In Praise of “Deep Work”

As focused attention becomes rarer and rarer in our distracted culture, the people who cultivate focused attention will find themselves becoming more and more valuable.  In other words, you can’t afford NOT to be doing deep work.  This is the thesis of the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, a book that I cannot recommend highly enough.  Here’s why.

 

Deep Work: A Definition

Cal Newport, computer science professor at Georgetown University, defines deep work in this way:

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.

In contrast with deep work is shallow work:

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.

Most knowledge workers spend most of their time engaged in shallow work–email, anyone?–so that, though they may be busy, they are not productive.

The people who are writing the best-selling books, making the blockbuster movies, creating the irresistible advertising campaigns, winning the major tournaments, and leading the market-beating companies, these are the people who are doing deep work (whether they realize it or not).  Deep work makes a difference.

The Deep Work Hypothesis

The prevalence of shallow work in our culture leads to Newport’s deep work 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 [and becoming valuable because it is becoming rare–AF]. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Newport also argues that deep work actually makes people happier.  As someone who has certainly spent a day being busy without being productive, I know that he’s right: I’m happier when I’m able to focus.

So, if you want to thrive in our knowledge work economy and if you want to be happier while doing it, you need to learn how to do deep work.

The Deep Work Rules

Newport has come up with what he calls The Rules of Deep Work.

  1. Work Deeply
  2. Embrace Boredom
  3. Quit Social Media
  4. Drain the Shallows

1. Work Deeply

Deep work is something we can learn how to do.  Focused attention is not something you can just turn on or off–it’s something that must be trained and cultivated, like a muscle.  Just as someone who spends his time sitting on the couch eating Doritos and watching television cannot overnight become a marathon champ, neither can someone who spends his time like that be immediately good at deep work.  Deep work requires practice and planning.

2. Embrace Boredom

Internet tools (social media, on-demand video, infotainment sites, etc.) have taught our minds to need constant stimulation, but deep work requires focused attention, and our need for shallow stimulation will undermine our ability to do deep work.  Therefore, we need to embrace boredom.  It’s good to resist the urge to pull out your smart phone when waiting in line at the post office: our minds need boredom.

3. Quit Social Media

You knew this was coming, right?  Newport makes the argument that people who are actually producing deep work (best-selling authors like Michael Lewis, e.g.) produce deep work because they do not allow themselves to be distracted by social media.  I know lots of people believe that social media is like alcohol–to be used and enjoyed in moderation.  I wonder, though, if social media is more like heroin: addictive and distracting for everyone.  (UPDATE: In conversation, I could say something provocative like that and you’d understand from my jocular tone what I was trying to convey, but I realize that, if you just read those words, they come across differently.  My church actively uses social media (and I use it, too) and I have many friends who work in social media marketing; if I really believed that social media was the same thing as heroin, I’d stop using it immediately.  I think social media marketing is necessary in our culture.  My point is just that I think all of us are much more easily distracted than we want to admit.)

4. Drain the Shallows

By “drain the shallows,” Newport means that we should aggressively eliminate the non-essential from our working lives.  For example, he gives practical tips on how to cut down on email, a major source of shallow work for most people.

Why I Need This Book

About 45 times a year, year after year, my professional responsibilities require me to create a brand-new, relevant, engaging, and faithful presentation and then deliver it in front of an average live audience of about 1,000 people, each one of whom is judging me savagely (even if they seem to be nice people!) on that presentation.  In addition to that, I also create multiple smaller presentations and essays through the year that also need to be original, relevant, helpful, and faithful.  In our distracted world, it seems as if everything but the truly important is screaming LOOK AT ME!  PAY ATTENTION TO ME!, and so I’ve come to the following conclusion:

if I don’t learn to do deep work, I’m not going to make it.

Deep Work is one of the most insightful, practical, and challenging books I’ve read about work and creativity…maybe ever.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

★★★★ excellent

 

 

 

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10 thoughts on “In Praise of “Deep Work”

  1. I have often wondered how a pastor could come up with a thought provoking sermon every week, as well as a blog, email blast, newsletter, etc about once a week as well, while having to deal with all the important day to day management tasks that come with the responsibility of herding the cats in your congregation (plus the occasional bible study, small group, or other speaking engagement), not to mention and the intermittent weddings and funerals, etc. How many of these require deep work? Most of them, I am guessing. How can you find time for any shallow work? And isn’t shallow work necessary to just give your brain a little of that kind of work too? I don’t know how you guys do it. Any tips on how you manage to do the deep work (and find the time to do deep work)? For us, would too much church involvement sometimes qualify as shallow work? If you have some kind of church or faith work essentially “on your calendar” almost everyday, is that good (we are suppose to pray without ceasing). Since we cannot literally pray without ceasing, I think sometimes I tend to have some activity planned almost everyday that keeps me in touch with my faith, my Lord, my God (if not a small group, church committee, bible study, accountability group, etc,, then there is the reading for each of those). The end result sometimes feels like we are just scratching the surface with each of those activities (is that shallow work?). And if you are a parent and have to mix in all the soccer games, dance recitals, etc. – the lack of deep work even becomes more pronounced. Should we limit our activities (church or otherwise) so that we have time for going deeper with regard to one or two a week, or is that even too much to go deep with. How do you do it and how can we do it. Sorry if this reply to your message is itself more shallow work for you (and me too)! Does deep work always require a lot of time or can it be just a quick dive into the deep end?

