Tips & Stories

Why Deep Work Matters in a Distracted World

Why Deep Work Matters in a Distracted World

Posted by Taylor Pipes on 23 Feb 2017

Posted by Taylor Pipes on 23 Feb 2017

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From the moment we wake in the morning, we’re tempted.

Reach for the phone. Check texts. Read email. Scroll through social feeds. Add a few clicks to news stories and before long, you’ve logged what will likely be the first of more than 76 daily interactions with your mobile device.

Even though mobile devices have increased our access to information and ability to communicate with others, they’ve also introduced barriers that could negatively impact our work.

By understanding how to distance ourselves from distractions and improve time management, we have a better chance to dive deeper into our thinking and reach new heights of productivity.

Battle for our attention

Today, we are engaged in a battle for attention—from a cascading waterfall of social streams, news articles, chatter, and digital noise. We unlock our iPhones an average of 80 times and rack up more than 4.7 hours actively engaged with our mobile device each day.

Thirty percent of our daily media consumption is spent surfing the internet. It’s not just social noise, either. The average American watches 35 hours of television a week, and our viewing habits have taken a dramatic tilt from televisions to devices.

In the ultimate sign that change is afoot in response to our shifting spans of focus, the National Basketball League (NBA), a stalwart of the American sports scene, is exploring ways to speed up the end of games to satisfy shrinking attention spans.

According to a recent survey commissioned by Microsoft, we lose our focus faster than a goldfish. The glaring takeaway was a quote in the report by Microsoft chief Satya Nadella, who signaled the trait most essential to modern employees seeking success: “The true scarce commodity of the future will be human attention.”

Deeper connection to our work

The idea of ‘deep work’ is nothing new. The term was recently coined by Cal Newport, a professor, scientist, and author of “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.”

According to Newport, deep work is classified as ‘professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.’

It’s been practiced in some ways or another by everyone from Carl Jung to United States President Barack Obama.

  • President Obama, a well-known ‘night guy,’ logged time deep into the evening from his office, reading, writing speeches, preparing memos, examining documents, and thinking. He’d be able to finish things during the late night hours that drew constant focus from the leader of the free world during the day. “Everybody carves out their time to get their thoughts together. There is no doubt that window is his window,” said Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s first chief of staff. “You can’t block out a half-hour and try to do it during the day. It’s too much incoming. That’s the place where it can all be put aside and you can focus.”
  • Carl Jung was so passionate about decoupling from the trappings of the world, he built a stone complex in Switzerland he could retreat to when he needed to reflect, think, and write. In his memoir, Jung credited the escape as being important to helping him be satisfied, sufficient, and restful.

These two examples seem almost contradictory. In fact, they are classic illustrations of escaping to a place of comfort as a way to get stuff done. If deep work is a vehicle for concentration and thinking that produces work, it can happen in the Oval Office or in the mountains of Switzerland. It’s the ritual, scheduling, and location of the work that matter.

FOMO

Newport examined the cognitive impact that social media and office distractions have, and the importance of undivided attention in completing meaningful work. By removing distractions, he argues, we can move beyond “shallow work” to reach new levels of productivity and produce a substantial amount of work.

Of course, social media is not bad, and we’d be silly to suggest otherwise. Most of us have an irrational fear of missing out, (FOMO)—so we’ve become dependent on social media, groomed to always check in. But, if we understand that distraction can negatively impact our deep work, then we can start to take steps to help us focus on complicated cognitive functions. What do we get out of that? We’re rewarded with mastery of complicated tasks, better information processing, and producing more in less time.

“We have a growing amount of research which tells us that if you spend large portions of your day in a state of fragmented attention—where your regular workflow is constantly broken up by taking frequent breaks to just check in with social media—that this can permanently reduce your capacity for concentration,” said Newport.

Much of social media is specifically built to fragment your time. Not unlike a slot machine, it rewards you with “shiny things”—likes, hearts, retweets, comments, and other positivity in exchange for time. Before long, your day becomes disrupted as you push, pull, and swipe for updates and notifications.

Even a quick glance at Twitter or reviewing an email has a negative impact on your ability to focus on tasks. In fact, that one quick glance costs you about 15 to 20 minutes of attention loss. Our brains are simply not wired for that level of distraction. The barrage of the social media world is changing the landscape of our brain’s reward centers. In addition to impacting our cognitive ability to get work done, it also concerns medical professionals, who are seeing increased rates of anxiety other psychological issues among college students.

Distractions are a growing part of interruptions knowledge workers experience in the office on a daily basis. It’s not just self-imposed interruptions from social media. In the office, we’re bombarded with instant messages, chat and communications from colleagues using collaboration software, email notifications, co-worker “drive-bys,” last-minute meeting requests, and even distractions caused by open floorplans designed to bring us closer together.

