The Second Value of Deep work

The Second Value of Deep Work

“The second reason that deep work is valuable,” writes Cal Newport in Deep Work, “is because the impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless – which greatly magnifies your reward. On the other hand, if what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online.”

 

If you only produce shallow work, your work will never have a home. People will skip over you as they search for something more interesting. Shallow work cannot compete against cat gifs, well produced reports, and interesting perspectives on important topics. Shallow work steals people’s time, and people will recognize that and learn to turn away from sources of shallow work.

 

Deep work on the other hand is truly considerate and well formulated. It requires focus, attention, and an ability to connect ideas and points that are not obviously related at first. It provides value to people and rewards them for investing their time with your media, content, or production.

 

Because we have so much access to so many people through digital media, we no longer need to pursue a shallow work approach to gaining an audience. Our deep work can resonate with those who are truly connected to what we do or the topic at hand. We can provide high quality work for a smaller group and have a more committed following. The listener data from 80,000 Hours, who regularly produce high quality 2 to 4 hour long podcast interviews is evidence in favor of Newport’s deep work claims.

 

If we invest in our minds, work on our thinking and focus, and produce high quality work, we can reach an audience that matters. If we don’t pursue this strategy, if we try instead to shovel meaningless content into the faces of everyone we can, we might get some clicks, but few people will appreciate, learn, and return to what we produce. The attention we receive will be fleeting as we are passed over for things that are more valuable and important.
The First Value of Deep Work

The First Value of Deep Work

“Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century Philosophers,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. “It’s instead a skill that has great value today.”

 

A tension that I think a lot of us face (I know its true for me) is that we are pulled in two different directions when it comes to media and information. The news cycle moves so fast today that it feels hard to keep on top of whats happening in the world. We all want to feel connected and feel like we are in the know, and we like being the person at the water-cooler who has the latest information about some nationwide or global event. We have a drive to constantly stay on top of what is happening right now.

 

Pulling against this urge is the desire to know interesting things and to consume media that is thoughtful, thorough, and interesting. It is one thing to know what is happening in the world right now, but it is an entirely different thing to truly understand the context and antecedents that gave rise to the current news cycle.

 

The first desire we have is to know new things about the world, the second desire is to truly understand the world. One desire encourages shallow quick headlines, while the other desire encourages deep thoughtful engagement. It is very challenging to do both.

 

Cal Newport’s suggestion is to shoot for the latter. Learning and engaging with complex topics requires real focus and deep work. The value from the second will far outlast the first. The first value of deep work that Newport shares in his book reads, “We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. … To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.”

 

Staying on top of the news simply requires that we flutter around on Twitter, absentmindedly distracting ourselves and taking in a few headlines and quotes without thinking critically about how it all links together and exactly why people are reaching the conclusions they reach. This is does not develop the skills that are necessary for quick learning, even thought it is a quick way to sort through information.

 

Learning complex things quickly requires that we be able to engage in deep work and focus on the most important items. Failing to build these skills and abilities means that you won’t be able to truly master changing technologies and markets. You will be left behind reading headlines about changes, without actually understanding changes and adapting to them. Deep work is valuable because learning and critical thinking are both becoming more valuable, and both require deep work in order to be done well and timely. The answer then to how we should handle the tension I mentioned above is to more or less abandon the headlines and give up on staying on top of the news. We might look a little uninformed to others about current world events, but we will have a better background and understanding of what is shaping the world today than the others around us, and we will be able to learn the important lessons faster.
Shallow Work and the Permanent Cost of Distraction

Shallow Work and the Permanent Cost of Distraction

My last two posts have been about deep work and shallow work, with one post looking at what deep work really entails, and one post considering when you should plan your shallow work relative to your deep work. Today’s post is more directly on the costs of shallow work. Yesterday’s post discussed the importance of doing deep work when we are most focused, and an unwritten but implied aspect to shallow work is that doing shallow work when we are most focus robs us of the time and mental energy that we could use to do our most important work. But that is not the only cost of shallow work – the downsides to shallowness extend beyond the opportunity costs of doing more important work instead of the shallow busy work.

