Deep Work is Pragmatic

Deep Work is Pragmatic

The final quote that I have from Cal Newport’s book Deep Work is just a reminder of the pragmatic reality of deep work: “the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.” The reason we should take ideas of deep work seriously is because it will help us be better at doing the most important things. Everyone has goals for their life, everyone has things they want to accomplish, and everyone has something they are aiming toward, but nobody will get there if they cannot focus on the things that matter.


Whether it is at work, in our family and social lives, or with a new hobby, being able to focus on the important things is crucial. Without developing concentration skills, we are going to be distracted by social media, outrageous news reports, and one million other notifications on our smart phones. These distractions will stop us from putting  the necessary effort into the meaningful things in our lives, and will train our brains to expect constant input.


As the world becomes even more distracting, with phones continuing to grab a foothold in our lives and with more opportunities for distraction all around us, it is important that we remember the value of concentration. It is important that we work on becoming better versions of ourselves through focus and deep work so that we can excel where others become bogged down and unable to move forward with complex high value tasks. Without being able to truly concentrate, we will never get important things done.
Constant Task Switching

Constant Task Switching

My last post was about training the brain to become less dependent on continuous novelty and to become better at concentrated focus. Training the brain for deep work requires that we wean ourselves from distractions and in some senses rewire our brains to be less dependent on distracting stimuli.


Cal Newport describes exactly what it is with today’s technology that ruin’s our ability to focus. He says it is not just a distracting technology or habit, but our constant task switching. It is the multitasking (or what we call multitasking) that makes it so hard for us to actually do anything. “The idea motivating this strategy [strict regulation of our internet usage and time] is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.” 


A lot of the important work that we need to do is hard, includes some drudgery, and requires a good amount of brain power to think through the best way to design, implement, and complete. Often times this requires reading important technical documents, writing detailed reports, or building spreadsheets or tables. All of these activities have parts that flow nicely, and all of them have tedious parts that require attention to detail to make sure everything is well considered, thorough, and accurate. These activities require deep work.


If you continually jump between your deep work and your twitter feed, or the scoreboard for the league, or your Snapchat, you will be taking your mind off the important but tedious work and giving your attention over to something designed to be more stimulating, but that is ultimately unimportant. Your brain won’t be able to put up with long boring stretches of time, and eventually the consequences of your bad habits will catch up with you. It will take you longer to do detailed writing and to complete projects. You will miss small details in your constant task switching and your accuracy will suffer. Your mind will become accustomed to switching into a fantasy world of distraction, and you will find yourself at family dinners pulling out your phone instead of being present with loved ones. To get better at deep work, and to get the benefits that come with a focused mind, we have to work against the constant need for distraction, and that means developing habits that put low-value/high-stimuli distractions into a proper time and space, so we can enjoy them appropriately without letting them interrupt our important work.
Unconscious Thought Theory

Unconscious Thought Theory

I like to think of myself as a pretty rational and empirical thinker. I try to understand points where my thoughts will be influenced by bias and my immediate reactions to situations. At these points, I try (not always successfully) to pause to be more reflective and considerate. I generally believe that striving for rationality and more evidence backed opinions is a good thing, but there is research which suggests that this strategy can lead to overthinking things and might involve parts of the brain which are not well suited for some decisions.


In Deep Work, author Cal Newport writes about Unconscious Thought Theory and research by Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis (I have no pronunciation help here). Research from Dijksterhuis shows that our unconscious brains are good at handling situations with complex, ambiguous information and no clear path forward. Newport describes it by writing, “if you need to do a math calculation, only your conscious mind is able to follow the precise arithmetic rules needed for correctness. On the other hand, for decisions that involve large amounts of information and multiple vague, perhaps even conflicting constraints, your unconscious mind is well suited to tackle the issue.”


The reason Newport brings this into his book Deep Work is because in addition to strict focus work, he also advocates for time away from work. “your capacity for deep work in a given day is limited,” Newport explains, “If you’re careful about your schedule … you should hit your daily deep work capacity during your workday.”


