”
A commitment to deep work helps you stand out in your chosen field, create value for your company, and generate economic rewards. Individuals as diverse as Woody Allen, J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates, and Carl Jung share a common trait: an ability to cut down diversions and get important stuff done.
Why are knowledge workers unable to concentrate and go deep? Cal Newport attributes shallow work to the rise of network tools (email, chat, and social media) and media sites (Business Insider and Buzzfeed). Email consumes 30% of a knowledge worker’s time, which translates to two and half hours per day. Frequent interruptions and the inability to focus on critical projects lead to stalled careers.
Given that you can’t live without email and smartphones, how do you make the time for important work?
Here’s the challenge confronting all of us: “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.”
Here are four rules for embracing deep work and achieving your true potential:
Rule #1: Work Deeply.
Add routines and rituals to block times where you can focus on important work (see The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg). Newport describes four contrasting philosophies for deep work, monastic (where you work for days together by limiting social interaction), bimodal (where you carve aside exclusive time for deep work while still addressing routine tasks), rythmic (where you push the envelope by working on important projects every single day), and journalistic (switching to a deep work mode whenever you find the time). Rituals are important for deep work. Create a daily schedule for deep work where you can dedicate long chunks of time (at least two sessions of 90 minutes each) without interruptions.
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom.
To get your brain to focus on deep work, you need to stop attention switching. Research has shown that multitasking hurts productivity and makes you dumber. If you are waiting in a queue or your vehicle is stuck in traffic, resist the temptation to check your phone. Train your brain to embrace boredom instead of seeking instant gratification. Establish specific times for catching up on email or social media so that you are not constantly activity switching. Scheduled distraction allows your brain to focus on high value activities and resist the temptation to shift gears.
Rule #3: Quit Social Media.
The addictive nature of network tools reduces your ability to work with intensity (read Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal). For deep work, maximize your willpower by removing diversions that eat away your time. Take a craftsman approach to tool section by figuring out the positive and negative aspects of each tool. Adopt a social tool only when there’s huge upside that outweighs the negative aspects of hyper distraction. Read Newport’s Why I Never Joined Facebook and Why I’m (Still) Not Going to Join Facebook for context.
Rule #4: Drain The Shallows.
Shallow work is “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks often performed while distracted.” Frenetic shallow work (responding to emails, meetings, and status updates) consumes most of your time. If you actually ignore most of your shallow work, there’s going to be zero revenue impact. Tame shallow work by scheduling every minute of your day (both work and relaxation) so that you treat your time with respect. Quantify the importance of each activity to focus on work that leverages your skills, experience, and engages your mind.
Buy a copy of Deep Work to start doing your most challenging and rewarding work today.