 

Cal Newport in Deep Work writes, “Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.”

 

Newport’s warning is very important and extends far beyond losing a few hours where we could be more productive. It extends beyond even our work schedule and the time we are in the office. The warning is this: the more time you spend distracting yourself in line at the grocery store with your phone, the more time you spend fluttering around twitter at work, and the more time you spend scrolling down Facebook before bed, the worse your brain will be when it needs to focus most. Our poor digital habits reduce our ability to focus.

 

Deep work requires that we keep our mind focused on one thing for a long period of time. It requires that we make connections by truly learning and understanding the material we are focused on. In the long run, it makes us better performers because it allows us to be more productive with our time. The future of our economy is bright for those who can excel at deep work, when others are distracted and unable to complete difficult projects in a unified and coherent manner.

 

However, if we spend our time doing lots of shallow work like answering every unimportant email as soon as a notification pops up on our computer, or if we spend lots of time distracting ourselves on social media, we won’t build the capacity to engage with deep work. We will actually diminish our ability to do deep work and teach our brain that it doesn’t need to focus for long stretches of time. Our brains get a hit of dopamine with each new social media post and each notification. Our brains can literally become overly reliant on these dopamine hits, to the point where our brains can’t focus because they can’t operate for long stretches without more cheap dopamine hits.

 

It is important that we be honest with ourselves about how we spend our time and how distracted we allow ourselves to be. Putting the phones down and blocking time for deep work is important, otherwise we will unintentionally fill our lives with shallow work, and in the process diminish our focus ability.
What is Shallow Work

What is Shallow Work

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, provides the following definition for shallow work – the opposite of what he encourages us to strive for in our daily lives and work:

 

“Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

 

Recently I wrote about Dan Pink’s book When which shares research on our mood throughout the day. Pink presents information from studies looking at our affect on social media which suggests that most people have a peak moment of the day about 6 hours after waking up, move through a trough, and then rebound later in the afternoon. Pink goes on to show that we should do our best focus and analytic work in the morning during our peak, should take it easy on the hard analytic tasks during our trough, and should return to important work that requires creativity in the afternoon during our rebound.

 

We can incorporate the ideas of Deep Work and Shallow Work from Newport’s book into the framework of When. The shallow work that Newport describes are all the small administrative tasks that we have to muddle through during the workday. We get a lot of emails that we need to respond to at some point, but that often are not that important. We have to schedule some meetings, we have to go through some paperwork and check some boxes, and we have to do some relatively mindless data entry into a spreadsheet or program. These tasks don’t add a lot of value, are not usually urgent, and don’t use much brain power. These are the kinds of things we should save for our trough, the period after our lunch break when our brain just wants to jam out to our favorite songs while chugging through some cognitively simple tasks.

 

Deep work, on the other hand, requires a lot of focus and mental energy. Distractions from your favorite songs or social media notifications will interrupt you and make it harder for you to complete the work. This type of work should be completed during our peak, when our mind is still fresh and ready to crush our to-do list. Using our peak time to do shallow work is waste, and trying to complete our deep work during our trough will make us frustrated and lead to poor quality work. Think about when you do each type of work, and how you can organize your day to maximize your mental capacity to do your best deep work at the point when your brain is at its peak. Don’t let shallow work steal that valuable time from you, and don’t fool yourself into thinking you have been productive and accomplished something meaningful if you have only handled a bunch of shallow work.
What is Deep Work

What is Deep Work?

Deep work is the opposite of the state of mind that many of us find ourselves in most of the time. One of the biggest challenges we face, is focusing on the important things. Our lives have become very busy, but not necessarily busy with more important work. Our lives have become busy with noise – in both the sense of unwanted sound, but also in the sense of the Merrian-Webster online dictionary definition of unwanted signals and disturbances.