The implication is that we should step away from our work to give our conscious minds a break when we max out on our deep work capacity. Some tasks are not well suited for the hyper-analytic conscious mind, and some of these tasks can be worked through by the unconscious mind at a time when the brain doesn’t have to marshal all resources for deep analytical thinking. By stepping away from work, closing out of our work email, and engaging with other life hobbies and our families, we can allow our unconscious brain to sort through the challenging ambiguities of the problems that had previously stymied our work. Unconscious Thought Theory suggests that our unconscious brain can work on these problems if given space, but continuing to check work emails after hours or logging back in here and there to check on our work prevents the unconscious brain from having the space it needs to do the background sorting that makes it a valuable tool.


In the end, it is turning off our rational brain for a little while, allowing ourselves to engage with something or focus on something that doesn’t require such heightened focus, and knowing when to stop our deep work that helps us perform at our best. The answer is not to continuously chug through all the analytic work we can force onto our brain in a day, but to maximize the time we can spend in deep work, and turn ourselves off when we have hit our cognitive limit.
Doing Hard Things Consistently

Doing Hard Things Consistently

We live in a world where there are a lot of opportunities to default to something easy and we constantly have the ability to take a quick break to pass a few minutes with mindless distractions. We can fill any quiet moment with music or a podcast, scroll through Facebook in line at the grocery store, and pop over to a blog really quick when we are bored or stuck on a problem at work. Distraction and easy alternatives to hard work are everywhere.


But if we want to get stuff done, if we want to produce something meaningful, and if we want to cultivate an ability to focus for long stretches to be our best selves, then we need to find ways to get beyond these easy distractions. We have to find a way to set ourselves up so that doing hard things consistently is not a mountain moving challenge.


In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport helps us think through this. For Newport, it is all about creating habits and routines that can unlock our potential and help us achieve the things we want. As he writes, “An often-overlooked observation about those who use their minds to create valuable things is that they’re rarely haphazard in their work habits.” 


The quote above is specifically about knowledge workers and creative types who produce work in our modern age. Yet it shows us the importance of creating a structure and developing a routine to do what we do. Bouncing around and doing some work for a few minutes here and there won’t cut it if we actually want to produce results. We can’t be haphazard in our approach to work, we have to be deliberate and develop methods that encourage focus and concentration.


Newport also shares a somewhat famous story of a comedian who asked Jerry Seinfeld for advice relatively early in both men’s careers. Seinfeld’s advice was to write jokes every day, and to get a big calendar to use to cross out the date for every day that the comic wrote a joke. Newport describes this as the chain method and uses it to highlight the importance of rhythmic habits for consistently doing hard things. “The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep.” 


If you always have to pick between various activities and choices, you will rarely choose to do the deep work necessary to produce something meaningful. Instead, the laundry on the guest bed, the sink full of dishes, those emails you keep forgetting about, and checking back on Tyler Cowen’s blog will become your default activities when you don’t have a plan for what to work on and when to work on it. The only way to consistently drive to do meaningful deep work is to develop a space, a time, and a routine in which you do deep work. Making it a habit and endowing it with special rituals to help you ease into the work can unlock your focusing potential, and help ensure that each day you find a way to engage with the deep and meaningful work that you want to do, but that can be hard to consistently engage with.
Switching Tasks - Deep Work - Joe Abittan

Switching Tasks

The big problem with multitasking is that our brains literally cannot do it. Our brains don’t work on multiple problems at the same time, instead, our brains switch between tasks rapidly to make it seem like we are multitasking. What we are really doing, however, is inconsistently working on one task for short bursts.


It turns out, this is a terrible approach to actually doing great work. As Cal Newport puts it in his book Deep Work, “To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.” [Emphasis in original]


Being mediocre in our work is fine if we don’t care about our work. If we don’t care whether we are in a position that might be cut during tough times, if we don’t care whether our work makes a difference, and if we just want to get paid and go home, then we can be mediocre. However, if none of those things are true, then it matters whether we are exceptional or average.


