If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to produce like Bill Gates, Cal Newport gives some solid ways for you to try in his book Deep Work.
Newport dives into how to achieve the most significant work you’re capable of, which he refers to as “deep work.” This kind of work requires the utmost concentration and pushes you to your limit. However, it improves your skill, adds much value, and is hard to imitate.
Deep work benefits those who do it by shaping our outlook. Neurological research indicates that our attitudes are shaped by what we pay attention to. Although humans have a negativity bias, we can override that bias by focusing intently on something worthwhile. Deep work induces such a state of focus. So deep work actually makes us happier and produces value for our organizations.
Why Deep Work is Rare
You might expect deep work to be common, given its benefits to organizations and individuals, but Newport notes that it’s actually rare. One reason is what he refers to as the “metric black hole.” We don’t know how much it costs our organizations for individuals to spend time on shallow work (e.g. drafting email responses and attending meetings) so this issue doesn’t get much attention. Since it’s difficult to measure productivity, especially in an office setting, we use busyness as a proxy. Unfortunately, very few of these activities constitute deep work that provides value for the company.
Another reason deep work is rare is our cult of the Internet. Our culture associates the Internet with progress and glorifies the newest online tool, regardless of its merit. As a result, we waste much time learning systems that will be obsolete or discarded soon. This learning further fragments our attention, disrupting our ability to do deep work.
Newport offers a bevy of advice to engage in deep work. One way is to block out time every day for deep work. That requires figuring out a place where you are less likely to be interrupted. It also means blocking out your calendar for that time, as well as figuring out what you need to be productive. For many of us, that’s coffee!
However, to make the most of this time, ban yourself from using the major source of distraction: the Internet, which includes instant messaging and email. If you realize you need something from the Internet to complete your deep work, make a note of it and keep going as best you can without it.
You may be distracted by thoughts of other tasks you need to complete. They seem to spring to mind precisely when we’re trying to accomplish something else. A research paper by E.J. Masicampo called “Consider it Done!” offers help: just jot down the task and a short idea on how to accomplish it. That enables us to move on from ruminating over that task and focus on the work at hand.
One other piece of advice Newport gives is to be lazy in our free time. Having downtime by not checking work email at night and engaging in enjoyable activities restores us for the next day so we can continue working hard.
Activities that are truly restorative are ones that align most closely with our values. For instance, succumbing to clickbait such as cat videos and political-opinion pieces will not restore us. Instead, spending time with family and friends, reading a good book, gardening, and exercising are examples of ways to restore ourselves.
One key way to recuperate is practicing mindfulness, which has been shown to increase happiness and focus while reducing stress. If you’re fortunate enough to work at a company like BlackRock or AETNA that offers mindfulness sessions, you can even practice on the job. Otherwise, try practicing at home and see how it restores you.