The New Economy

A new competitive information economy is here. And Newport argues that it’s one that will reward workers who understand that the currency is work that produces ‘unambiguously rare and valuable output.

“Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow … is exposing a massive opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth…:” Newport writes in Deep Work.

The rarest commodity of all is the employee who’s able to devote significant time to deep work and its byproduct — high-quality material that is incredibly difficult to automate or to replicate by a machine, an algorithm, or globalization.

“Anything a six-year-old can do with a smartphone is not something the market will reward,” Newport says.

Deep work is a tool you need to build and produce things like a craftsman. Think of the time it takes a glassblower to perfect a beautifully-sculpted vase, or how a master woodworker uses both art and craft to create furniture worthy of display in a museum.

Computer programmers, visual designers, academics, and writers all have a huge competitive advantage because of this ability to concentrate and turn out that rare and valuable commodity—the craft that drives the information age.

“If you can write an elegant algorithm, write a legal brief, write a thousand words of prose, look at a sea of unambiguous data—If you can do these types of activities to produce outcomes that are rare and valuable, people will find you—regardless of how many Instagram followers you have.” —Cal Newport

How to create meaningful work

Deep work does not have to be tedious. In fact, it can be enjoyable, creative, meditative, and thought-provoking. Here are some tactics to integrate the principles of deep work into your schedule:

  1. Work deeply. It takes great patience and practice to get to the point where you can integrate long stretches of deep work into your schedule. Newport created an equation to explain the intensity required of deep work and compared it to students who pulled all-nighters in college.

Work accomplished = (time spent) x (intensity)

Work at a high level with dynamic and intense intervals that increase over time to produce a desirable outcome. Get in the zone for at least 90 minutes and build up to periods that last anywhere from two to four hours, or more.

  1. Protect your time. Maintain a set of rituals and routines to ease deep work into your day more easily. Try implementing scheduling tactics into your workflow like:

Tallies – Keep a tally of the hours you spend working, or when you reach important milestones like pages read or words written.

Deep scheduling – Try scheduling deep work hours well in advance on a calendar, like two or four weeks ahead of time.

Scheduling and tracking time has a huge benefit of giving time back. Many academics, authors, and scientists have been able to produce ample amount of work while working normal hours and having time for personal pursuits or family on evenings and weekends.

  1. Train your brain to do nothing. Try for a moment, to sit still and do nothing. How long do you find it takes until the social stimuli and buzzing signals of your mobile device prove too much? If you can embrace sitting quietly meditating or thinking, or even staring into space, then you can train your brain to spend more time in deeper work.
  1. Quit swimming upstream. Decide for yourself what restrictions you can place on email and social media by removing it from your work week altogether, or by logging out and staying off for an entire day. Evaluate your personal and professional life and experiment where social fits and where it doesn’t. Your result may be a month-long digital detox, or completely cutting the cord on social.
  1. Cut the shallow work. Endless meeting requests and instant email responses are turning knowledge workers into ‘human routers’ that create the shallow work that defines many of workplaces. We’ve been groomed to reply and respond because it feels like we’re accomplishing something, when in reality, we’re not.

“Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness,” Newport warns, “and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.”

How are you diving deeper into your work and avoiding distractions? Share your tips with the Evernote community below.

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35 Comments RSS

  • Deychana Randolph

    This is great post. My current position as an administrator does not allow for this type of in-depth work product. Most team members expect their requests handled within hours. This cuts into my review time on certain documents which affect the quality of the document. I would love to be in that type of position to dedicate a few hours writing and reviewing versus answering emails every 10 minutes. So far, I am still seeing employers preferring to hire employees who are able to handle multiple tasks at once over focusing on deep work.

    • Colette

      I love this article. I work in higher education where there are competing demands for both deep work and to remain connected and available. It is hard to carve out time for reading books and articles to keep abreast of the changing landscape of higher education and respond thoughtfully to request to create new programs or ways to reach a particular segment of students. I am going to try and implement deep work in my department going forward. I think it will help me to better serve the students and find more meaning in my own work.

  • Ryan Ruud

    So much love for this it’s ridiculous! I’ve been working on building up to the 90-minute mark at least 2 – 3 days a week. It’s amazing what I’m actually able to plow through and accomplish when I put the phone away and block off distractions. Things like “I want to write every day, and churning through processes to grow my business” have all become possible. One thing I’ve found helpful is theming my days so even in bad weeks, I at least have one day where a portion of it is dedicated to deep work. I know every week won’t be perfect, but some consistency is better than none, in my opinion.

  • Marissa

    I like the idea of building up to 90 minutes and beyond. I’ve never considered that focus could be treated like a muscle to be toned and strengthened!

