Deep Work in a Distracted World

Are you always busy?  At the end of a day do you often have a lurking sense that you spent most of your time darting across the surface of your work, as if you were a water bug with email?  I read a book recently that attacks this feeling head-on by lamenting the lack of, and extolling the benefits of, Deep Work.


In his book by the same name computer science professor Cal Newport draws upon historical figures, the latest in behavioral research, and his own experiences to make the case for deep work and how to cultivate the habit of engaging in it. Cal juxtaposes deep work from shallow work, which is what we spend most of our time actually doing.  Deep work is cognitively demanding, focused and sustained, while shallow work is often performed while distracted and is easily replicated.  Here’s how Cal describes deep work:

“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.”

I highly recommend the book, so my bullet points below shouldn’t serve as your only investigation into the topic.  But here are a few of the key themes that struck me while reading….

  • Deep work is cognitively challenging and requires uninterrupted time
  • Sustained concentration is a requirement for deep work
  • The abiity to sustain concentration is a muscle that can atrophy or develop
  • Deep work is more important than ever.
  • Society (work, entertainment) calls us to engage in shallow work.
  • We are happy to answer the call by checking email, social networks, television, and other trivial activites because we are increasingly conditioned to avoid boredom.  Plus, we get a little dopamine hit when we check in to one of the FOMO tools on our phones and desktop (FOMO = Fear Of Missing Out).
  • Therefore, the ability to work deeply will increasingly be a differentiator as excellence demands something that most people are distracted from doing.
  • To do deep work, we need to prioritize it.  Schedule it.  Track it.  Protect it.
  • It helps to find an optimal setting in which to do it.  Create rituals that signal to your brain that you’re about to engage in deep work.
  • Training for deep work requires that we tolerate boredom.  Tolerating boredom requires that we restrict social media, email surfing, and idle phone-poking to pre-scheduled time blocks.  Fleeing boredom rewires our brains in ways that reduce our deep work capabilities.
  • Deep work is like exercise in many ways:  1) we understand its benefits at a high-level, but 2) it requires we leave our comfort zone, 3) it requires that we engage in painful work to make incremental improvements, 4) it’s easy to put off for another day, yet we 5) admire people who do it regularly.

We live in an age of digital distraction where we are dissuaded from engaging in deep work. Like many worthy habits, deep work requires a sense of counter-cultural prioritization.

Easy?  Nope.  But then again, nothing worthwhile ever is.  

Good luck!