How to Work More Deeply in a Distracted World - Part 1: Why

By design, distractions are everywhere in a digital world, yet working deeply may be the most important ability we need to be successful in the new economy. A new book, Deep Work, by Cal Newport provides great insight into how we can better overcome this paradox.

When I'm working on a task in my office, it usually goes like this: As I'm working on it, I see that I have a new email. I tab over to the email, read and decide I need to respond right away. After responding, I go back to my original task which may involve doing some research on the internet. As I'm reading a relevant web article, I notice a link to another interesting article on another project that I may be working on, so I click and review the second article. I go back to the original article but, before I can finish, a chat session alert from a colleague pops up.

The colleague may have a question or wants me to take a look at something the two of us may be working on. I open the chat session and start a dialogue to address the question or topic. During this I see another email come in which is client related, so I immediately read it and decide to respond right away. Then, after remembering what I was originally working on, I go back to the research. It's not the most interesting read, so I notice a link on the page - "What's Marcia Brady Up to Now"?  Being a big fan of the 70's show, The Brady Bunch, and having had a crush on Marcia as a kid, I had to click on the link and see how Marcia is doing.

You may say, just get rid of all the external distractions and voila - productive day results. Not so fast. By the end of a day like above, one would think I would be highly frustrated, but the reality is, this day may not be that different than any other day. In fact, at day's end, I might even think I had a productive day working 10 hours, multi-tasking from one thing to another and feeling quite proud of myself.

Deep Work Cover.jpgAs a knowledge worker we don't necessarily have a daily measure of productivity like the number of widgets created. As a result we tend to use busyness as a proxy for productivity, which of course, deep down we know is incorrect. Being distracted has become our equilibrium state, and many times we seek it or welcome it.

Alternatively, being focused has become an unnatural state, and it's much harder for us to get into that state as well as maintain it. In addition, most of us have an expertise in our daily work such as finance, IT, marketing, operations, etc., which we work at improving, but we rarely, if ever, analyze or try to improve how we actually work within those areas during the day. These are all topics Cal Newport addresses in his book, Deep Work, and he gives us some ways to overcome and spend more time in deep work, rather than binging on distractions.

To understand more, let's first define what Newport means by the term, deep work.

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.


Why Work Deep?

The first reason for deep work is that it's valuable. Newport argues the new economy will be dominated by three groups: highly skilled workers that can work with intelligent machines, superstars that are at the top of their respective new economy fields, and the owners with capital to invest in the new technologies. He concedes that getting into the owner group isn't always something you can easily do, but the other two presents opportunities for those with two core abilities:

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

Deep work is the key to both of these core abilities. Learning quickly requires deep concentration on a new skill you want to master. Newport goes on to provide an equation that supports how deep work impacts our ability to produce at high levels.

High Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Maximizing the intensity of focus for time spent, which essentially is deep work, results in high productivity. Less focus means more time to get the same level of quality.


Why is Deep Work Rare?

If Deep Work is so valuable, then why is it so rare? Three current business trends help create this paradox. The first is the trend towards creating more open work spaces instead of individual offices. While the intent is to increase collaboration, it also encourages interruptions and distracting noise. The second trend is the use of collaboration tools such as chat and instant messaging, some of which impacted my proto-typical day in the story above. And the third is the encouragement to maintain a big social media presence. All three of these trends can work against allowing and encouraging deep office plan.jpg

Earlier, I touched on the lack of easy metrics for knowledge workers to measure their performance on a day to day basis. Even over larger periods, this is not easy as it can be difficult to directly tie individual performance to revenue, profit or innovation. According to Newport, this lack of metric results in two further barriers to encourage deep work. 

The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

In what Newport calls a culture of connectivity, where everything is immediately available, you don't have to use advanced planning and be highly organized. So the easier path is to not plan or be organized. In a similar way, email can substitute for both planning and organization, as email can drive our daily schedule just by reacting to one and then the next and continue until the day is done. 

Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.


The Deep Life is a Good Life

Featured in this blog's title image is a painting of the master violin maker, Antonio Stradivari. About 600 of the more than 1000 violins he made in his lifetime over 300 years ago, still remain in beautiful working condition. Many are multi-million dollar investments and are still played by the great violinist of the day. 

David Gusset is a Master Violin Maker in the present day that has modeled his process after Stradivari. Why try to improve upon perfection? His workshop in Eugene, Oregon is a 19th century carriage house, he drives a 1985 Toyota Tercel and he just started using a cell phone a few years ago. Needless to say, he doesn't have a big social media presence. He established himself as a master luthier (maker of string instruments) when he won the Stradivari David Gusset Violin maker.jpgTriennial in 1985, a contest held every three years in Stradivari's hometown of Cremona, Italy to determine the best violin maker in the world. Gusset is the only American to have ever won it.

He makes only about 4 or 5 violins per year, which sell for $ 25,000 to $ 35,000 each. All are made by his hands where each, like Stradivari's, will be unique. Creating something that is physically a work of art and able to produce music that is equally a work of art, requires many hours of attention and focus on detail without distractions. Gusset could produce more violins and make more money for himself, but that is not his goal. His meaning is derived from the work itself, and creating violins that will make beautiful music for hundreds of years, just like Stradivari.

Newport believes master craftsmen are the best example of where deep work can take us all. Just like master craftsmen, knowledge workers can derive meaning from deep work - when they cannot from shallow work. 

Of course Newport is not suggesting we all become craftsman. Rather he is saying that the neurological, psychological and philosophical arguments for depth of work support that deep work is meaningful. The craftsman is just a method of illustrating it to it's extreme. 


Working Deeply is Difficult

We should all have access to, as Newport writes,  "a work environment (and culture) designed to help us extract as much value as possible from our brains... We instead find ourselves in distracting open offices where inboxes cannot be neglected and meetings are incessant - a setting where colleagues would rather you respond quickly to their latest e-mail than produce the best possible results."

We also must fight ourselves, as we are a species driven by desires. Besides the usual ones that have been with us since we became homo sapiens, today's top list also include taking a break from work, checking email, social networking sites, surfing the internet, listening to music, and even watching TV. Any of these sound familiar? Not for me either (wink, wink).

So even though we know deep work is important and good, we won't be able to make it happen with only the right intentions. Newport believes we need to develop rituals and routines to overcome both ourselves and the world around us. Deep work isn't something we can maintain all the time, or even for a long time, so it's not about giving up our desires but rather finding the best way to balance the deep work and the shallows that are also a part of our lives.

In Part 2 of this blog, I outline the 4 rules Newport prescribes for us to help us become disciples of depth in a shallow world.  

By the way, I found out that Marcia Brady (Maureen McCormick) is doing just fine.