Recently, a colleague mentioned Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016), so I decided to read it and give its suggestions a try.
Briefly, Newport argues—and studies have shown—that people in general and writers and intellectuals in particular are increasingly trying to function in a state of more or less constant distraction. As Newport points out, “A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone” (6).
What’s gone missing from our work experience is what Newport labels “Deep Work,” defined as “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit” (3). Instead, we’re increasingly devoting the bulk of our work day to “Shallow Work,” defined as “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted” (6).
We’re tackling the emails in our inbox after surfing the web for a recipe for twice-baked potatoes after checking Facebook, where our newsfeed provided us with an endless scroll of infotainment. We’re now aware that it’s Natalie Portman’s birthday, that no animals were harmed during the filming of the upcoming sequel to “Godzilla,” that there is a way to prevent toenail fungus from decreasing your quality of life, and that if you aren’t outraged by your politicians, you aren’t fully alive.
This is what is now passing for “knowledge.” Oh, and by the way, it’s now 4 p.m. and you’ve officially wasted 2 full hours that you can never get back, but on the upside, you’ve responded to no fewer than 15 emails asking you more or less pointless questions and/or reminding you of upcoming meetings that may or may not be devoted to “revisiting” and/or “addressing” some of these pointless questions, which have been generously reframed as “issues for discussion.”
The problem with spending so much time on this kind of distracted mental busy-work is that, over time, it’s a tendency that will actually—and significantly—reduce your ability to activate the level of attention and concentration necessary to engage in the kind of deep work that leads to intellectual growth (and professional development or career advancement).
Newport’s initial remedy is to simply recognize that the mental concentration necessary for deep work is a skill that must be practiced and honed, on a more or less daily basis. And to do this, we need to make a conscious effort to relegate shallow (but unavoidable) activities to the periphery of our lives.
Or, better yet, to eliminate them entirely.
Deep Work offers a series of helpful suggestions for how to spend less time in “the Shallows” (i.e., doing “shallow work” like responding to emails and writing up documents and reports for upcoming meetings). Newport recognizes that, in the “knowledge industry,” “[i]f you send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems … within seconds … all of these behaviors make you seem busy in a public manner” (64).
More importantly, Newport suggests that “[i]f you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviors can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well” (64).
But really, you’re not. And in my experience, an even larger problem is the extent to which this kind of behavior can become the norm. Eventually, if you aren’t doing busy-work, you will be perceived by your colleagues as not really “doing your job.”
Those who constantly wade in the shallows instinctively realize that misery loves company. Busyness breeds more busyness (and less business), and those who seek to pursue deep work are perceived as “selfish” or “isolationist” or characterized as “not pulling their weight.”
On this particular point, Newport quotes the late Richard Feynman who, early on in his career, realized that if he wanted to pursue ground-breaking work in physics, he would have to distance himself from the busywork of academia by cultivating a “myth of irresponsibility.”
When asked to serve on committees, Feynman simply said “no” and embraced the notion that this marked him as “irresponsible.” Because ironically, over time, the “irresponsible” are weighted down with far fewer shallow-work-related responsibilities and commitments.
If you want to replace busyness with actual productivity but have become mired in shallow work, Newport has a few suggestions for ways to help return you to the mindset of deep work. In order to “move beyond good intentions” you need to “add routines and rituals” to your work day—and work life—in order to help “transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration” (100).
As we all know, this is easier said than done. The lure of social media is strong, and the cumulative weight of the distractions that it offers are great.
To cultivate a life that devotes maximum time (and effort) to the kind of deep work that will produce satisfying intellectual achievements (and hence career advancement), Newport offers several behavioral options, all the while noting that it is important to “choose a philosophy that fits your specific circumstances, as a mismatch … can derail your deep work habit before it has a chance to solidify” (102).
On the one hand, you can withdraw completely from the distractions of shallow work, adopting what Newport calls the “bimodal philosophy” in which you give yourself “at least one full day” for a bout of deep work (108). Sometimes this approach is accompanied by an “internet sabbath” (a day of the week devoted to remaining disconnected from Facebooking and all things Googley) or, more radically, an “internet sabbatical”—that is, an extended period of time in which you unplug from social media completely.
