Updated: Aug 16
One of my favourite books that I read in 2019 was “Deep Work” by Carl Newport.
Why? Because it addressed a personal issue I have had for a long time now, the feeling that I am getting less and less productive and, more importantly, less effective as time goes on. At the same time, I feel busier than ever!
How does this happen? In my case I have always been pretty successful at what I do. If I am not good at something or can´t get it done I will redouble my efforts and try harder. The outcome is that things nearly always get done, I get rewarded…by getting more responsibilities and more tasks to perform.
However, over time the number of tasks has built up, there is more competition for my time, and I feel more and more overwhelmed. Not just that, with more projects and more responsibilities, the time spent on just dealing with mails and meetings means there is less left for “real work”.
Worst of all, I feel I am not giving my best effort to any one thing, rather trying to move forward on too many multiple projects at once and not really making a significant difference to any of them.
I fear becoming living proof of the famous “Peter Principle” which states that competent people will continue to be promoted, but at some point will be promoted into positions for which they are incompetent, and they will then remain in those positions for the rest of their careers. (Ironic when I am called Peter, right?!).
The book, Deep Work, offers a solution.
The author, Carl Newport, defines deep work as:
“Professional activities that are distraction free and push your cognitive abilities to their limits.”
People with the ability to do focused, deep work for 1 or 2 hours a day 5 days a week will thrive as they have a competitive advantage over other people. Why? Because:
a) Deep work allows you to master hard things and produce at elite level.
b) Deep work is rare and is valuable.
The benefit of deep work is that you enter a state of “flow” where you are able to get fully immersed in the activity at hand with focus and energy, being more effective at the task and even making yourself happier in the process.
To do Deep Work you need to be able to concentrate.
Why is it so difficult to achieve? Because in today´s working world there is too much distraction.
Distraction when working creates what the author refers to as “attention residue” as you switch your attention to different activities. Imagine you switch attention between Task A and B, the switching creates attention residue from task A which affects the ability to concentrate fully on task B.
Managing emails is a very relevant example. This is what the book refers to as “shallow work”. This is work that is non cognitively demanding, low value and easy to replicate. We are busy but not productive. It is too easy to fall into this trap because shallow work is a simple choice to slip into. We are working, but not being particularly productive. If you continually check and respond to mail, this shallow work affects your ability to perform deep work.
Deep work requires undivided attention, where we work for an extended period on one task – no emails, co-worker interruptions, social media breaks etc.
The books suggest four 4 approaches to introducing Deep Work into our lives: -
a) Monastic- withdraw from other tasks or distractions for a long period until the task is completed – may be for months at a time.
b) Bimodal - periods when only do undistracted work of days at a time interspersed with periods of normal existence.
c) Rhythmic or “chain method”. Maintain rhythm every day – a time for deep work.
d) Journalistic philosophy - on the go. Take shorter spells of deep work throughout day.
I think the Rhythmic approach is most likely to be the approach for most people, certainly it is my choice. The first two options are not possible for the average person. The last option goes against the philosophy itself.
The book gives several tips to help introduce Deep Work into our work lives, the most important being:
1. Make it a Habit
Habit and rituals help you stay on the task without interruptions. This way you don´t need so much energy or willpower to go into deep work. The time and place should be the same for every session.
The suggestion is to schedule 1 hour at first which over time can expand to a maximum of 4 hours for an expert in the technique.
2. Execute Like a Business
Focus on the Wildly Important: have a small number of really critical goals that you will pursue on Deep Work hours.
Act on the Lead Measures: measure your success with metrics – times spent in Deep work and the results achieved.
Keep a Compelling Scoreboard.
Create a Cadence of Accountability: Get into the habit of a weekly review of your performance vs the Lead Measures and Scoreboard.
3. Allow yourself to shut down
Start by having a process where you leave all undone work listed and produce a plan for the following day.
Disconnect when you are done. Your brain needs to recharge. Have downtime schedule.
4. Schedule in advance when you can be distracted.
For example, decide when you can surf the Internet. Outside of this do NOT use the Internet. Don´t let Internet take over your free time either. Dedicate free time to planned leisure. This is important as it builds the ability of the brain to concentrate, something needed for Deep work.
One great idea of the book is to embrace boredom. Rather than always scanning your phone when nothing is happening, resist this at all costs. Just let things be. This way you learn to shake the addiction to be constantly distracted. This allows the brain to re-learn how to concentrate.
5. Drain the shallows
Treat shallow work as having very little value. Avoid this type of work creeping into every area of a workday by scheduling when shallow work is permitted and when it is not. The idea is to try to schedule all tasks to perform during the entire day so that the creep is eliminated.
I really enjoyed this book and found it full of really practical tips to introduce the concept and practice of Deep Work into my own life. I have been working at this for about a month now and I feel it is making a difference. At least I have the impression I am focusing on more important things and making greater inroads into key projects than before. Time will tell if:
a) Deep work works or
b) This Peter proves the Peter Principle!
Why don´t you give Deep Work a try?