The Promise of Deep Work

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June 14, 2021
person in deep work

We live in precarious times when it comes to productive work. Advancements in technology have allowed us to do a wide array of things. The architecture of notifications, emails, texts, and other bite-sized requests for our time and attention has made the average time we spend on a given task lower than it’s probably ever been. I’m sure you—like most people in the grips of the attention economy—have a vague feeling that you’re not focusing like you should.

That’s the existential dread of shallow work. It’s a state of working where you can’t seem to harness either your time or attention to get valuable work done. There are two basic problems that sit at the root of shallow work: diffuse attention and attention residue.

Diffuse Attention

We’re often thinking of another task, even while working on a different one. Either we’re thinking through problems of another task, or generally worrying about what other bits of information we’re missing—be it emails, texts, or IMs.

Think of it as a combination of FOMO (fear of missing out) and classic fear of the unknown. You’re working on thing A, but you’re worried that other things B,C,D,E, and unknown things X,Y, and Z might need something done about them. So you can’t quite focus on thing A. Your attention is spread thin—which means however much time you spend on a task, there’s little depth to the work you do.

Attention Residue From Task-switching

We often find—or worse, don’t even realize—we’re switching between many tasks in short amounts of time. This usually happens before we’ve finished what we were trying to accomplish on a task. Or, we’re working on a task diligently, and we’re interrupted by something (or someone). So we pay attention to that interruption for some period of time. Then when we’re done attending to the interruption, we jump back into the task we were working on.

It may not seem like it, but there are significant costs to this—both in lost time and lost attention. Attention doesn’t reach 100% saturation from the beginning of a work session. It begins at a level much lower than that, and builds up over time. That’s a big factor in why it’s so easy to get distracted and procrastinate within the first few minutes of working on something. You haven’t built up the intensity of your attention. You’re not yet focused. So getting distracted is much easier.

In other words, when you focus on a task, that focus becomes stronger as you sustain it for more time. And once that focus is broken, you basically start from scratch again. This is why not only time—but continuous, unbroken blocks of time—are so important for doing great work. That’s the promise of deep work: blocks of time spent in intense focus, repeated, with the support of good cognitive habits.

The Anatomy of Depth

Cal Newport—whose book launched the term “deep work” into our collective consciousness—defines the concept this way:

Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

The idea is more than just doing focused work on something. After all, you can do focused work on boiling a pot of spaghetti, but there isn’t necessarily anything worthwhile about that—unless spaghetti is your passion. No judgment here.

Newport’s definition of deep work tells us the two things that make deep work worth doing. First, it pushes your cognitive capabilities—which is how it improves your skill. Second—and perhaps most importantly—it creates unique value.

It’s all a function of two things: intensity of focus and time spent.

How intensely you can focus on work with great expected value, and for how much time? So let’s break those two elements down and see how they work together to create deep work.

Intensity of Focus

When you hear ‘intense’, you may think of non-stop, pedal-to-the-metal work. You may envision being in constant motion, with stacks of work all around you. But that’s not the intensity involved in deep work. The intensity has less to do with effort, movement, or piled up tasks—and more to do with a lack of awareness of anything other than the work.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous concept of flow is key here. Deep work involves reaching that flow state—which comes when your focus is so intense that you lose your sense of self and sense of time while you’re immersed in the task. The work doesn’t feel hard during that time; it just seems to happen. And you feel exhilarated—not by excitement about the results, but by the work itself.

That’s where the real value of the work comes from. In prolonged states of intense focus, you tend to find things that are nearly impossible for people doing shallow work to find. And when you get into intense focus often, your skills continue to improve—as does your ability to intensely focus.

Time Spent

Being able to bring intensity to your work is huge. But without having the time available to focus, you won’t get much in the way of results. So deep work is just as much about what happens outside of sessions of actual work as it is about those sessions of intense focus.

Newport recommends scheduling your work blocks, in order to ensure you can allow for enough time to intensely focus. That includes not only scheduling long blocks of deep work time, but also scheduling enough time to deal with your shallow work. When you think about it, that makes sense. It’s hard to intensely focus on something for 2 hours when you haven’t made time to handle your email inbox and feel okay about it.

Buffers and downtime are also important. We’re highly vulnerable to bringing residual attention and residual stress from one task to another. So buffers help to make sure we’re ready to go from shallow work to deep work and vice-versa. Beyond transition time, plain old rest is also key to a deep work lifestyle. Your mind (and body) need periods of rest—especially ones not plagued by worry about your work. Again, that’s why scheduling things—like rest—are important: prevent attention residue.

When it comes to downtime, Newport recommends a radical switch away from the modern-day norm. Doomscrolling on Twitter or Facebook—or checking out instagram posts—are not helpful downtime. Something like what he calls “productive meditation” can be helpful in periods where we can’t sit down and work, but we’re not actively resting. Newport himself got the idea from one of my favorite self-help books How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

You simply give yourself a problem or topic you’re working on that you’d like to make progress on. While you’re doing something mindless—like washing dishes or commuting to work—you let your mind casually think about the problem. It helps you to not only get flashes of insight you might not otherwise get at your desk, but it also makes it easier to focus on the problem when you sit down to work deeply on it later. You’ve primed the mental pump; you’ve warmed up the engine—so to speak.

Stay Deep, Stay Strong

It’s important to remember that deep work is a lifestyle. And like any lifestyle, it requires significant support and maintenance. You need to defend against the many things that keep your mind from intensely focusing for long periods of time. And you also need to ensure you carve out time to achieve that intense focus when you sit down to work.

When it comes to building a deep work lifestyle, a helpful analogy comes to my mind. A powerlifter friend of mine once said that you can put forth a ton of effort in the gym, but if you don’t eat well and rest enough—none of that matters. To put that in terms applicable here: You can sit down and push yourself to focus hard right now, but if you haven’t scheduled your time wisely, and blocked off things that sap your attention—your work isn’t likely to be deep.

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