Again, Newport cites a prominent writer who cheerfully notes how happy his life has been since 1990, when he deleted his email account, never to open another. While this sounds rather wonderful, I'm quite certain I'd lose my job if I did that. I’m not only contractually required to have an email account, I’m required by college policy to check it regularly. If I don’t, and a student ends up having a serious academic issue because of my carefree technological disconnection, I’m the one who will be held accountable.
More to the point, though, I’m not sure I could survive such complete disconnection these days. And the sad thing is, I know full well that I used to. I went to college and graduate school back in the days when there was no Internet or social media to offer constant distractions, at a time when email was just beginning to become “a thing.” (I actually didn’t have an email account until I started my first job in 1995.)
At the same time, however, I’m aware that my own intellectual biorhythms typically prevent me from working for long stretches at a time on a mental task. I can, if I put my mind to it, achieve several hours—usually about 4—of mental focus and “flow,” but beyond that, my mental wheels begin to spin and I'm really not accomplishing much for my efforts.
So for me, what Newport refers to as “the rhythmic philosophy” of deep work is the way to go. Under the rhythmic philosophy, you simply try to discover a rhythm for incorporating deep work into your daily life and then consciously set aside time to practice the skill often enough to make it a habit.
To do this, you have to create a routine and a ritual. Newport recommends strictly scheduling your time over the course of the day, from one hour to the next, making specific times for deep work and not allowing the distractions or "commitments" of shallow work to creep into those times.
I’ll admit, when I first read this, I was resistant: I like my freedom.
But I also had to recognize that my freedom was leaving me largely distracted and not nearly as productive as I’d like to be. I’d find myself having a good work day, followed by a string of “distracted days." And when I tried to fire up the energy to have another productive day, it would feel like it took forever to get going.
As it turns out, it felt that way because switching in and out of states of attention and distraction creates “attention residue”—you’ve moved from one task to another, but a portion of your attention is still a bit “stuck” on the first thing you were working on. This “attention residue” gums up the works, making it that much harder to achieve a state of focused concentration.
So if you switch back and forth over the course of a day between attention and distraction, multitasking your way through your intellectual life, you will end up with very “sticky” mental processes and an exhausted mental musculature. It will require that much more work to achieve a state of concentration necessary to engage in deep work.
Constant distraction will leave you mired in the mental muck of the Shallows.
Overall, what I like about Newport’s approach is that it is realistic and flexible. He offers general “rules” for pursuing deep work and then suggests various ways in which those rules can be implemented, always noting that the key is to find the system that works best for you.
As I said, I was initially skeptical about having to map my day out so stringently. I tend to keep a “to-do list,” but Newport insists that we need to be even more precise than that. We need to identify what we plan to do from hour to hour (acknowledging that, on some days, the best laid plans, etc. etc.) and then we need to 1) stick to it—the only exception being, if you find yourself in a productive state of deep work, it’s okay to stay in that state and bump the next item on the agenda—and 2) keep a record of the fact that we’re sticking to it, so that we can track our progress.
In my own case, when I actually sat down and made a plan for the next day—all the while thinking, “Okay, this probably isn’t going to work at all and I’m probably going to hate this like poison”—I found that, lo and behold, when I finished, I felt far more optimistic about my ability to be productive the next day.
And when I awoke with that sad-sighing-and-heel-dragging feeling of, “Oh, do I have to??” I had a schedule that I had arranged in manageable pieces, so I found myself thinking, “Okay, well, this isn’t so bad, just get started on this task…” and I was able to get to work more quickly.
And when I did, two hours flew by, and I got a lot of writing done. And when it was done, not only did I not feel exhausted, I actually felt a bit… invigorated. It felt possible to do even a bit more writing, and if I opted not to, it was only because I cheerfully decided that my time would be better spent reading instead—the task that I had outlined for myself the day before.
At this point, it’s too soon to say whether I’ll be able to implement all—or any—of Newport’s suggestions and rules over the long haul, but I’ve decided I’m going to give them a wholehearted try and see what happens. This upcoming week is my last week of classes before break—the following week is Spring break.
So this will be a good time to test these strategies out, first under work-week conditions and then in a “vacation” setting. Honestly, I’m kind of excited and interested to see how much I can actually accomplish—and needless to say, this is a far better state of mind that the constant feeling of, “Well, gosh, I really didn’t get much done today, now did I?”
I think this feeling testifies to the fact that, as Newport points out, deep work is a state of mind that taps into what is most satisfying about human activity. As Newport suggests, “if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance” (79).
So here’s to more productive days rich with meaning and intellectual significance.