The Power of Focus — Lessons Learned from ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport

How to Develop the Most Valuable Skill of the 21st Century


Tealfeed Guest Blog

2 years ago | 7 min read

With Cal Newport’s latest book having been released earlier this year, I thought now was the appropriate time to reflect on the impact of his 2016 book, Deep Work. It’s been a little over a year ago since I first read it, and it has changed my way of working in many ways.

While I’m far from implementing all the habit changes recommended in Deep Work, the ones I’ve adopted have already boosted my productivity tenfold.

Let’s start with a quick, high-level review of the book itself. Deep Work is a terrific read full of compelling arguments, solid advice, and a vast array of strategies to help you maximize your productivity. Now that it’s been a year since I finished it, I can confidently label it as one of the most impactful non-fiction books I’ve ever read.

It’s packed with actionable advice and highly relevant to the age we live in today, which is why I highly recommend it!

First, I’ll quickly define deep work by contrasting it to its less productive counterpart, shallow work. Next, I’ll show that, actually, deep work’s nothing new; it has been used for years by some of the greatest minds of history. Towards the end, you’ll find 3 quick tips on how to cultivate this modern-day superpower yourself.

Deep Work vs Shallow Work

Deep What? Deep Work. Cal Newport, who coined the term, defines it as:

“Tasks that create new value and are hard to replicate, push cognitive abilities to their limit, performed free from distractions”

This likely isn’t the form of work that naturally fills most of your day. On the contrary, if you aren’t intentional about how you spend your time, your work hours slip away towards activities that Newport refers to as “shallow work”, which he defines as:

“Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate”

The book argues that we should all strive to limit shallow work and train ourselves to maximize our potential by focusing on deep work, since it’s becoming increasingly rare — and thus more valuable.

Deep Work is Nothing New

If we look back in the past, we’ll find that deep work was ubiquitous in influential people. There are many stories of important historical figures who owe (part of) their success to a lifelong commitment to deep work — though they might not have described it as such themselves.

Take psychologist Carl Jung, who’s now considered one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. In 1922, he built himself a two-story tower out of stone to do most of his writing and thinking (i.e. his deep work). For much of his life, he spent several months each year living in this ‘retreat’.

The tower still exists: it can be found in the village of Bollingen, on the shore of Lake Zürich.

And according to Newport, writer Mark Twain ‘’wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed on the property of the Quarry Farm in New York, where he was spending the summer. Twain’s study was so isolated from the main house that his family took to blowing a horn to attract his attention.’’ Now that’s what you call a dedication to deep work.

But my favorite ‘Deep Work-case study’ of all time is Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who famously conducts “Think Weeks” twice a year. Tucked away in a secret two-story cabin, Gates spends the week completely secluded from civilization to think big thoughts.

The seven days in his lakeside cottage tend to include a lot of reading, a lot of thinking, and a lot of alone time, as Gates is completely disconnected from family members, friends, and Microsoft employees — only his personal chef is allowed.

One such Think Week led to the famous “Internet Tidal Wave” memo, which ignited Microsoft to invest heavily in the internet — a relatively nascent technology at the time.

From the moment that memo was sent, Microsoft got to work, and in several years the company obliterated its competition in the internet space. How? By releasing a waterfall of technologies like Internet Explorer, MSN, and even MSNBC.

Shortly after, Bill Gates became the richest guy on the entire planet, and Microsoft became just as successful. This caused other well-known CEOs such as Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Michael Karnjanaprakorn (Skillshare), and the late Steve Jobs (Apple) to adopt Gates’ deep work ritual over the years.

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” ― Albert Einstein

The fact that deep work is so prevalent among influential individuals is important to emphasize because it stands in sharp contrast to the behavior of most modern knowledge workers — a group that, according to Newport, is “rapidly forgetting the value of going deep”.

It’s time for us to do something about that. Let’s dive into the 3 practical lessons on how to cultivate a successful deep work habit.

1 / Ritualize Your Deep Work Efforts

Habits take time to stick. Having a ritualized deep work practice makes it a lot easier to quickly slip into that desired ‘flow’-state. Create a routine by defining the following two aspects of your deep work hours in advance:

  • Where you’ll work and for how long (e.g. from 4PM to 6PM at the local library). By giving yourself a specific time frame, you keep the session a clear challenge. With regard to location, choose a space that’s distraction-free and conducive to long periods of focus. If you can’t find one, noise-canceling headphones also do the trick.
  • How you’ll support your deep work hours. Adding Deep Work to your productivity toolbox is a powerful way to commit to focus. But to make the most of it, you need to set up a system to support it. If you’re in an office, putting up a do not disturb sign is a good start.
  • Also, don’t forget to bring proper fuel. If I’m working in the library, I like bringing along my own snacks and a large bottle of water. If you prefer working in coffee shops, though, you obviously have plenty of options to keep you going. ☕️

2 / Decide On What You Want To Achieve

Spend your precious deep work hours working on a small set of goals to maximize your efforts. These goals should be challenging, yet doable, in order to motivate yourself to work deeply. I find this keeps me motivated and makes me stay accountable. It’s all about focusing on the end goal.

Deep work isn’t just for Nobel Prize winners or CEOs of multi-billion dollar tech companies. It’s accessible to anyone, no matter what small task you want to achieve. Writing this article, for example, is highly suitable for deep work. But also studying for a tough exam, coding a new website, and designing a new brand logo are excellent candidates for some focused deep work.

In short, understand what success means for you and set a challenging deadline to get there. The more challenging, the more rewarding.

3 / Don’t Multitask

Multitasking is a myth. Our brains simply weren’t built to multitask. Do one thing, and one thing only. Don’t attempt to write a report while talking to your friends, or code PHP while checking the news. It’ll easily take you double the time.

Studies on multitasking found, among other things, that it negatively impacts your working memory, causes you to make more mistakes, and causes people to take longer to complete simple tasks.

One of the reasons for these consequences is this. When you switch from Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow — a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. Even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.

Hence, by working on a single hard task for a long time without switching, you minimize the negative impact of attention residue.

As the workplace gets busier and more distracting, the ability to sit down and focus for an extended period of time will become one of the most sought-after skills of any employee. The problem is that each day of tab-filled browsers, always-open inboxes, and non-stop notifications slowly erodes that ability.

“Be like a postage stamp. Stick to one thing until you get there.” — Josh Billings

Whereas bouncing between tasks keeps things fresh and exciting, long stretches of focused time are difficult and take serious levels of concentration. Hence, despite knowing multitasking does nothing good for us, we keep doing it because of our natural aversion to boredom. As neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley of the University of California explains in Quartz:

“[Multitasking] feels fun, even if it’s draining our cognitive reserves.”

So next time you think you’re multitasking, stop and be aware that you are really switch-tasking. Turn off notifications, create set email checking time slots throughout the day (rather than constant inbox refreshing), and put your mind to the task at hand.

This article was originally published by Yannick bikker on medium


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