 

At home, we often have the TV on for background noise, our phones have red notifications from multiple apps every time we open them, and we know that our social media feeds are constantly refreshing and offer us new things to see and look at. There is always something new, something distracting, and something to pull our attention away from the things which take substantial mental energy.

 

In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport provides the following definition for Deep Work:

 

“Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

 

The focus needed for deep work cannot be developed when we are constantly distracted. When we allow ourselves to be taken over by our phones, when we allow ourselves to have a million things pulling at our attention, when we constantly have some type of stimulation coming in while we do our chores, drive to work, and walk the dog, we train our brain to jump from one thought to another. Our daily life encourages a brain that cannot focus, destroying our ability to do deep work.

 

I have seen this in my own life. For 2 years I was working full time and in grad school. To get my work done, I had to work on focus, and I had to dedicate a lot of time to reading and completing school work. Outside of my job, I spent a lot of time trying to focus. A lot of house chores were ignored, but I found academic success, and found myself continually doing better focus work on the job as well.

 

A year after grad school, and into a boring job which doesn’t keep me as engaged as I would like, I have found my brain more distracted and I have found it harder to focus when I need to. I often watch YouTube videos while doing dishes, I listen to podcasts while doing laundry, and I find myself pulling up twitter or various blogs when I get bored. I have allowed myself to be distracted when I don’t need to be doing any deep work, and that has reduced my brain’s capacity to focus when I need to. I’m working against this now (partially thanks to a mental refocusing from Ryan Holiday’s book Stillness is the Key),  but it is hard work and requires that I think about what I am doing at any given moment and why.

 

Deep work is mentally taxing, and when the brain gets tired it wants to be distracted and shift to a low value cognitively easy task. However, if we focus on deep work, and train like an athlete to improve our thinking and focus, we can get better at it. We can push ourselves to be better at focusing on important things, and in the long run we will find that we can do better work, accomplish more important things in shorter periods of time, and be more focused when we need to be.
Specific Praise

Specific Praise

One of the points from Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People that I wrote about at length was praise versus flattery. Carnegie argues for praising people on a regular and consistent basis for quality work and good effort. But, Carnegie explicitly warns against the use of empty flattery. While praise is important, empty flattery is dangerous and can backfire.

 

To make sure that your praise is not just empty flattery and to make sure that your praise does what is intended, Carnegie suggests that you get specific, “Everybody likes to be praised, but when praise is specific, it comes across as sincere – not something the other person may be saying just to make one feel good.”

 

Being specific with praise is difficult. We focus so much on ourselves, that we easily overlook the times when our spouse cleans the counters or when an employee redesigns a spreadsheet to save everyone else some minor headaches. These positive moments might slip by, and later we might want to say something nice about the other person, but if we didn’t pay attention, then we might not be able to say more than, “I think you are great.”

 

Specific praise shows that we actually notice and pay attention to the other person. What is more, it shows that we value them and their contribution to our life or work. If we want to be sincere, and avoid empty flattery, then we need to look for moments to praise others. Whether it is noticing as soon as we get home that the counters were scrubbed or immediately sending a thank you email to our hardworking colleague, we should make an effort to be timely with our praise. That provides us with consistency and reinforces the appreciation we have for the other person and what they have done for us. Also, by calling these moments out directly, it will hopefully help us remember them for longer, so we can reference these positive moments when we are trying to be more sincere in our reflections on the other person.
On a side note, today I was reading an article on Vox by Emily Todd VanDerWerff and want to share a quick line from her that ties in with Dale Carnegie’s writing. In an article regarding President Trump, VanDerWerff writes, “he reminds me a lot of the worst boss I’ve ever had, a man who would learn one tiny detail about each of his employees, then relentlessly riff on that detail for as long as they might work for him.”