  • Ninotchka

    I find the green on grey very hard to read, which makes it difficult to concentrate.

  • Julie Ulmer

    Scheduling time for deep work is so important ! As a professional organizer, some of my clients need me to be a body double to help them with their clutter or productivity because they’re overwhelmed and can’t maintain the long term focus they need for their projects. Sometimes I’ll have them schedule in “ghost” time with me meaning that they pretend we are engaging in a regular working session and I’m a little ghost that sits on their shoulder insisting they keep working until they meet that day’s goals. To be more productive, I’m limiting emails to less than 5 sentences otherwise it’s worth a phone call. Someone else said “Text and emails are for coordination, not communication” Brilliant!

  • Tom

    I am familiar with the concept from high school 40 years ago. From my speech coach/teacher. Iam the most distracted individual I know. Now on my third or fourth business start it is more needful to practice this lost art! The best way is to start is to start. Then when one falls off the cart,get back on ! Again,again!

  • David

    Ive been reading Newport’s book and lived the summary you guys put together. It’s a helpful reminder and reference when I need a jolt towards deep work. I’m dreaming of all the good work I can get done when I go deep 🙂

  • Jon

    Excellent post! It’s a topic that is very dear to my heart. I use my software FocusMe to block out distracting apps and websites on my computer. I frequently use focus sessions of 90 minutes for deep work and they work brilliantly. It’s amazing what you can get done!

  • Sef Churchill

    Great post. Over the last year, I have been making a conscious effort to spend a set amount of time each day focusing on my creative projects, with word count goals for my writing. Doing this in my lunch break, I find I routinely don’t start ‘digging deep’ until 40 minutes after I stop my day-job work (which is very scattered and shallow-task busy.) The only time I can do 90 minutes of actual deep work is on my day off, when I can get that initial 40 minutes out of the way and still have time to produce work afterwards.

    I’m looking for methods and triggers to reduce that startup time – the article’s suggestion of meditation will be a good start. Thanks for the article!

  • David Silcox

    Amateur age group athletes and weekend warriors are one of the best examples of our need for focused work in an increasingly demanding, distracted and busy world. Whether you are working toward your 1st 5km run our training for Ironman in 12 months those few sweaty hours per week are precious.

  • Dany

    Wow, I’m really far gone. It took all I had just to get through the article. I’ve been complaining about finding it more and more difficult to concentrate… Makes sense now, I definitely need to go the “Deep Work” mode… ooops, gotta check my facebook LOL

  • Bill

    I completely agree.

    I thought people were insane 17 Years ago when “Web 2.0” and Twitter were becoming popular. (I use to say to myself that twits use twitter). I vowed to not be a part of social media. 17 years have passed and I do not have a twitter account nor a facebook account.

    Its funny to read this article because I simply do not relate to it.
    >I never got tied up in social media so its weird to read about cell phone buzzing with messages because mine does not.
    >I naturally work 6 – 10 hours with full concentration. Its weird to read that someone should do 2-4 hours of deep work. For me, that would be too fragmented.

    Anyways, I probably have Asperger’s and so I am immune to social media.

    Btw – Its 3:20 pm and I am at work with things I need to do, but this seemed like an important article to read.

    Eek, I spent too much time writing this post and probably no one will waste their time to read it… ha ha to me.

    • Moj

      Well I’ve read your reply LoL b/c I needed someone to post a real solution for this disaster in the comments. I think your Asperger’s’s a good point. I’m always afraid of being missed out, and you know what? Success is not always certain and so you’ll need people in times of misery. But if you’ve got Asperger’s things will be better automatically 🙂

  • Roger

    One thing I struggle with: deep work vs. something like the pomodoro method. One body of research says one is good and the other isn’t, and another study says the opposite. What’s a person to do? 🙂

    • Melinda Fleming

      Both the Pomodoro Method and Deep Work are great – depending on which tasks you use them for. Pomodoro is great for people who’s concentration cannot stretch beyond 25 minutes. The Pomodoro method is great for tasks that do NOT require deep intellectual and emotional integration of new and complex inputs. I use it all the time to get things done that are not too complex, but benefit from repetition, like routine tasks and new skills. Creating time for Deep Work also allow new insights to rise to the surface of our awareness; gives them the chance to be noticed; and – since new insights are often fragile and unformed – gives us the opportunity to shape them into something substantial.

    • Shoshannah

      I like the pomodoro method too. I think they can work together, by doing three or four pomodoros on the same project. That’s also good because you can get up and stretch/avoid being in the same position physically for too long.

  • Keith Duhart

    I was thinking maybe even only having Social Media on just my tablet since(like the dinosaur I am)I do most of my work on my Desk top……Good post though.

