When you think of work, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? 
 
For me, it’s email. And the anxiety that comes with it.
 
According to a McKinsey study from 2012, the average knowledge worker spends more than 60 percent of their work in email and internet searches — email accounting for 30 percent by itself!
 
Professor Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, identifies these tasks as shallow work. They’re not cognitively demanding, add little value to the world, and are easily replicated.
 
Then we have the Principle of Least Resistance. That simply states, without clear feedback on the impact of different behaviors on the bottom line (or value added), we tend to do the easiest behaviors in the moment.
 
Like email.
 
email is not deep work

The Solution?

Cal’s answer to adding value in a knowledge economy is what he calls “deep work” (shocking, I know).
 
Deep work is defined as activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. Significantly, these efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are difficult to replicate.
 
If this sounds a lot like flow which we’ve previously discussed (post #1 and post #2), you’re absolutely correct. Flow is the state of being totally engrossed into something that requires our mind or body to stretch to the limits to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
 
Cal hypothizes that the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare which makes it inversely more valuable. Therefore, if you develop the skill to work deeply and make it central to your work, you will thrive. 
 
The reason for this hypothesis is that as technology reduces labor need, rewards for those able to work intelligent machines is growing. He identifies three groups poised for success:
  1. Those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines.
  2. Those with access to capital.
  3. Those who are experts at what they do.
The group we’re concerned about is the experts.
 
deep work makes experts

Benefits of Deep Work

As a result of engaging into regular flow states, we achieve:
  • Continuous improvement of our work output.
  • Increased quantity of valuable output produced.
  • Deeper satisfaction (and passion) for our work.
If we are going to be a part of group three, the experts, deep work enables us the ability to quickly master hard things and produce at an elite level, both in speed and quality.
 
To that point, Cal provides us the equation:
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus).

Application

To help us build the habit of working deep, Cal provides four rules:
 
Rule #1: Work Deeply
  • Acknowledge we have finite willpower that depletes as we use it.
    • Build rituals and routines to minimize transitions and eliminate distractions; habits reduce our daily expenditure of will.
    • Can you lock down a specific time each day? Maybe just a few days a week?  Is there an optimal location?
  • Pick an appropriate time span to do challenging work with a specific end-time. 
    • Work expands to its allotted time. The intent is to challenge yourself to complete your work efficiently in LIMITED time. You’ll find a way.
  • Focus on lead measures.
    • Lead measures are things that can be tracked at the beginning and during a process, IE time spent doing deep work.
    • Our usual tendency is to focus on lag measures/outcomes. Unfortunately, that’s too late to make adjustments.
  • Plan for downtime.
    • Our energy is finite. Remember, it’s not an open-ended slog.
    • Allow yourself to recharge and your unconscious to process complex problems.
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
  • The ability to concentrate intensely must be trained.
  • In order to deepen your focus, you must free yourself from dependence on distraction.
    • People who multitask ALL THE TIME can’t separate the relevant from the irrelevant.
    • Ex: don’t look at your phone at the first sign of silence.
  • Schedule breaks from focus for distractions, but do not allow distractions outside of those times.
    • Ex: 10-15 minute email breaks a few times a day. Only look at email during those blocks.

Deep Work Rule #3 - No Social Media

Rule #3: Quit Social Media
  • Evaluate social media tools not by whether they have any benefit, but whether the benefits outweigh the negatives.
  • To assist in that evaluation, Cal suggests identifying your high level personal and professional goals and identifying the actions/tools that will best support your efforts.
    • Ex: read regularly and understand the cutting-edge results in my field.
  • Put more effort into your leisure time; actually plan how you want to spend your day and don’t just default to your phone, social media, or Netflix.
Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
  • Schedule every minute of your day.
    • For Cal, he uses time blocks on a piece of lined-paper.
      • Each line represents a block of time throughout the day.
      • On the left-side of the page, he blocks time for all his activities.
      • By doing this on paper, he can easily adjust his day and easily reflect afterwards where his time was spent.
    • Personally, I “calendar paint” on my Google Calendar the night before. It’s not as easily adjustable, but it does force me to prioritize my day. And, it fills quickly.
  • Evaluate your work: how shallow or deep is it?
    • How easily can someone be trained to replicate the tasks? Focus on the hard to do tasks.
  • Finish work by X:XX; in Cal’s case, this is 5:30pm. There is no more work after that.
    • He’s forced to work backwards to figure out how to complete his most important work.
    • With limited time, it becomes a lot easier to say “no” to things that are not worth your time.
  • Become hard to reach, meaning the things that do reach you are much more likely to be worth your time.

Conclusion

Deep Work is all about prioritizing your most significant work and going all in to accomplish it. Eliminate distractions. Eliminate shallow work. And focus on getting better and better.
 
“Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things.” – Tim Ferris
This concludes my small series about Flow. If you’ve made it through all three posts, thank you, and let me know what you thought.
 
  • Was the format having the topic broken across three posts more worthwhile than one?
  • What is your biggest takeaway from this series?
  • Could you feasibly apply the principles of deep work (and flow) to your work environment? Why or why not?

As always, thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts! Connect with me via Twitter or email!

 

As previously mentioned, this is part of my #100Days100Deliverables going with #The100DayProject. This was Day #4.


About Scott

Writer. Teacher. Learner. Keen on process and individual improvement. And running really, really far.

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