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BOOK REVIEW: The value of deep work

09 August 2016, 19:01 Ian Mann

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport

WE LIVE with constant distraction. How debilitating this is, and how negatively it affects our productivity, cannot be overestimated. Professor Cal Newport’s book is a superb description of both the problem and its solutions. The title, ‘Deep work’, refers to the ability to concentrate deeply without distraction.

First, the problem. When we lived in an industrial economy, most employees met expectations without ever cultivating an ability to concentrate. This is no longer the case. Today, deep work is the critical skill for value creation.

More of us today are knowledge workers, and deep work is our key currency - though many don’t recognise this. Deep work is not an old-fashioned skill, fast sliding into irrelevance: on the contrary, it is the most valuable skill of the 21stcentury. Oddly though, many believe mile-wide-and-an-inch-deep suffices, just Google…

If what you are producing is mediocre, you should be concerned. It’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online. Success is a function of producing the very best, and that task requires depth. And the very best is extremely rare, and therefore extremely valuable.

The few who cultivate the skill I describe in this review will thrive.

Newport’s purpose in writing this book is to guide readers in training their brains and reorganising their work habits so that deep work becomes the hallmark of their professional lives. This involves managing or getting rid of the ‘shallow’ activities that interrupt and distract, and painstakingly developing the intensity of your work.

(Yes, there are a few who thrive without deep work. They tend to be high-level executives at major companies, but both research and experience shows, you cannot extrapolate the approach of these executives to other jobs. Their behaviours are specific to their extremely rare positions.)

Newport, a tenured professor and involved family man, is among the deep workers who keep up a voluminous production rate, but rarely work beyond 17h00 or 18h00 during the work week.

Key skill to help you become a superstar

This approach gives one the ability to master hard things quickly, a key skill in the attempt to become a superstar in just about any field (not only technology.) Producing quality with speed is the key to staying at the edge in rapidly changing times.

The deep work equation is: High Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus).

When you move from one task to another, your attention doesn’t follow immediately or necessarily. A residue of your attention always remains locked on the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on the first task was unbounded and of low intensity, such as internet surfing or Facebook updating.

“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task, free from distraction,” Newport explains.

In many contexts, both we and our colleagues believe that if you’re not visibly busy, it is assumed you’re not productive. This is so 20th century! Since deep work is hard, and shallow work is easy, it is no surprise which is more common.

Deep work takes many forms. When you have bought into its value to you, you will need to decide which form best suits your lifestyle and work requirements. Trying to do deep work in an ad hoc fashion is not an effective way to manage either your time or your limited willpower.

When you decide to learn a new discipline, or research and write your book, you will require long hours of studying and uninterrupted concentration. An extreme approach you may take is the ‘Monastic’ version. This approach requires that you maximise your efforts by completely eliminating, or radically minimising, all your shallow obligations and distractions. No interrupting calls, emails, tweets, etc.

How Jung did it

When Carl Jung wanted to revolutionise the field of psychiatry, he built a retreat in the woods. He didn’t ‘go monastic’, but rather maintained his very intense clinical practice, and retreated for extended periods to the woods. Only dedicating extended periods of time to his pursuit would achieve the maximum cognitive intensity required for breakthroughs to occur. Newport calls this approach the ‘Bimodal’ approach.

If even an hour away from your inbox makes you uncomfortable, then certainly the idea of disappearing for a day or more at a time will seem impossible, but there are alternatives. The 'Rhythmic' approach to deep work has become very popular among writers and fitness enthusiasts, who thrive on the ability to do hard things consistently. The goal “is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep”, Newport explains.

This often takes the form of work in 90-minute chunks, the period shown to be correct for easing into a state of concentration. In this approach, time (e.g. 05:30 to 07:00 daily) is scheduled, and is effective because the routines are rock solid, making sure that work gets done on a regular basis.

It is also possible to adopt the ‘Journalistic’ approach, which entails working whenever you have free time. Like a journalist who fits her writing into the gaps she finds between investigations and research, this is another way to achieve quality work. However, it is extremely difficult and exhausting for most people to switch into and out of deep work mode.

Much of the book is dedicated to advice on how to get the most from the effort required to produce at elite levels. The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained, so it requires perseverance.

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life, designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration,” Newport explains.

You will need a set time and a quiet location. Start with a ritual – tidying the desk so it is uncluttered, or a cup of coffee. Stop when your time is up with a ritual - tidying up, assessing your progress, or reading your messages.

“When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.” Time out is essential to productivity.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone whose productivity is directly connected to the quality of their work. That doesn’t exclude too many.

Readability: Light ---+- Serious
Insights:      High +---- Low
Practical:      High -+--- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

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