Winning in the digital economy | Just Reflections #53
I’ve been reading Cal Newport’s “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”. It really clearly articulates many things that I’ve learnt and practised in my professional life. I have written about many of them in the past year, but I’ll admit that it was all mostly haphazard. So today I will pull all of that together, summarise the little I’ve read of the book and give you a quick primer on how to do deep work.
Winning in the digital age
Our current technology-disrupted world gives the biggest rewards to very specific groups of people; owners of capital or people with access to it, those who can work with intelligent technology and those who are superstars in their field. According to Cal Newport, the most accessible of these is the last one.
However, to become a superstar in your field, you need to master two skills:
The ability to quickly master hard things.
The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
“As intelligent machines improve, and the gap between machine and human abilities shrinks, employers are becoming increasingly likely to hire “new machines” instead of “new people.” And when only a human will do, improvements in communications and collaboration technology are making remote work easier than ever before, motivating companies to outsource key roles to stars—leaving the local talent pool underemployed.” — Carl Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Because of the rise of digital technology, we have to learn new skills to stay competitive. But, digital technology is changing at such a blistering pace that it’s easy for your newly gained prized skills to become obsolete. So it’s a continuous rat race to keep up. As if that’s not enough, the most valuable of these digital skills are really complex and quite difficult to learn. So you don’t just need the ability to learn fast, you need the ability to learn hard things fast. That’s the first challenge.
“And because these technologies change rapidly, this process of mastering hard things never ends: You must be able to do it quickly, again and again.” — Carl Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
The rise of digital technologies has also led to rapid improvements in digital communication. This has set the stage for remote work and many companies that were ahead of the curve—mostly tech companies—rode this wave quite early to expand their talent pool. Then the COVID-19 pandemic came and lockdowns made it an imperative for any company that wanted to survive, opening everyone’s eyes to the fact that it’s not only possible but most times preferable for both employees and employers. As a result, we no longer compete with people in our geographical vicinity for work. We’re now competing on a global stage. This means that our abilities need to be competitive on a global stage. With the talent pool so vast, every company is looking to hire the best they can get. So if you want to get the best jobs, you, therefore, need to perform at an elite level. That’s the second challenge.
“If you want to become a superstar, mastering the relevant skills is necessary, but not sufficient. You must then transform that latent potential into tangible results that people value.… [performing at an elite level requires you] to push [your] current skills to their limit and produce unambiguously valuable and concrete results.” — Carl Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. (edited to fit)
Now that we understand the abilities we need, the next obvious questions are, How does one cultivate these abilities? And what does this have to do with deep work? Well, the two abilities just described depend on your ability to perform deep work. Hard things are complex and you need to give them all your attention and focus. If you haven’t mastered this foundational skill, you’ll struggle to learn hard things or produce at an elite level.
What is deep work?
If deep work is the avenue through which we learn to master difficult things fast and perform at elite levels, why isn’t everyone doing deep work? To understand this better, let’s first understand what exactly is deep work.
Every piece of work that you do can be classified into one of two categories. Deep work and shallow work. Cal Newport defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts usually create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” On the other side of the spectrum is shallow work, “non-cognitively 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.” These are the most common work rituals of our modern world; sitting through meetings, responding to email, writing non-cognitively challenging reports, etc.
“Deep work is hard and shallow work is easier and in the absence of clear goals for your job, the visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving.” — Carl Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Many of our misguided value systems place a lot of value on busyness over productivity. We have the illusion that keeping a full schedule and being a busy body is the way to work. However, producing at an elite level is less about time spent working than it is about the quality of the work put in it. Newport advises that to produce at an elite level, we need to consolidate our most cognitively demanding work into intense and uninterrupted pulses. This batching of hard but important intellectual work into uninterrupted stretches is key to high productivity. Thus, the new law of productivity is.
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
By maximising the intensity of our focus when we work, we can maximise the quality of results we produce per unit of time. And if we do this effectively, we won’t need to have a perpetually fully schedule or to be busy all the time.
While we can’t escape shallow work entirely, we should aim to reduce the time spent on it, thus maximizing the time we have for deep work.
Deep work through deliberate practice
Some people seem to have this innate skill in hard things. They breeze through it like it’s nothing while you struggle to understand the basics. It’s easy to look at that and think that these people are natural prodigies. Hollywood loves prodigies and might be responsible, to a large part, for making us think this way. However, in reality, there are very few prodigies. Most people who have mastered cognitively demanding things have done so through deliberate practice and hyper-focused work.
“Let your mind become a lens, thanks to the converging rays of attention; let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your mind as a dominant, wholly absorbing idea.” — Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life.
Cal Newport describes the following as the key components of deliberate practice:
Your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master.
You receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.
You cannot be efficient in your deliberate practice amidst distraction. If you cannot keep your focus on the specific skill you’re learning, you’re introducing inefficiencies to the learning process that will keep you from truly mastering it.
“To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work. If you’re comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy. If you instead remain one of the many for whom depth is uncomfortable and distraction ubiquitous, you shouldn’t expect these systems and skills to come easily to you.” — Carl Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Deep work optimises performance
To produce at your peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task, free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work. If you’re not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, it’ll be difficult to get your performance to the peak levels of quality and quantity increasingly necessary to thrive professionally. Unless your talent and skills absolutely dwarf those of your competition, the deep workers among them will outproduce you.