  • Envela

    This is fascinating. I’ve always wondered why it was so hard for me to focus on work since University. And my main problem is that I NEED social media for marketing purposes. After some experimenting, it turned out that working at the library or somewhere where my freedom is limited is very beneficial, along with some concentration/instrumental music. Thanks for sharing this article!

  • Kat

    I’m still reading Newport’s book myself (actually listening to it in audio, lol) but as a prime example of an adult with ADD, I’ve often struggled with being able to focus.

    It seemed the more distractions, the harder it was to focus in on work I needed to do. I have a few set routines that signal to me (or my subconsious) that it is time to get serious and work deeply. I look at the one thing I am wanting to focus on, consider the goal, think about that for a minute or two, then put headphones on my head. I don’t usually listen to anything, I use the headphones as a buffer against the outside (and social media) world. Having three teens means there are constant interruptions, but at least they know if I have those headphones on, it means I’m working on something. They usually respect that 😉

  • Mai

    I have been practicing the bimodal philosophy for weeks and I’ve never looked forward to putting in the work this much! “A deep life is a well-lived life!”

  • Kiki

    I can’t wait to put these practices into play. I’m working on several different projects right now, most of which include writing, and I truly feel that these tips will allow me to get even deeper into my work. Thanks Evernote!

    Question for the rest of you: How have people successfully prepared for social media detoxes whether it’s for one day per week or a month, etc?

    Thanks!

  • sharon

    Thank you for this post. For me, working from a remote office a few times a week gives the opportunity to enjoy and deliver result from deep work. Over the years, I’ve also learned to cut out a lot of social distractions, but it is always a work in progress!

  • Lacey

    Thanks for the insight. I work in the non-profit sector and we are constantly on the go. But, I find it hard to delve into “Deep Work” when other coworkers are present. In this day and age, there is always a constant need to stay connected and collaborate in the work environment. These tools will be great to help balance the shallow with the deep. Thanks for sharing!

  • Undiga Oko Emuekpere

    I couldn’t agree more with this article. I started using a Productivity timer to keep track of my working time and it has helped a lot.

  • zeter

    Impressive post, a knowledgeable read up.

  • Ray

    Lack of time due to short deadlines, the need to multitask to accomplish everything in time, but also pressure to impress and satisfy the boss/client results in shallow work.
    As a visual designer – no matter how much you try to exclude social media and such, you can’t get in “the zone” as I call it, if you are under constant pressure to deliver.

  • Eric

    This is a great article and great advice. However, I feel like the editor or proof reader assigned to this article may have benefited from giving it their full attention. Several missing words or awkward sentences. Hopefully they’ll be able to block out more time for proofing undistracted next time. 🙂

  • Mustafa

    The above article reminds me of Robin Sharma`s best selling book The Leader Who Had No Title.In that the main character Blake Davis is learning about mastery in the work place and his first tutor teaches him the meaning of IMAGE-Innovation,Mastery,Authenticity,Guts Ethics.Also I agree treat your work as if you are producing a masterpiece work of art.To produce great ,quality work takes time and dedication.No short cuts here.

  • Hannes Schlottmann

    Great article!
    The amount of time we are spending on our phones, rather than focusing on the people around us, increases daily.
    Phones are a great help for our daily life – but we need to remind us that we encounter certain moments in life, when the person around us should be more important.

  • Milind M Satam

    This article is really good!! I knew I lost the concentration power a long ago and one of the reason was social media. But this articles have explained the whole situation quite well.

    Gonna try these solutions. Hope it works for me.

  • cool math games

    Its funny to read this article because I simply do not relate to it.

  • Ana Maria Selvaggio

    Fabulous post! Added to Evernote and made a list in my Google Keep on my phone…

    I live a very digitally-analog life. I go nuts if I cannot have one or the other but find myself physically ill if I’ve not had enough analog time.

    I’m an illustrator, writer, publisher, homeschool mom, group leader, and the co-organizer of two local festivals as well as running a film event every month. If I don’t maintain social media everything stops, so I have had to streamline things and make them work for me vs the other way around. Most of the time I am fine, but there are days when I long for that ‘cabin in the woods’ or B&B where I can shut everything off and just create.

    I’m ADD so I have developed a few tricks to stay ahead of it, and I’ve got a loose schedule of do-this-on-this-day which helps. The biggest things: a) I forgive myself if I don’t get something done, lose the guilt, and keep moving forward, b) I make it a point to only schedule three to-dos a day on an index card the night before, and c) I buffer in 30 minutes before any appointment so I’m not rushing around and I can ease into things.

    I’ve also started bullet journaling which helps me with (a).

  • candid photographers in jaipur

    lovely post thanks

  • Lucy

    Great article! How can we share it.Everyone should read it