To be one of the top producers in our field, to stand out in our firm, and to be a crucial team player who is promoted, retained, and given important responsibilities, we have to perform at our best. High quality performance requires mental focus and grit. The only way to build focus and grit as habits that we can maintain for substantial stretches day in and day out is to practice engaging in deep work.


Multitasking (or multiple task switching as it might be better described) harms our ability to focus. Newport writes the following about switching tasks, “When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow – a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about he original task.” You can’t get into deep work if your mind is not completely focused on the task at hand.


Checking email constantly, working on a project for 15 minutes before allowing someone else to pull you into another project for 15 minutes, and trying to do meaningful work in the extra 5 minutes before meetings is a dangerous work strategy if producing high quality work is important for you. There may be times where it is good to step away from a difficult problem, to let the subconscious chew things over a little bit, but doing so continuously is unhelpful. The brain needs time and space to dive into one area to focus consistently, otherwise it is not fully applying itself to the task at hand, and the results will be as haphazard as our thinking process.
Solving for Productivity

Solving For Productivity

My general sense, from working at a health-tech start-up to my time in government, is that we under-invest in how to be productive. I recognize that everyone will have different preferences, different abilities, and different thinking styles, but I have seen plenty of areas in which we could improve the how and when of our schedules to make ourselves more productive. We can level this up from individual level decision making around productivity into group levels of productivity to really improve our organizations.


In the start-up world I saw individuals who were incredibly productive, but who also seemed to work for 12 or more hours every day. This is impressive, but not very sustainable and not something that could scale. In government I have seen people face mountains of work, but fail to prioritize and schedule appropriately to focus their work. Both examples highlight the importance of how we approach our productivity and why we should have more discussions about planning, schedule design, and deep work if we are going to improve our productivity as individuals and organizations.


In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport addresses these issues directly. He shares a story about a business school professor named Adam Grant, who produces a prodigious amount of work in terms of New York Time’s best selling books, academic journal articles, and award winning courses at his University. Newport met Grant who shared with him a PowerPoint outlining strategies for academics to become highly productivity and effective. As Newport states it, Grant, and the professors who developed the PowerPoint, “See productivity as a scientific problem to systematically solve.”


This is the exact opposite of the productivity strategies I have seen in my two careers. The commendable start-uppers burning the midnight oil seemed to mostly just throw themselves at every project until they were spread too thin and slowed down other operations. Conversely, many of the people I have seen in government simply give in, arguing that there is too much work and not enough manpower to manage it all. Neither see their effectiveness and productivity in a scientific sense, adding variables and completing formulas to find their maximum (sustainable) productivity.


Newport encourages us to think about how we do our work and what work we prioritize. His suggestions also seem to be in line with recommendations from Dan Pink’s book When. From Grant, Newport learned, “batching of hard, but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.” This can take place at “multiple levels” according to Newport who demonstrates how an academic can batch teaching into one semester and research into another semester. In our own lives, we can batch important analytical work into our productive and focused mornings, and we can save emails and rote paperwork for our afternoon struggle-bus hour.


We might be tempted by Newport’s advice to just double down on our hard work and extend our working hours. But this is not the best strategy for the best performance. Newport explains a lesson he learned while researching his book How to Become a Straight-A Student, “The best students understood the role intensity plays in productivity and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration – radically reducing the time required to prepare for tests or write papers, without diminishing the quality of their results.”


If we see a mountain of work and shrink from it, or if we see a mountain of work and blindly throw ourselves at it, our end result is not going to be the best possible outcome. What we need to do is think about how we can be the most productive in tackling the task in front of us. We need to think strategically and scientifically about our approach, batching the complex focus work into periods of productivity, and saving the less important work for the time when our brains have maxed out on their focus ability. This is something that leaders of all organizations should be encouraging and teaching to those they lead, otherwise they hold onto the secrets of good work, and allow those who work with them to flounder about in front of the challenges of work in the 21st century. By adding a little more time to planning and thinking strategically for how we work, we can make adjustments to kickstart our productivity. By giving ourselves realistic challenges and knowing when to say no, we can ensure that all of our work is the best we could possibly produce.