They lied, multitasking isn't a thing — instead, we switch between tasks and work inefficiently as a result. That's a problem, especially in a digital world ripe with distractions and interruptions.
In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport defined Deep Work as the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task that creates new value, improves skills and is difficult to automate or replicate.
Deep Work will allow you to think, create value and learn more effectively — what's not to like? This contrasts to ‘shallow work’ which involves tasks that are not cognitively demanding and don't add new value. Such shallow work is also easy to replicate so will be the first to go in the robot apocalypse (also known as the rise of automation).
As a result, proponents argue that consistently achieving deep work is both crucial and increasingly difficult to maintain in our technologically connected world.
A DAY IN CAL NEWPORT'S WORLD.
Newport explains, “I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.”
BACK IN THE REAL WORLD.
That's great for those who work independently and have control of their schedule and environment. It's somewhat harder to achieve for those in family or work situations where constant distraction is the norm — whether your challenge is working with kids or trying to focus in a busy, open-plan office space.
Still, with this mental model in mind, there are measures you can take no matter what your context, read the Actionable Takeaways below for some ideas.
IN YOUR LATTICEWORK.
Deep Work is a strong productivity model that combines well with Diffuse Thinking and the Zeigarnik Effect. See the canvas at the bottom of this page for practical help on how to combine these models on a weekly basis.
It has some linkages to Fast and Slow Thinking, with periods of Deep Work better facilitating Slow Thinking. Beyond that, consider combining Deep Work with Deliberate Practice and/or Double-Loop Learning to strategically deepen your thinking and learning as a result.
- Use the canvas.
- Avoid multitasking.
The process of ‘multitasking’ is perhaps more accurately described as ‘switch tasking’ and has been demonstrated in several studies to reduce productivity. Being constantly digitally connected tends to encourage us to switch tasks and attention regularly. Obviously, multitasking is often unavoidable - ask any parent - but it’s not an ideal approach.
- Develop routines and rituals to enable deep work.
Consider a location that you can associate with deep work; its duration, starting with as little as 15 minutes; rules around answering the phone and internet during this time; and other forms of support that will empower you to focus.
- Signal and 'train' others when you're in deep work.
Whether you're working at home or in an open-plan office, you can establish a signal system to indicate whether you are in deep work and should not be interrupted — perhaps even with a clear time frame so people can book you in. Common approaches include small desk flags, wearing headphones or simply keeping 'office hours' versus 'open hours' to communicate when you are and are not available.
- Unplug from social media.
Newport argues against what he sees is an over-reliance on social media as a major source of distraction preventing deep work. This means ending notifications and the urge to ‘check your phone’. Perhaps the best strategy here is removal - leaving your device elsewhere and finding ways to unplug to help your focus.
- Prioritise and schedule quality downtime.
Your ability for Deep Work is finite and must be replenished with breaks. Make these quality breaks by moving, relaxing and staying away from social media.
- ‘Drain the shallows’
Newport’s suggests that we critically examine our schedule with the aim of squeezing out unnecessary meetings and tasks. In essence, this is about prioritising tasks and meetings that matter, to provide greater opportunities for deep work.
37 Signals and the four day week.
In 2007, 37 Signals, the company behind Basecamp, shifted to a four day work week. This is not unheard of, other companies have done likewise, providing options for 10 hour days to make up the hours.
Only 37 signals did not expect people to make up the extra hours. Instead, they simply cut a day out and continued paying staff the same amount.
In an op-ed for the New York Times, co-founder Jason Fried explained: “Better work gets done in four days than in five. When there’s less time to work, you waste less time. When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time.”
The notion of unplugging and not responding to distractions of everyday life might be unrealistic for some people in challenging family or work situations. The reality of those working at home with children during the COVID period is a stark reminder of this.
Deep work is a mental model associated with productivity but also creativity that arises from deep critical thinking.
Use the following examples of connected and complementary models to weave deep work into your broader latticework of mental models. Alternatively, discover your own connections by exploring the category list above.
- Fast thinking, slow thinking: with the acknowledgement of different modes of thought and focus.
- Focus and diffused thinking: another mental model with a different distinction on focused thinking.
- Systems vs goals and habit formation: consider building in deep work into systems and/or habits.
- Pareto principle: identify areas of work and challenges that will benefit from periods of deep work.
- Deliberate practice: use uninterrupted time for focused skills development.
- Buffet’s 2 lists: another mental model to prioritise and focus.
- Parkinson’s law: timebox non thinking or routine work.
Visit Cal Newport’s site here, for a list of all his books including Deep Work.
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