Can ‘Deep Work’ Really Work For You? by [email protected]
It’s a condition familiar to a broad swath of American workers. You need a free stretch of time to tackle a problem or concentrate on a piece of writing. But diversions and interruptions keep coming: emails, texts, just one more spin through the Facebook news feed. It’s as if we are all struggling through a Christina’s World field of distraction toward a quiet place where we might actually be able to get some work done.
The lure of a place apart, if only a psychological one, is a recurring theme in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, the popular new book that argues for the virtues of longer periods of time for uninterrupted thinking. Cal Newport, a Georgetown University professor of computer science specializing in the theory of distributed algorithms, has written a cri de cœur from the digital age. Newport argues — as have many before him — that the internet has had a corrosive effect on our ability to concentrate.
In the workplace, the constant sending and receiving of email has turned us into mere “human routers,” he writes, making for shallow work habits and keeping us from the kind of deep thinking (a term of his own coining) that could otherwise be spent developing new business strategies or on more important work. “Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work,” he warns.
Yet this rewiring of brains has also created an opening. Newport lays out what is at stake with a sales-pitch fervor that leaves little room for resistance. “Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow … is exposing a massive economic opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth….”
A Deeper Need for Deep Work
Of course, not every worker is charged with developing new business strategies and thinking big thoughts, even if he or she could find the time. Much of Newport’s discussion does not apply to anyone with a non-creative job, points out Wharton emeritus management professor Marshall W. Meyer. “Sure, it’s a legitimate argument, and it’s probably necessary for a lot of workers [to allocate time to strategies like deep work],” he says. But the big problem for many, Meyer adds, is striking a balance; non-creatively focused jobs can be a grind. “People look for more variety in their jobs,” he notes. “In some jobs, they would be happy for less focus and more variety, but the economic imperative won’t let that happen, so they find variety outside of work. This book assumes that people want to be creative, but doesn’t deal with repetitive work.”
“Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow … is exposing a massive economic opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth….” –Cal Newport in Deep Work
“Obviously it depends a huge amount on the work that you are doing,” says Wharton management professor Matthew Bidwell. “Back in the 1970s, when Henry Mintzberg followed managers around, there were a lot of interruptions, but it was this endless trail of people stopping by or the phone ringing.” Technology allows us to be even more distracted, Bidwell notes: If you want to keep checking your email, you can. “One of the things about technology is that it has in a sense lowered the cost of communication with each other.”
But it has also come at a different type of cost. “I think it is a timely book. There are so many people trying to figure out how to do not just more work but better work, because we live in a world dominated by distraction,” says Adam Grant, Wharton management professor and author of Give and Take and Originals (and himself the subject of one of Newport’s chapters). “One of the things we know from nearly a century of research is that people are not good at parallel processing. They are good at serial processing. And where people never really fully engage, it’s hard to get a lot of work done. Cal has done a terrific job of highlighting how intense focus gets better results both in terms of quality and quantity.”
Nicholas Carr complained that even deep reading was becoming a struggle for him and an entire culture in his famously alarming 2008 essay in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” One study found that workers are able to spend only 11 minutes on a task before being interrupted. “The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress” by Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, detected no difference in the quality of work by those getting interrupted, and the study suggested that “people compensate for interruptions by working faster.” But interruptions came at a price: “experiencing more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort.”
In fact, there is a growing need for deep work, and that is new, Newport claims. In the industrial economy, workers did fine without ever having to concentrate without distraction. “But as we shift to an information economy, more and more of our population are knowledge workers, and deep work is becoming a key currency,” he argues. Our ability to do deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable, he writes.
Newport uses various writers, scientists, executives and academics – including himself – as examples of those who can produce at a high rate while “rarely working past 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. during the workweek.” The key is deep work. There is a neurological basis for how sustained concentration yields improvements — in everything from playing a musical instrument to solving complex problems. Newport cites science suggesting that the more you do something, the more you develop the layer of the tissue myelin around corresponding circuits. “To be great at something is to be well myelinated,” he writes. “This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits – effectively cementing the skill.”
There is much in the way jobs are organized today that is at odds with producing high-quality results. Multitasking can be a drain on concentration. But even moving among projects – in the way that many workers go from one meeting to the next – comes with a built-in inefficiency. In “Why Is It So Hard To Do My Work?,” Sophie Leroy, then an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, showed that when moving from one task to another, full attention does not immediately follow. A residue of attention remained on the first task, she found.
“People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task,” she wrote.
But what kind of a job are firms doing at recognizing the need for deep work and cultivating a work atmosphere that allows it? “Really bad — terrible,” says Grant. With some studies showing employees spending 50% of their time on email, “half of your time is already gone on basic coordination of activities. My guess