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 is you are not getting time to focus. There are organizations that are good creative cultures, but part of the reason there is a receptive audience for Cal’s book is because this is a problem in most work places.”
“I get a ton of requests, and I am trying to be thoughtful about the kind of help I can do, where I can add the most value.” –Adam Grant
A Range of Deep Work
The basic image takes on different physical forms: Carl Jung’s stone house near Lake Zurich, Samuel Clemens’ shed on a farm in New York state, Bill Gates’ lakeside cottage. But the function is always the same: Newport’s interest is not in these spots as sylvan inspiration (though they surely are that) but as preserves against the incursion of distraction. He suggests that places of escape are open to anyone, as are the school libraries where Newport has become a habitué and done his best work.
Deep work is a matter of developing the right habits or rules — or at least, the right rules for you. On one end of the spectrum, Newport describes some workers who are monastic in shutting out the world. Science fiction writer and game designer Neal Stephenson has a policy of not answering email. “He can write good novels at a regular rate, or he can answer a lot of individual emails and attend conferences, and as a result produce lower-quality novels at a slower rate,” writes Newport.
Jung, on the other hand, was not monastic, but set aside periods to think and write in isolation. “If even an hour away from your inbox makes you uncomfortable, then certainly the idea of disappearing for a day or more at a time will seem impossible,” Newport writes. “But I suspect bimodal working is compatible with more types of jobs than you might guess.” Another method is the rhythmic method of deep work — scheduling a set time every day for deep work.
Ritualizing the deep work to suit you requires asking some questions — where you will work and for how long; how you will set limits on distractions; how you can measure results (in number of words produced?), and how to support your efforts with raw materials (coffee? A brisk walk to clear the mind?). Newport also says to not underestimate the potential of a grand gesture to boost the progress of a project. He uses the example of a distracted J. K. Rowling, faced with writing the final Harry Potter book while “the kids were at home and the dogs were barking.” So she checked into Edinburgh’s luxurious Balmoral Hotel to shift her mindset. “By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task,” Newport says.
While few of us can check into a five-star hotel to court the muse, many of Newport’s recommendations boil down to vigilantly guarding mission and time. Schedule every minute of the day, he advises. Carefully guard the time you need to focus. Where does social media fit in? It doesn’t. “Quit social media,” he urges in one chapter. Network tools like Facebook are “engineered to be addictive — robbing time and attention from activities that more directly support your professional and personal goals.” Tools must be curated, he said, they must meet a test. Does each tool have a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact on your goals?
“If it makes sense, pay attention. If it doesn’t, don’t. Because strategy is a focusing tool.” –Marshall W. Meyer
Grant says it’s important to learn how to say no. “A lot of requests I get are for things I am not good at. I get requests and say, ‘Actually, this is not my expertise.’ I get a ton of requests, and I am trying to be thoughtful about the kind of help I can give, where I can add the most value. A lot of it is about saying no in a way that is communicating what your priorities are. I’ve had people reach out, and I get back to them by saying that if I said yes, I’d be letting down my family or my students, and those are the groups I’ve made a commitment to be completely responsible to. People really respect it when it comes from a place of where my values are.”
Interestingly, Meyer says he suspects there is a link between lack of focus, and the natural selection that has led to the kinds of leaders and leadership style favored today. “In the last 20 or 30 years, there’s been a lot of attention to leadership, and the two characteristics of leadership that stand out are charisma and positive mood affect,” he says. “And that’s contributed in my judgment to the dynamic we now have where people are up, outgoing, and are consistently swamped with information and don’t focus and don’t have the time to focus. No one has thought about historic changes in personal leadership styles, and no one has thought that maybe the person who is by nature introspective and even a little depressed might make the best decision.”
Meyer says the realist would handle this vast flow of information a little differently. “Lincoln was melancholy, and he didn’t need to be at the time outgoing and gregarious,” Meyer points out. “He was thoughtful and realistic — he said let’s consider not only the up-side but what all the obstacles and real costs are, and I think that is the way to get at the balance.”
Deep work, says Meyer, is partly derived from the creativity research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his theories of flow — the state of complete absorption in which ideas seems to build upon each other. “The difference is time,” says Meyer. “Today we’re distracted by messaging and social media. We need respite.”
And better judgment. Confronted with endless options for diversion, a lack of constraints, and multiplying modes of communication vying for attention, workers need structure and criteria for making choices on where to expend a limited supply of attention. “It’s very simple,” says Meyer. “You make the firm strategy-centric, in the sense that you go through the exercise — the vision, the mission, the implementation of strategy, and you remind people that everything they do has to link back to those elements of the mission. If it makes sense, pay attention. If it doesn’t, don’t. Because strategy is a focusing tool.”