 

This ties in with Carnegie’s advice on being specific and sincere about your employees (or the people in your life in general). Remember that people change, grow, and develop new interests and ideas over time. It is great to learn something about another person, but it is not great to only learn one thing and to only reference that one thing in perpetuity. You will quickly seem out of touch, and it will show that you are insincere and don’t care about the other. Just as you should use specific praise that reflects real situations, you should also continue to learn about the people around you, so you can back-up your specific praise with context about the person who has done a good job or has done something nice and helpful for you.
Direct Requests Vs Suggestions Via Questions - The Importance of Asking Questions - Joe Abittan

Direct Requests Vs Suggestions Via Questions

A bit of advice offered by Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People reads, “Asking questions not only makes an order more palatable; it often stimulates the creativity of the person whom you ask. People are more likely to accept an order if they have had a part in the decision that caused the order to be issued.”

 

Carnegie suggest that instead of directly ordering people to do something, we should instead ask them questions about how we (as a team) can go about achieving the thing we want. This advice seems like it needs to be tied to specific situations in order for it to be practical. There are certainly times where requests need to be direct and even forceful to make sure appropriate jobs and tasks are completed accurately and timely.

 

However, if we are working on a creative project with multiple routes to completion, asking process questions might be a good approach. We could micromanage the project and interject at every point to make sure decisions were made in the way we wanted, or we could stand back and ask people what they thought would be the best approach and ask others what the pros and cons of each approach to reaching our goal might be. This seems to be the context that Carnegie envisioned for his advice.

 

With children, educators often encourage asking questions rather than telling answers. Instead of telling kids why the sky is blue, the advice is to ask children why they think the sky is blue, what could lead to it being blue, whether the sky is always blue or if its hue changes. These questions stimulate the mind and expand the conversation. Kids on their own probably won’t come up with an explanation of why the sky is blue and we will have to explain Rayleigh scattering to them, but we can at least engage them more and help them work on critical thinking skills in ways that simply answering questions directly would not allow for.

 

When working in teams where we can give authority to others, we can encourage this same type of critical thinking and build such skills by asking questions rather than by micromanaging and giving directives. We can ask what others understand to be our main goals and ask others how they think their role within the project can support those larger. This gives others a chance to take ownership of their duties in ways that simply giving orders does not. Hopefully with them engaged and supportive of the final decisions they will grow and produce better outcomes on this and future projects.

Credit for Being Who You Are

It is easy to look at other people and compare ourselves to them and feel either vastly superior or completely inadequate. But whether we feel better than someone else or worse than another person, we should recognize that these comparisons are generally meaningless. There are some people who do incredible things in the world, and others who we think could do more, but it is often the case that the individuals themselves have less control over how amazing and impressive they are than we (and they) believe.

 

For someone who is successful, it is easy and tempting for them to take all the credit. Surely they had to make smart choices and work hard to get to the place they are, and surely their success feels as if it has been earned. Simultaneously, we can apply this filter to someone who has not become our picture of success. They were lazy and didn’t make smart choices, and also deserve the place where they have landed.

 

For both successful and unsuccessful people, this perspective can be turned around. The successful person was the beneficiary of good luck, of a supportive and loving family, and maybe even inherited some wealth to help them along the way. The person who didn’t succeed maybe just didn’t get the lucky break, didn’t have someone in their life to help encourage and inspire them, and maybe had other challenges we don’t know about. For the successful person, maybe they would still be successful even if they were lazy and made poor choices. Perhaps the person we think of as a failure would have still failed even if they had worked hard and made smart choices.

 

I like to think through these exercises to remind myself that what I think of as success and failure, and what I see in my own life outcomes and the outcomes of other people are not always the results of individual actions, choices, and will power. Comparing ourselves to those who are successful and those who have failed doesn’t really give us a good picture of who is a valuable person. We all have different advantages and all face different forms of adversity. There are a lot of factors we can’t control, and we can’t take full credit for being either successful or for failing to reach the highest rung on the ladder.

 

Dale Carnegie writes about this in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, bringing a bit of a Stoic perspective to his readers:

 

“The only reason, for example, that you are not a rattlesnake is that your mother and father weren’t rattlesnakes. You deserve very little credit for being what you are—and remember, the people who come to you irritated, bigoted, unreasoning, deserve very little discredit for being what they are.”

