In the modern world of work, most of us have turned ourselves into human network routers: we process messages and sort through task lists, having a sense of busyness. We feed instructions in one end and it executes tasks one after the other. But the human brain is not like a computer. What we lose in this reactive mode is the capacity for deep work.
Deep work is uninterrupted time that allows you to focus on bigger projects - this is when the real producing work happens. Drafting, editing, writing, reading, making, even brainstorming. Those big verbs, likely the activities that you are really good at, and are often elusive, happen in deep work. It’s easiest to think about deep work like sleep: it takes a little while to truly get into it, and then you have to be there for a while for it to really pay off. You wouldn’t consider yourself rested if you had eight hours of sleep, but were woken up every twenty minutes, or if you had spread out a bunch of short naps throughout the day. You need uninterrupted time to get to those REM stages to really restore your brain and body. Deep work is the same – we need enough time to get into the ‘zone’ and then the same uninterrupted time to really be effective.
Simon Sinek explains: “You need twenty minutes of concentration before you even get into deep thought, and then it takes another twenty minutes to reset each time you wander away.” It sounds drastic, but it’s true. Every email notification or text message can de-rail your progress. And what’s worse than that? “When we’re not physically getting interrupted, by our phones or other people, you self-interrupt. You stopped writing to go check social media or the news.” The data is clear: distractions are dangerous to productivity, and deep work is the cure.
Deep Work Makes You Happier
According to Cal Newport, Georgetown professor and author of the book Deep Work, “People engaged in deep work tend to be happier. It seems to produce an intrinsic reward – it caught me off guard during the research.” For many who work primarily in the knowledge work sector, using their brains and thoughts to produce, deep work can make a career more satisfying. “People who spend a larger portion of their professional time in a single high skill or high craft target tend to enjoy their work a lot more,” says Newport. “Deep living is good living!”
Surprise: You’re More Productive
Consider this: Leslie Perlow, professor at Harvard Business School, did an experiment with an engineering firm to enforce periods of deep work. Three days a week, there were no interruptions from 9:00am-12:00pm. They weren’t allowed to talk to each other at all during this time. The result? They saw a 65% increase in productivity and launched their project on time for the first time in the company’s history. The more surprising result? The moment they gave the option of flexibility back to the firm, all of the structure disappeared – as did the productivity.
Perhaps the most amazing thing here is that these engineers didn’t get any special training in mindfulness or concentration. Deep work in and of itself can induce flow states. Getting better at that type of attention and presence is something that requires practice, something that you can work at systematically. The good news here is that it’s a skill that can be cultivated and developed with practice, not some magic gift that some have and others don’t.
It’s Not For Everyone – But It’s Probably for You
There are some roles where deep work is not applicable or ideal: a CEO, for example, often needs to be a decision engine for other people doing deep work, though the CEO likely has some projects that would benefit from deep work that they rarely get time for. Likewise, some jobs like government relations or diplomacy that are all about networking and connections. But before you go making excuses for why this isn’t for you, Newport chimes in: “The number of jobs for which deep work isn’t helpful is smaller than people think.”
The Cost of Deep Work
Many people worry about what gets “dropped” during these periods of deep work, and what the cost is of concentrated time. Will someone else have to pick up the slack while you’re unavailable? Does this structure inconvenience others? Will you miss out while you have your head down? The truth is, we don’t know the real cost of being distracted. But consider this: sixty minutes on social media a day is the equivalent of 45 working days per year. That’s a lot of time gone! We don’t (yet) have great metrics around digital knowledge work. We can’t clearly measure the output of our brains, like we can with computers or machines, so it’s hard to pin down exactly what the sacrifices are that we’re making in a world of constant interruptions.
Admittedly, deep work may not be the most convenient way to structure your time. It can be inconvenient for the people who have to wait for you to emerge from your deep work time, and it can be inconvenient if you’re the one left waiting! But that might not be such a bad thing, according to Newport. “In this age of digital communication, we might be focusing too much on convenience over effectiveness.”
Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, offers a check on this value of convenience: “The idea that whatever I have to ask someone is inherently more important than what they’re working on is a flawed notion.” More deep work equals more value for everyone. Deep work doesn’t require an assistant or answering service to apologize for your absence, it just takes a little effort and reconfiguration on when and how people can reach you. As an independent, you can set these expectations with your clients from the start, and even use your voicemail and email signature to explain your work patterns.
Once you get into deep work habits, you might find that your ‘distracting’ tasks are best done in deep work chunks as well: like scheduling an hour to deal with all your emails. You may find that increased concentration actually improves the quality of your communication and interaction, even in these tasks that seem routine or uninspiring.
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