deep work
January 18, 2018

Are you & your analysts protecting time for Deep Work?

By Paul Laughlin

As you continually improve how your team works, are you protecting time for “Deep Work”?

If you haven’t come across that phrase, it was coined by my latest recommended book. In “Deep Work“, author Cal Newport makes a great case for the importance of better concentration.

He diagnoses our current malaise. Full of distractions from our phones/tablets/computers/connected devices, we fail to focus.

Cal is an associate professor of Computer Science, at Georgetown University, and a well-published academic.

He uses a wide range of scientific research & personal stories (his and his clients/students). Together, the picture he paints is one that demands action.

What is Deep Work?

It is when you focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. As Cal argues, we should think of it as a tool. One that is very powerful at enabling us to achieve quality work.

Sadly, as Cal shows, very few (even knowledge workers, like insight leaders or analysts) are using this tool today. If you look over the shoulder of your analysts today, chances are they are communicating about work. If they are doing work, it is probably with lots of quick distractions, or at a superficial level.

Despite that, Cal presents evidence that Deep Work is very effective. Intense unbroken concentration, is the best way to produce high quality work. Ideally, he means really long periods of unbroken focus, to truly immerse yourself in a task & ideas.

Do you do Deep or Shallow work?

The opposite of Deep Work? You guessed it, it’s Shallow Work.

Think for a moment, do you know how much of your day you spend ‘talking about work’, rather than actually doing work (creating new value). How much time do you spend applying, your best skills, to create new things of value (code, strategy etc)?

When you do spend time truly ‘working‘, how do you do this? Studies show most people, even when working on creating new output, do so in a state of ‘mild distraction‘. Emails, alerts, interruptions all break any attempt at sustained focus.

Sadly Cal doesn’t have many positive examples in the book, or organisations taking up this challenge. It seems few mid-size to large businesses consistently enable Deep Work. His positive examples are solopreneurs and independent thought leaders. it could be argued, that is, those of us who find it easier to control our time & environment.

But Cal makes a strong case, for why Deep Work should be a key competitive advantage, in today’s world. The ability to do this kind of work, to produce better quality & novel output, is a tool worth investing in.

Achieving Deep Work takes more careful tool selection

Remarkably, Cal has never had a social media account (Facebook, Twitter etc). That is a conscious choice. He states it is because he takes his ability to concentrate very seriously, so is willing to prioritise that. It is a skill, not just a habit, so it needs to be practiced. What should you allow into your ‘attention environment’?

My own experience, closing my Facebook account, is nothing bad happens. As you’ll see, I do still use Twitter, LinkedIn & Google+ for advertising, but leaving Facebook helped. How much are you checking social media on a daily or hourly basis? Is that time when you could be focussing on priorities, ones that require careful thought?

Cal describes such social media, as well as alerts on devices and email, as ‘Attention stealing technologies’. He rightly (in my view), diagnoses that we suffer from an ‘any benefit mindset‘. That is, any benefit we can see (in using them) is sufficient justification for these distracting tools & apps.

Instead, Cal argues, we need to take a ‘craftsmen approach‘ to tool selection. All commercially available tools/apps have some potential benefit. But, the only ones you should let into your life, are the ones that add significant value to you & enable you to achieve better results. If you follow that approach, how many apps & tools would you delete & stop using?

Drain the Shallows

Sounding dangerously like a US election rallying cry, for you know who, this is actually about reducing Shallow Work.

In the book, Cal shares how he more intentionally plans his time. On a weekly basis he looks ahead & identifies commitments, priorities & work that needs to be done. He then plans out a week ahead, ensuring that Deep Work time-slots are protected for the work that matters most.

This enables him to identify what time he has left. These time slots can be assigned to Shallow Work that needs to get done (advertising, emails etc). They also provide available time slots to offer to others needing your time (rather than being at the mercy of their diary).

This radical approach is actually more conventional when you take a longer view. Figures from the past like Teddy Roosevelt, routinely protected time for sustained thinking – enabling him to be so productive. In fact, Cal usefully reminds us that ways of working that may now feel essential (like working from your email InBox), are only 10-20 years old.

What is more, a lot of the technology now dominating how people do their work (email, social media, chat, apps) was never designed for this. Much emerged, as a result of what technology made possible, rather than being designed to achieve better quality work.

Could you drain your shallows & intentionally protect time next week for 1-2 hours of Deep Work? What could you stop doing & what could you batch-up to only do once a day or once a week?

Deep work = the value of boredom

One of the amusing elements of Cal’s book is his recommendation that we embrace boredom.

He describes, developing an ability to concentrate for long periods, as “cognitive calisthenics”. You need to train your mind to be able to do Deep Work. It’s a mental exercise/workout to develop the ability to concentrate for longer periods.

This includes weaning yourself off drug of stimulation, from distractions. We need to practice not indulging this urge. One way to do this is to take more opportunities to be bored. When you are next in queue or needing to wait for something, try not reaching for your phone. Just be still & think. It is like regular training for your mental faculties.

Could you go into a coffee shop & just sit there & drink a coffee? Or are you addicted to checking your devices?

This insight has wider implications, because we are becoming an increasingly ‘knowledge-based economy‘. But, what are we doing, to develop the key skill, to produce new quality insights? Shallow Work & addiction to distractions, is weakening one of the key skills today’s workers & economy need.

Planning to achieve Deep Work

I hope you find this book useful. My conviction is that it really matters.

Customer Insight Leaders, perhaps even more than other leadership roles, requires quality thought. Two key concerns for you should be: (a) how can I best develop this capability & apply it in my business = Deep Work; (b) how can I role model best practice for my team?

So, how can you get started? Cal suggests you start by doing one thing in each of these 3 categories:

  1. Train your brain to get better at focussing (reducing distractions, embracing boredom, etc).
  2. Start to protect time for Deep Work (scheduling in calendar, finding a conducive space, etc.
  3. Change something in your life to show you take this seriously (quit a social media service, turning off some notifications, etc).

Further resources, to accompany Cal’s great book, can be found on his website. Including a great blog:

I look forward to hearing how tips in this post are working for you.

It would be great to hear any positive examples, of how you have created better Deep Work environments for your team. Have you found ways to nurture better thinking & protect your analysts to do this?