The value of “Deep Work” in this age of distraction
A few months back, my better-half Mahak Sharma shared this podcast by Cal Newport (computer science Professor at Georgetown University) with me. The topic was “Deep Work” — Prof. Newport defines it as “focusing, without distraction, on a cognitively demanding task”. The concept immediately resonated with me, as I have been following Robin Sharma for a while now and he always talks about creating “Tight Bubbles of Total Focus” (TBTF) as key to creating game-changing value. When done well, you enter into what is called a “Flow” state, where you get fully immersed in solving whatever problem you are working on, so much so that you lose the concept of time and few hours seem to go by like minutes.
New addendum: got some comments on LinkedIn, requesting for a clearer definition of Deep Work. It’s something that I too, have been trying to get a hang of.
Personally, I see the following characteristics of Deep Work:
- Focus on problem-solving, rather than straight forward logistical stuff like con-calls, emailing, paper-pushing, social media etc.
- Has to be demanding on the brain, maybe something new to you that requires real learning & causes cognitive strain.
- Due to the above 2 points, will typically require intense focus & concentration.
- Will typically be an “alone” task, requiring you to step back, think, analyze and process individually, rather than participating/ discussing in groups where energy gets dissipated and mental free-riding happens frequently.
- (This one I love) more often than not, Deep Work should result in some sort of tangible output or deliverable like a note, piece of analysis, requirements doc, assumptions list, maybe even just a powerful enough insight that you document and use as a stepping stone for further problem solving.
Based on my own experience, Deep Work is becoming so much more important in this era of increasing automation and changing economic paradigms. However, interestingly enough, people are finding it much harder than before to do Deep Work. This is mainly due to increasing levels of “noise” & distractions around us — buzzing phone notifications, dopamine-inducing short form content, multi-tasking across email, chat, meetings etc. I feel another reason is easy access to online info & content, which doesn’t make doing Deep Work obvious enough to all. When I was growing up, learning a new concept in Math or Physics required sitting in libraries for hours, submerged in numerous books. Unless you went deep, there were little other ways to become even conversationally-knowledgeable about a new topic. Now, with content, videos and social media discourse at everyone’s fingertips, it’s easy to get skimming-knowledge and talking points on any topic, in probably under an hour. While it’s good for increasing our breadth of knowledge, it decreases our ability to go deep, and persist with hard problems.
Whether we like it or not, even today, it still requires doing Deep Work to solve truly hard problems and consequently, create differentiated value that the market will richly reward. Over last few months, I have been trying to consciously train myself to do Deep Work. Luckily, it’s like a muscle that gets stronger with more training.
Here are some of the approaches that have worked well for me so far:
- Focusing Deep Work sessions only on tangible problem solving & creating actual solutions — logistical work like routine ops, communication activities like responding to emails & chats, grabbing a coffee with someone, brown bag lunch sessions etc. aren’t Deep Work. Prof. Newport calls them “Shallow Work”. It’s not to say that these activities aren’t required. But let’s be clear that if we focus too much on them, they might consume 80% of our time and yet, impede our ability to create value. Good examples of Deep Work would be new product development, design, writing on new subjects, figuring out fresh ways to drive growth, thinking through new competitive positioning for your company etc.
- Doing “Shallow Work” only later in the day — I have started devoting my peak hours (early morning till late afternoon) to doing as much Deep Work as possible, and reserving time in late afternoon/ early evening & even late night, to do Shallow Work. This really works, as issues that require Deep Work are hard and don’t have obvious solutions or playbooks. You need to be at your best levels of concentration to be able to tackle them.
- Logging out from social apps on the phone — at least in my case, compulsively going to Twitter and LinkedIn was a big distraction. So, I have logged out of them on my phone. Having to enter a password everytime creates an inertia that breaks the compulsive tapping/ scrolling behavior. If I truly need to tweet, post or read, I can enter the password & access the app during downtimes eg. while in taxi or train or waiting for a meeting.
- Creating Deep Work “blocks” — instead of blocking out entire days, what has worked well for me is creating time blocks of 2–3 hours each, where the focus is to only do Deep Work. Even if one such block can be executed everyday, it’s a big win. Doing 2 such blocks creates an outstandingly productive day.
- Doing a 60 sec retrospective end-of-day — typically after dinner, I do a 60 sec retrospective with myself, trying to quickly evaluate whether I ended up doing any true Deep Work or not during the day. A way of keeping myself honest is focusing on whether I created any tangible deliverable of Deep Work value during the day. It could be a piece of analysis, a mock-up, a pitch document, a PRD, even a blog!
Deep Work is both a process and a journey. When I see so many people around “being busy just for the sake of being busy” and working for 10–12 hours but mostly doing Shallow Work, I feel the ability to do Deep Work over many years will give anyone an unbeatable competitive advantage in today’s world. A friend recently told me “I find reading a book really hard”, and my mind immediately went to “people who have the patience & concentration to work their way through books will have a natural advantage over the rest”. As all great leaders & companies have shown time and again, doing hard things over many, many years is the key to winning. ‘Cos 95% of people out there can’t do it.
What is your view on Deep Work? What rituals have worked for you in implementing it? Would love to learn from you.
Bonus Idea: here’s another great talk by Prof. Newport on “Why following your passion is bad advice”. A topic for another blog someday :)