This describes a book that made it on my list of the 10 best books I read in 2017.
The author defines Deep Work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push [one’s] cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve [one’s] skill, and are hard to replicate.”
In contrast, Shallow Work is “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
Surely, the reflection part of being a reflective practitioner is Deep Work at its best. On the other hand, taming the inbox, losing oneself in research on the internet and subsequently following rabbit trails in trivia on YouTube and the like, is not. What is even more tragic: If one spends enough time in a state of frenzied shallowness, one permanently reduces the own capacity to perform deep work, as one knowledge worker admits:
„I was always getting on the Internet and checking my email; I couldn’t stop myself; it was a compulsion (or an addiction?) Consequently, responsibilities that benefit from deep work such as strategy, research, writing and so forth get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality. This is a consequence of being wired to the web, it chips away at one’s capacity for concentration, contemplation and creativity.”
Newport underlines the fact that the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare. Unfortunately, this happens at a time where Deep Work is becoming increasingly valuable in our societies, especially in these complex times.
So, what can we learn from the author? One first and embarrassingly simple thing I noted: The mental shift to treat Deep Work as my main responsibility, makes a significant difference. In my daily routine, it now receives the prime time it deserves; shallow work gets demoted to the margins.
Deep Work being thoroughly hard work, it is a constant uphill battle against the lure of shallow work. Unfortunately, to use our willpower in this struggle is unlikely to be successful on the long term because we only have a limited amount of willpower at any given moment. Newport suggests to “add routines and rituals to your working life” that one just does and thereby saves on willpower to fend off tempting (shallow) alternatives. Here are some of his suggestions:
- Establish rituals for Deep Work that address questions like:
Where do I do it? When? (Allocate precise time slots in the daily routine; Newport says we have a limit of 4hrs of deep work per day). How? (establish a starting ritual; don’t go on the internet unless planned in advance; don’t allow other distractions to interfere with Deep Work).
- Clearly separate work from leisure. Call it a day at 17h30 (for example) and don’t work on weekends. Dare to “be lazy” when work is done, but plan something truly meaningful for your leisure time (I recommend people and books :-). In order to keep work from creeping into your leisure time, consider establishing a specific ritual to bring the workday to a closure.
Prayer to submit your tasks to the One who builds the house (Ps 127) may be a good way of doing this.
- Train for Deep Work: You may engage in mental training (Newport explains how to memorize a deck of cards) or at least – no kidding! – “embrace boredom”: The temptation to seek some sort of distraction in moments of boredom is similar to what we experience in Deep Work when we hit a wall. Newport recommends to stick it out, because in Deep Work the breakthrough may come only if you persist in such moments, too. – We, of course, have the extra blessing of having the Wonderful Counselor (Isa 9:6) and the Good Teacher (Mt 11:29) at our side in such moments, too.
- “Drain the Shallows”, i.e. “ruthlessly identify the shallowness in your current schedule, then cull it down to minimum levels…” An important element here is to schedule your day and allocate time for Deep Work (which you protect against intrusion) and the necessary shallow work (kept at the margins).
Personally, I now keep a To-Do-List where I note for every task if it is Deep or Shallow Work or something in between which I call “Type-Two-Work”. (I use Workflowy for this list). I have defined what a typical day looks like in terms of when I do which type of work. I’m less structured than Newport (who recommends to “schedule every minute of your day”), but I see more of the important work being done than in the past.