“… the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance. It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so.… [but] that quick check introduces a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing messages that you cannot deal with at the moment, you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished. The attention residue left by such unresolved switches dampens your performance.” — Carl Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Developing the ability to do deep work
As I mentioned at the start, some of Cal Newport’s ideas are things I’ve adopted throughout my life. Here’s a summary of the ones I’ve written about. (I’ll get into a bit of self-promotion here, so please forgive me, it’s done with the best of intentions.)
The barrage of highly stimulating content that digital media is constantly throwing at us is making us addicted to sensory overstimulation. This is degrading our ability to do deep work, which is typically not very stimulating on a sensory level. That’s why you feel that persistent itch to open another browser tab or check your notifications while working when it “becomes too quiet.”
The challenge I give you is to think about the amount of stimulation that’s in your life. What’s adding value to your life and what’s desensitising you? How can you reduce the amount of super-normal stimuli that you’re indulging in daily? You might find that by reducing the time you spend looking at screens, you could start to look forward to reading a book instead of watching a TV show. Who knows, you might even start taking walks without your phone to be alone with your thoughts in nature?
You can read more about this in issue 44.
Most of us accept and understand that distraction isn’t good for our productivity. However, most of us are also really uncomfortable with being bored. As a result, we want to fill every empty moment. We find it really uncomfortable to just sit with our thoughts. Waiting in a long queue? Check what’s trending on Twitter. Waiting for that long build process at work? Check what’s going on in Ukraine. Conversation running dry at the dinner table? Check whether you’ve gotten any important emails.
You may do these things only in your leisure, but it is training you to fill lulls in activity with distraction. So even when you sit down for deep work, you’ll feel the itch. Even if you resist the action, those thoughts are enough to drive some of your focus away, preventing deep work.
The solution? Train yourself to be comfortable with boredom. Don’t yield to the urge to fill every quiet moment with distraction. Just sit quietly with your thoughts. Don’t listen to music or podcasts when you go for walks, just take in the atmosphere and watch the people and think. Your brain will eventually get used to these quiet moments and when the time for deep work comes, you won’t feel so uncomfortable.
“...[be] fully present in each moment and [enjoy] where [you] are. Slow down and enjoy the little things you walk past every day. Breath in the air, let the rain hit your skin, laugh with friends, take in the view. Those brilliant and vibrant parts of life are just as worthy of celebration as accomplishing our big goals.” — Soul, Pixar movie.
Check out issue 34 to learn about how your aversion to boredom might also make you less creative, less altruistic, less likely to assess your current state and less likely to set goals for the future.
Speaking of filling the gaps, many of us have a seriously toxic relationship with our phones.
Smartphones are incredibly useful devices. In the digital age, we speak of information being at our fingertips largely because nearly all of us carry these connected devices with us everywhere. Many of us literally have our phones in our hands for most of the day. But as philosopher Paul Virilio wrote, “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck.” As good as phones are, they also take away a lot from us. One of those things is true human connection. We miss out on a lot because our eyes and minds are constantly glued to our phones. It's an acceptable thing now to meet up with someone in person and then both of you spend half the time on your phones talking to other people who aren't present there with you. And the other half commenting on all the things you're seeing in your feeds.
How is this relevant to deep work? Well, part of deep work involves using downtime to enhance the next deep work efforts. This involves getting adequate rest by fully disconnecting from work so that we have enough physical and mental energy for it when we get back to it. But it also involves being fully present with our loved ones when we’re not at working. We won’t be able to achieve this well enough if we’re tethered all the time.
We all know that our phones are also our biggest sources of distraction. I give more comprehensive advice about learning to put away your phone in issue 16.
You probably don’t know as much as you think you do.
We’ve been spoiled by the intuitive and drop-dead-simple user experience of many consumer-facing technologies these days. The accessibility of information makes it easy to quickly Google random facts on demand. And when you want to learn something fast, there’s probably a YouTube video for it to give you a quick on-ramp. This leaves us with the illusion that we have a deep understanding of many things yet in reality, these avenues rarely give deeply set knowledge. Sure, they’re useful as a quick reference to get up to speed, but without intentionally focused study, that knowledge quickly fizzles off. We need to challenge our beliefs about our competency levels consistently.
Bigger than that, we need to develop a reliable system for learning things. I go into more detail on this in issue 6.
Minimise your reliance on willpower
In an environment and culture that makes deep work difficult, we have to introduce smart routines and rituals to our working life. These should minimise the need to reach for our limited willpower when making decisions about work so that we maximise opportunities for unbroken concentration.
“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimise the work of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.” — Carl Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
One key way of doing this is scheduling deep work sessions on your calendar and sticking to them. Scheduling in advance takes away the need to use willpower. Be as detailed as you can be about how you will do this. Identify a location used only for depth, like a conference room or a library. Set a specific time frame for each deep work session. The good thing about using a calendar is that it forces you to set and define a specific start and end time. Don’t leave these open-ended. Your ritual also needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. Should you go into flight mode for deep work sessions? Are there metrics you can track your productivity?
If you have all these pre-decided, you don’t need to rely on your willpower. When the time comes, just do what your calendar says you should do. For however long it says you should do it and follow your pre-decided rules. You were in a more sober state when you made the rules and set the schedule. Don’t revise any of it when it’s time to work. If any change is needed, you can schedule it for the next time you update your calendar.
I only just started this book, so I’m sure I’ll learn much more. Maybe I’ll even change my mind on some things. But for now, I thought I’d share with you what has resonated with me so far. I hope you learnt something.