Focus is the IQ of the Knowledge Economy

Cal Newport — 4 Steps to Develop Deep Focus

One of the most powerful, interviews at * LifeHack Summit 2017 earlier this week was Cal Newport, a Ph.D. and Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. Although I wanted to disregard him as a Millennial (yes, reversed-age bias is a thing,) he’s just too smart.

What is Deep Work?

Deep work is doing a cognitively demanding task on which one can focus intensely, for a long period of time, with zero distractions.

Intensity can be traded for time.

Earning Tenure is a Crucible for Deep Work

Cal described earning a tenured professorship at Georgetown as “intellectual combat,” that forced him to create the Deep Work productivity framework. The academic battle sounds like the Hunger Games, but instead of life or death, it was professorship, or PhD purgatory…a job at Facebook I suppose?

Professorial candidates had to create and publish massively important, original work, to be judged by the university “murder board” — president, trustees, peers — and come out on top. The battle sounds a lot like influencer marketing, but then again, I went to the University of Wisconsin, not Georgetown.

Social media is like bringing a slot machine home with you — it’s expertly constructed to distract us from our work.

Opt Out of “Just Check” Digital Culture

Dr. Cal Newport’s TED Talk on Quitting Social Media

Social networks, although well intentioned, have created a generation of instant gratification junkies, and external validation dependency. Cal acknowledged the extraordinary pressure to conform to social media norms, and posits that quitting social media is a net positive for life. Yet, for most of us, opting out doesn’t feel like a choice.

“my friends and family acted as if I didn’t have permission to give it (social media) up.”

Cal assures that without social media the sun will rise, you will have friends and life gets better — he’s living proof. Cal is a 35-year who graduated from Dartmouth, earned a PhD from MIT, is a tenured professor at Georgetown, has authored 5 NYT bestselling books, and has a list of other personal and professional accomplishments that will make your head spin. (More about Cal here.) He seems to be doing just fine without “likes.”

Note, I talk a good game, but when I post a blog I’m as guilty as a hormonal teenager “just checking” for likes — don’t tell Cal.

Tech Meritocracy Myth

The Technopoly propagates the belief that any new technology is good — often under the guise of productivity. Why do we feel pressure to at least try the hottest new technology, for fear of miss out on something we love? Because marketers told us so and we believe them. Do we really need every new app, gadget, service, game, phone or drone released by Amazon and Apple? After all, once we get the NEW THING, we must learn how to use it. With the Deep Work framework in mind, reevaluate the cost-benefit analysis, it may curb your enthusiasm.

Nancy Regan Promoting Just Say No
“If society insisted we test something before confirming it’s not good for us, then Nancy Regan would be a heroin addict from her Just Say No campaign.”

Deeper Focus = Higher Value

The Deep Work hypotheses is based on two opposing societal forces — our ability to focus is becoming increasingly valuable, and, we’re getting worse at it.

“It’s classic economic scarcity — something is getting more valuable at the same time it’s getting rarer.”

For me, the most disturbing issue is how the scarcity dynamic will shape our children. We’re at war with society and society is winning. Daily battles with my teenagers to balance their screen time is exhausting and highlights the need for an easier way to parent. “We must teach our children to learn complicated things quickly and execute upon those learnings at an elite level — the things that computers can’t transform every 5 years.” Deep work cultivates both skills and will empower our children to become leaders in the knowledge economy.

4 Steps to Enable Deep Focus

  1. Get support. Set up a support system that allows you to enforce new rules of communication. Create structured rituals around deep work and fiercely defend your time.
  2. Embrace boredom. If you train your brain to react to the slightest hint of boredom with the Pavlovian need for a shiny object, you will remain slave to that behavior. Develop a daily boredom practice.
  3. Quit social media. Whoa, don’t freak out. Cal suggests trying it for 30-days, be critical of the cost-benefit analysis and notice how you feel. Who did you miss? You’ll probably keep up with your spouse, kids and parents in old fashioned ways, like talking. If you miss the dude you barely knew in high school’s birthday, but win a Pulitzer Prize, is it net positive?
  4. Drain the shallows. Eliminate, delegate or contain the shallow busy work — emails, poorly run meetings, other people’s priorities — to make room for the things that matter.
“Shallow work prevents you from getting fired, deep work gets your company sold.”

Cal suggests we embrace digital minimalism. He encourages us to develop our own philosophy on how to manage technology in our life rather than accepting the status quo. Perhaps the thing that made Cal stand out most, was his favorite “productivity” book — The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. “He had the ability to choose the things that matter most and concentrate intensely.” How quickly we forget.

If you enjoyed this post, let me know — it will encourage me to keep writing. Over and out.

*I am not paid for this plug, but you can still get access to these interviews here for $197. As an avid conference goer for the last…ahem, 30 years I can assure you that the content — if you listen, digest and teach it — is equivalent to a year of graduate school.