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Working Busy, or Working Deep?

Have you ever reached the end of a workday, and despite the fatigue, wondered what you had achieved beyond many answered emails? Here's a review of what I learnt from reading "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World" by Cal Newport.

Book Review: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.

Have you ever reached the end of a workday, and despite the fatigue, wondered what you had achieved beyond many answered emails and running between meetings? These days, it seems to me to be a regular story! And one I want to change.

I remember when I was in high school and university, studying for exams and assignments. My capacity to direct my energy was strong, and I would happily dive into learning and producing for hours. Today, while my desire to keep learning remains, much of my ability to concentrate deeply has not. Be it the allure of technology platforms, or a meeting-filled agenda where responses to emails are still expected, I feel distracted and caught between multiple tabs…both on my computer and in my mind.

This is not to say technological advances, both in and out of the workplace, are not helpful. They’re empowering us to work flexibly and to collaborate from anywhere (and, I happily take most of my cooking inspiration from Instagram)! Yet, I feel how exhausting multi-tasking can be, and more worryingly, how it keeps me working at a shallow level, unable to find the focus to go deep.

The Book – What’s It About?

My fiancé and I had been discussing this state of distraction, and deciding to learn more on the topic, came across Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport.  A professor and author, Newport created the term deep work to mean “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”. With this skill, he reasons, you can efficiently manage complex information, and not only improve how you work through pushing your cognitive abilities, but bring about a more fulfilling life through creating things of value in your field. In a time of wide transformation in the use of technology in the workplace, he argues that deep work could be one of the most necessary skills you could have.

The book is divided into two main parts. Firstly, Newport explores more closely the idea of deep work, sharing stories of practitioners in various fields, and how their commitment to focus has set their contribution apart. He cites a range of experts and academics, from Carl Jung to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, to bring perspectives on the human capacity to concentrate, direct attention and focus, and in turn bring meaning and contentment to life. He also shares why he thinks deep work is rare today, arguing that many work processes and trends, from a stream of instant messages to a presence on multiple social media sites, are filling our days with tasks that offer the path of least resistance. In the process, these busy tasks are clouding our understanding of what knowledge work really means.

This got me thinking: was I really engaged in knowledge work for a large part of my day? I knew just how unfocused I had become. Much of my time is spent responding to demands and emails, and I can find myself anxious, distracted and caught up on five half-finished messages at a time. The time for creating, writing and analysing is often left until the end of the day…when most of my energy is depleted.

How to work deep?

But how to get to, or return to, this state of focused work? In the second part of the book, Newport outlines four rules to apply deep work, including rituals and habits to integrate to allow the space for this skill to emerge.

Some ideas that particularly spoke to me are:

  • Deep work requires time and practice in order to challenge the limits of your mental capacity.
  • Plan your deep work hours in advance, but be willing to adapt to schedule changes. Block time for the key activities to focus on at certain periods, as this will help prevent distraction and wondering what task to focus on next.
  • Choose and focus on only limited tasks during your deep work hours—these are the “wildly important tasks” that require your attention and creativity.
  • Support these hours with the right environment, from the physical workspace itself, to your own hydration and nourishment.
  • Before leaving work each day, review your tasks and add any new ones to build a clearer view of the next day.
  • Leave your work at work, with no checking of emails and thinking about the next day’s tasks in the evening. This shutdown gives you necessary mental rest, and allows the unconscious mind the time to find connections and solutions you may not have thought of with your conscious mind.
  • Practice “fixed-schedule productivity” – integrate rules and habits in to your work where long hours are not needed, allowing you to focus on and prioritise deep work and also return to work ready and refreshed.
  • Embrace boredom, instead of reaching for distraction through phones and social media when you have a few minutes of waiting time. This will help you to enter more easily into modes of concentration when needed, as you are not so disposed to succumbing to distraction.
  • Think carefully about the online tools you choose to use, and how they will support your work and personal life. Think like an artisan—what tools will encourage, deepen and improve your work?
  • Put considered thought into your hobbies and leisure time. Give yourself time to do things that give you meaning and fulfilment, that allow you to thrive instead of just exist.

Thoughts and Takeaways

Newport’s book left me with several ideas to trial at work. While Deep Work is not groundbreaking, with much of his recommendations seeming relatable and clear, I’d certainly lost consciousness of them in my day-to-day actions. As we begin 2020, I’ve begun to test some of the book’s habits and rituals, particularly taking the time to intentionally plan each day and block time to focus on certain tasks.

It will take conscious effort and practice, but so far, it feels liberating to choose this time to bring a deeper focus and energy to my work and my personal passions, and to see it all in a calmer, more present way. For anyone caught in distracted circles, this book might bring you the perspective and the tools you are looking for to return to your potential at work, and in your hobbies.

Note: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World is authored by Cal Newport. Published in 2016 by Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Book Group.

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