 

We didn’t pick our genes, we didn’t pick our families, and we can’t always control our thoughts and personalities. We can certainly do the best we can with what we have, but we shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly (or praise ourselves unduly) because we are not like someone else. To be where we are today was in many ways a lucky result, and we will never know exactly what extra pushes we received that others did not, or what extra advantages others had that we missed out on. All we can do is try to engage with the world in a meaningful way, and try to help those who didn’t get the advantages that we had.

Consider Other People’s Opinions Seriously

A principle that Dale Carnegie expresses in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People is, “Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, You’re Wrong.”

 

Telling someone directly that they are wrong doesn’t do much for us. What it does is put the other person in a defensive position by threatening their status and identity. Directly criticizing them and labeling them as wrong, even if it is obvious, doesn’t actually get the other person to recognize their error and change their opinion.

 

To say that someone missed a point, that they committed a logical error, or to say that their conclusion should have fallen elsewhere is a way to get around direct criticism. Better yet is trying to understand where the person came from and why they think the way they do. By doing that, we can actually connect with them and help them examine their thinking and potentially make a change.

 

Carnegie writes, “Remember that other people may be totally wrong. But they don’t think so. Don’t condemn them. Any fool can do that. Try to understand them. Only wise, tolerant, exceptional people even try to do that. There is a reason why the other man thinks and acts as he does. Ferret out that reason – and you have the key to his actions, perhaps to his personality.”

 

When we stand back and tell people they are wrong, we implicitly broadcast how right we are. We don’t consider that other people have different points of view, different experiences, and different backgrounds that shape their views and beliefs. If we can work to better understand these factors and how people ended up where they are with their beliefs, then we have a better possibility of having a real conversation with them. Failing to do so only leads to polarization and an inability to communicate. Remember also that you are probably wrong about many points, and that you have the same capacity as the other person to be wrong in one way or another.

Immediate Evaluations

I will be honest with this one. I think President Donald Trump is a despicable human being, a lazy thinker, and too incompetent (not to mention unaware of his incompetence) to serve as President of the United States. As a result of my disliking of the President, I feel that I cannot trust anything he says. This is troubling because I am likely to immediately dismiss his evaluations and policies, assuming that they are wrong and potentially corrupt. I’m not going to blame myself 100% here (the President has done many things to make me and others suspicious of what he says), but I think it is important for me to recognize and acknowledge that I immediately dismiss anything he says and immediately assume that anything he thinks is wrong.

 

The President is such a polarizing individual that he, and my reactions to him, serve as useful examples of how quickly we can make judgments about what other people say. We pick up on direct cues from others and interpret indirect identity cues to begin to make judgments about what others say, before they have even said anything.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie quotes from the book On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers, “Our first reaction to most of the statements (which we hear from other people) is an evaluation or judgment, rather than an understanding of it.”

 

When a friend that we get along with and share similar interests and identities with starts to say something about a sports team that we don’t have strong opinions about, we will probably agree with them in an instinctive manner. At the same time, when our uncle posts on Facebook about how terrible the political party we vote for is, we will likely scroll right by or block his post without actually giving it a second thought. There may not really be a reason to instantly agree with our friend about how good LeBron James is or to debate our uncle about his political philosophy, but we should nevertheless be aware of how quickly we make judgments about what other people think, say, and post on social media.

 

If we occupy a key decision-making role in a company, if we have to make decisions about our child’s education, and if we are thinking about our long-term retirement plans, it would be helpful for us to consider how quickly judgments happen. If we really like our financial adviser, we might instinctively agree with what he says, even if his advice isn’t as well researched and accurate as it should be. If we have had a combative relationship with our college-aged child, we might not be happy to hear that they switched out of a pre-med major, even if we know in our hearts that becoming a doctor might not be a good route for our son or daughter. If we understand how quickly our minds make decisions for us, we can push back and hopefully make better ore informed decisions. We can at least be aware of times when we make a snap judgment and try to seek other sources of information and consider that we might be wrong, and that the advice or decision of another are actually sound.