I often feel like tasks require all of whatever the amount of time I have to spend on them is. For instance, if I have all day to turn in a report, it’s probably not going to be finished until the end of the day. But if I have a meeting at 2:00 and it needs to be completed before then, I’ll get it done.
In this scenario, I would have a finished product of the same quality either way, but I was able to finish one version 3 hours earlier than the other one. How could I have spent less time on a task but achieved the same level of quality? The answer: deep work.
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport defines the concept as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”
His hypothesis is that deep work is becoming increasingly valuable at the same time that it is becoming increasingly rare as more of our professional lives are being consumed with shallow work, or “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.”
It is worth noting that deep work is especially valued in knowledge workers, or people whose jobs require lots of analytical thinking, innovation, or information processing such as designers, engineers, and writers. However, whether working deeply for you involves sitting in a room by yourself with a pen and paper or creating something with your hands, we can all benefit from increasing our ability to concentrate.
That’s what’s really at the core of deep work. It is by definition “distraction-free.” We often think about distractions as coming from the outside: “If I can only get my coworkers to leave me alone, then I could concentrate.” Or “if I didn’t get that text in the middle of this I’d be done with it by now.” In a previous blog, we talked about how limiting email use during the work day can lead to greater productivity. And while external distractions certainly play a part in our ability to work deeply, a big part of cultivating deep work is building up your endurance against internal distractions.
I cannot tell you how often I will seek out distractions when faced with a cognitive challenge. Part of this is that we train ourselves outside of the workplace to distract ourselves whenever we get bored. When standing in line at a coffee shop or riding up in an elevator, most of us will pull out our phones even just for a few seconds. Others might tie this phenomenon into discussions about our social abilities, but it is also because we are training our brains to constantly require stimulus.
Deep work is a muscle and you have to strengthen it just like any other muscle. It would be unrealistic to immediately decide that you are going to work deeply without distractions for 5 hours. You do not have the capacity for that kind of concentration yet. Rather, when starting your deep work training, what matters more is the concentration you have during the deep work period, not its length. It would be better to have a 30-minute concentrated work session than 2 hours of task switching.
If you are familiar with System One and System Two thinking, it could be helpful to use that framework here. System One is our default operating system where we go on “auto-pilot” and don’t give too much thought to what we do. We’ve all accidentally turned towards home when we meant to go somewhere else. That was your brain taking a shortcut and acting in accordance with your habits. System Two is a slow and committed way of going about things that actively fights against your natural biases. Doing deep work requires a System Two mindset, as there are no shortcuts.
But the thing about regularly switching into System Two thinking is that it will actually start to change your System One! It will require a lot of momentum to start using System Two thinking to work deeply, but soon that will become a habit and your brain will create pathways in System One to get you into that headspace sooner and allow you to stay there for longer.
At first, it will be difficult to stay committed to one task for a set period of time, and you will be tempted to pull out your phone, check email, switch to another task, or any other number of actions that pull you away from your work at hand. But allowing yourself to give into those distractions is discouraging your brain from sitting in the discomfort of cognitive strain. When you don’t have the answer right off the bat is exactly when you should be leaning in and discovering alternatives, not moving to another task and hoping that inspiration will strike you later, because it may never come.
Not all of your work life will be filled with deep work. Someone who has “mastered” deep work is not someone who can sit in concentrated effort from 9-5 every day. Going back to Newport’s definition of deep work, he said that it will “push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” In order to do this, you also need to spend time resting and even in shallow work.
Shallow work is not the enemy of deep work, and there are even jobs and scenarios that require shallow work. Rather, we need to learn how to prioritize deep work and not let shallow work completely overtake it. Deep work is difficult to maintain and requires intentionality. If you’ve been implementing the Servant Leadership tools into your life, you’ve likely realized that intentionality does not come easily. If left to our own devices most of us would take the cognitively easy route and never push ourselves.
The invitation into deep work is to enter a space where you are free to pursue your goals and accomplish your There in a concentrated manner. This requires strengthening your endurance for concentration and putting structures in place to avoid external distractions. It may seem constricting, but the goal of deep work is cultivating greater freedom.
Gracie McBride is the Content and Systems Management Coordinator for The Crossroad.