Striving for focus in a distracted world? Read this.

Deep Work by Cal Newport – Rules for focused success in a distracted world: A Book Review by Wellineux.

“I will live the focused life because it is the best kind there is” 
Winifred Gallagher

We live in a world that constantly tries to command our attention. Questions from colleagues, social media updates, incessant emails, calendar reminders, must watch TV shows, recurring meetings, requests to donate time or money and on and on it goes.

These distractions have become the norm, and the time we escape from them and work in an engaged and undistracted way, have sadly become the rare exception.

We are losing the skills and dedication to work deeply and by consequence, the fulfillment and value that deep work can bring.

How could the world change and the lives of those within it if deep and undistracted work became the norm?

Cal Newport’s inspiring book, Deep Work, makes a convincing argument that now is the time for finding ways to disengage with the distractions and shallow work that dominate, and engage in deep work if we want to turn our potential into tangible results. He believes that the world desperately needs the value, the ideas and the outputs that are created from deep work and that we need this way of working to thrive.

Cal defines the work that we spend most of our time doing as shallow work, “non-cognitively 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.” Whilst in contrast, he defines deep work as, “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.”  

For many of us, the shift from shallow to deep work sounds great in principle, and maybe something we have thought about before, but the task can seem insurmountable and here are some reasons why;

  •  Shallow work is easier, you have to put more energy and effort into deep work and be prepared to embrace the fears that come with trying something new
  • There is an illusion that busy equates to being productive
  • We live in a culture of connectivity where people are expected to engage and respond quickly. This has resulted in many running their days around their inboxes, but is this creating their best work?

Cal provides a range of habits and practices to enable us to step back from distractions and engage in deep work more frequently.  Here’s a few to start with;

1. Find your way to structure, identify and measure your deep work.
Firstly get clear on what your deep work is, what really matters and why. When you can get to the core of what the work is and how you measure it, then the it is time to get clear on how do you do it. For some people this might be uninterrupted concentration on certain days of the week or certain hours in the day, or even allocating certain weeks of the year. No way is right or wrong but it’s about finding what works best for you to enable you to have periods of full disconnection.

2. Embrace boredom.
The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. It takes focus and time to build this often forgotten skill and requires breaking through the boredom. Take breaks from the deep work and use these as opportunities to engage in distractions. Cal identifies a range of techniques like having a notebook by your computer and writing on it the next time you can use the internet and sticking to it religiously to help focus you and break through the boredom.

3. Quit social media.
This is the one that sends terror through most people. How could I do it? How can I not know what’s going on in the lives of people?

Social media platforms are designed to be addictive, robbing your attention and time from things that support you in achieving your goals. It doesn’t mean social media is without benefits and the task is more to get clear on why you use it and how it can support you and not distract you.

Cal recommends trialing 30 days without social media and asking yourself the question ‘would my life have been noticeably better if I had been able to use this service?’ and ‘did people care that I had not used this?’. If your answer is no to both, then it’s clear that social media isn’t supporting you. But if it is serving you in some way, hopefully this trial has helped focus you on what benefits you get from it and how to integrate this into a less distracted life with more deep work.

4. Drain the shallows.
Cal recommends scheduling all the time in your day to prevent you from spending a lot of your day on autopilot, which is what most of us do. This doesn’t mean you need to lose spontaneity as you can find your way to keep the routine flexible but highly intentional.

He suggests quantifying the depth of every activity you engage in to really raise your consciousness around the work you are doing. One way you might consider supporting this in the workplace is by asking your boss for a shallow work budget so you know what percentage of your time should be spent on shallow work. This is a potentially fascinating conversation, which could result in greater awareness in your organization about the importance of deep work.

It’s not easy to take the toad less travelled and step away from the comfort of artificial busyness that our lives can so easily be consumed by. It takes hard work and courage to embrace your fears and attempt to create things that matter. You get to choose how much or how little you want to step down this deep path which, as Cal says, is “rich with productivity and meaning”. 

Deep work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World. An Amazon Best Book of the Year. Purchase your copy online here.