Deep work! It’s been called the No 1 job skill that will never become obsolete. But it’s become even more difficult as email notifications have developed a COVID-driven twin in the form of Teams/Slack/Skype messages, doubling the number of distractions.
Firstly, if you don’t know what deep work is here’s the elevator pitch: the concept is as old as humanity, but the terminology and popularisation were defined by Cal Newport in his 2016 book ”Deep Work: rules for focused success in a distracted world”. In essence, it’s work-related activity that is done in a distraction-free situation where you actively push your cognitive skills to the max.
This means you need to, as far as possible, be physically locked away so you can’t be disturbed, and force your focus to stick to a pre-defined challenge for at least 45 minutes. A deep work session is typically 1-2 hours, though.
In other words, it’s pretty much the opposite of what most of us spend most of our workdays doing – being in reactive mode or failing to get into deep concentration because of the constant notifications flying at us. Or to quote Seth Godin: “we’re so busy doing our jobs, that we can’t get any work done”.
Create more value for the work you do
So, what is the value you’re missing out on by staying in reactive mode, or “shallow thinking” mode as some call it? Honestly, it depends on the demands of your role. If your goal is to thrive and add value in this increasingly cognitive economy, then deep work is truly the No 1 work skill you must develop and harness.
1) by protecting your attention, you will actually get more done; and perhaps more importantly
2) because in most cases, the output of “shallow” and reactive tasks is easy to replicate. The value you bring to the role and the company is less unique than it could have been if more of your workday had been spent in deep concentration where you are able to hold more complex pieces of information in your head for longer, and are therefore able to form new connections and come up with something of high quality.
Are you really willing to bet against the above being true in 2021 onwards, as the increased digitalisation is forcing everyone to compete globally, including knowledge workers? In his book Cal Newport’s recommended question to help reality check the situation is: “how many months would it take to train a smart graduate student with no experience in my domain to do this task”? Look at your next couple of workdays and ask that question about what you have planned to do.
Be intentional about your time
Ok, if you are still reading you may be at least partly convinced there is something to this. Perhaps the answer to the question above was an uncomfortably low number of months? No matter your motivation, to get into proper deep concentration you need to carve out both dedicated time and space where it’s difficult for anyone or anything to distract you for at least an hour or two.
So you need to be intentional about your time. This might mean logging out of email and Slack/Teams etc and turning off notifications on your phone. You then must pre-determine the exact output you are expecting from this session, and then the hardest bit, force yourself to focus on only the task at hand for 1-2 hours, where you bring your attention back to the topic when your mind wanders. It will be difficult, but the more information you are able to hold in your head and connections you can make, the better the output will be.
What could be examples of output from deep work? Since I work in digital marketing, here are three examples of deep work from my profession that might not have happened at all, or not happened at high quality, if we didn’t carve out time and space to do it (properly):
– A marketing campaign derived from true deep thinking about the problem your company’s value proposition solves and then really going under the hood of your target audience to deliver a campaign idea that communicates that value with optimal precision.
– A model or drawing of your full funnel and the business and marketing processes you have in place to reach the audience in the right place at the right time, with a bonus appendix full of ideas on how to improve the different touchpoints, including prioritisation of execution.
– A 10-page e-book about your audience’s problem and your business’ solution based on solid research, ready to go up and start generating leads.
All of these can be delivered without “declaring” that you are now sitting down to do deep work, but as Cal Newport writes: “Deep work is necessary to wring every drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity.” I believe he is right, and that means for the above (and other examples), you are likely leaving quality on the table and delivering at 80-90% when you could have reached 100%. Imagine the difference that makes over a year, a decade, a career. That’s the power of deep work.