    • Paul,

      You’ve hit on one of the main challenges of my job. To answer your question, I definitely think that having a full calendar of commitments–even church commitments–is too much. Deep work takes time–it can’t be microwaved.

      Here’s what I do:

      1. I say no to almost everything. I could spend all my time agreeing to other people’s requests, most of which aren’t really going to move the ball down the field.

      2. I have an assistant (or, I’m trying to hire one right now!) whose main job is to protect my time. I basically always say yes to someone who needs pastoral counsel or care, but I am at the point where I need to say no to most other requests for my time.

      3. I don’t have social media on my phone.

      4. I have started going to my office first thing and not taking my phone or computer with me, and just working long-hand.

      5. I (supposedly) go to bed early.

      6. I never do anything on Saturday evenings, if I can possibly help it. (Weddings obviously are an exception.)

      Read the book–it’s just so good.

      Andrew

  2. I, too, have often wondered the same thing Paul mentioned. How do you do it??

    Thank you for recommending this book. I definitely need to read it. Often I use the excuse that my brain needs a break from work so I peek at FB or email, and then the distractions begin. Coincidentally, I have been working on a project at work that is outside of my comfort zone so it has entailed quite a bit of what I would call deep work. Interestingly enough, this project has brought me more satisfaction at work than I’ve had in several years. In fact, I could go back about two years, when I worked on another project outside of my comfort zone. Deep work certainly isn’t the easy way to go, but it can be very rewarding.

    Thanks again for all you do for our corner of the world.

    • Christina,

      So glad to hear that deep work is making a difference for you right now.

      Here’s the problem with Internet distraction. If you took a break from work to do yard work, for example, every minute you were working outside would equal every minute you are NOT working. There is a one-to-one correlation. With the Internet, however, I don’t think that one-to-one correlation holds. The Internet is rabbit hole, and one minute can quickly lead to 30. But, even is we had perfect self-discipline to only browse the internet for a predetermined amount of time, that time on the internet makes us LESS able to focus on the work that matters, because the Internet encourages immediacy and a need for stimulation, precisely the values that work AGAINST our ability to do deep work. So, when we decided to take a break from work and browse the Internet or check Facebook or whatever, I think it’s not one-to-one in terms of time used, but that each minute away from work and browsing only costs us many more times the actual minutes we lose. Does that make any sense?

      –AF

      • It makes perfect sense and I agree 100%! You see one thing, which leads to something else, etc. Unfortunately, it reminds me of leaving one room to complete a task but five tasks later I still haven’t completed the task at hand. But I think that is just called getting old. ☺️

  3. I am currently reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (a book referenced by Cal Newport in Deep Work). In it he describes the physiological changes that our brains endure when exposed to shallow work, particularly the internet. It is frightening to have someone articulate just how adaptive our amazing brains are, and how dramatic the effect can be when our brains work against us. I am only about half-way through the book, but the message is clear – shallow work not only forces the synapses in our brains to adapt to performing such tasks, but to crave it. This craving changes the way our brain processes information, sometimes permanently.

    Working in a corporate environment, my attention is relentlessly assaulted via email. Research, market updates, requests for coffee, LinkedIn requests, building construction updates, compliance training requirements, new parking policies, birthdays, new business status updates and community service volunteer opportunities. Those are just the ones I can see on my screen right now. Unfortunately I cannot completely avoid technology, but here are a few things I have done recently to combat the distractions:

    1. Set my default view in Outlook to ‘Calendar’ instead of ‘Mail’. This at least takes my resting state out of ‘react mode’ and into ‘intentional look to the future’ mode.
    2. Close Outlook completely when I need to engage in deep work.
    3. Move personal and work email phone apps away from my home screen and turn off notifications. It requires me to be intentional about checking email and only do it on my terms.
    4. Leave my phone in my car during church, meetings, coffees, interactions with friends, etc. This helps me focus my attention on what is important without the possibility of being distracted. I also think that Facebook and other social media is degrading our ability to create genuine relationships, so this one especially important. When is the last time you sat down with someone and they did not check their phone?

    • I like the tips you mentioned. I will have to give them a try. I, too, am tied to technology but practicing some of the things you mentioned would certainly help. As far as your last question – I can’t remember.

    • Yes. This is my point: these things are MUCH more powerful than we want to admit. They are shaping our desires. You are what you love.

      #4 is huge. When I leave my phone at home or in the car, I interact in a much different way.

  4. Thanks Andrew, I’m buying the book today. You may enjoy a related book by Studs Terkel called “Working.” He won Pulitzer for “The Good War,” but “Working” is highly acclaimed and compelling.

    Like everyone on this thread, I’m reminded of the weekly load of strong teaching Pastors like yourself. You have to “bring it” every Sunday. Thankfully you have the Holy Spirit to guide and carry you, but you still must be diligent in your pursuit to be a conduit of His words. No easy task at all, and major kudos to your effort to move the chains every week. Munger and the Kingdom blessed by you beyond words!