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Developing Deep Work Habits

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Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the quantity of work you had to do and had trouble to commit yourself to maintain the concentration needed to sustain long working hours to finish it all?

Have you ever wondered how it’s possible that this co-worker/awesome professor (or anyone you look up to) works so efficiently, enjoys what he/she does, and even has spare time to relax?

Have you ever thought of working on a special project (a book, solving an algorithmic problem, a new business design, etc.) but couldn’t find the time to do it and ended up not doing anything?

I had this in mind for a long time, and I’m sure you have questioned yourself with these inquiries regarding productivity. As you can see, this all relates to the fact that we live in a world in which it is expected that we “Produce”, and since we are Knights of Academia I’m pretty sure that we work with knowledge, and produce knowledge in one way or another. Since we chose this path, we understand the importance of developing high-quality knowledge products, it’s our passion, and one of the main things that encourage our personal and professional lives.

This sounds indeed pretty idyllic, but we all know that knowledge is not the only thing that takes up our time. This world is packed up with distractions, being this normalized by the current work styles that privilege divided attention, multitasking, immediate responses, and velocity, among others. This common approach to work is embedded in the development of technology and it´s changing the way we look at productivity.

The Internet has changed the way we communicate, access information, socialize, work, study, and so on. We can think of it as a tool for developing new ideas, as a platform for creation, as a network of expertise; it is, without doubt, one of the greatest creations of our time, which constantly shapes our world. Now, the thing with this tool is that it has indeed changed the way we approach the processes of producing and consuming information.

This topic is further developed in Cal Newport’s “Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world”, written in 2016. In this book Newport emphasizes two core abilities for excelling in the New Economy (based on technology and productivity dilemmas) which are (1) the ability to quickly master hard things and (2) the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed (Newport, 2016, pp. 19). The way by which we can excel as professionals in this economy is by developing a  habit of engaging in “Deep Work”, defined as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that punch your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate” (Newport, 2016, pp.5)

As we can see, we live in a world that expects us to produce high-quality products that require deep concentration, calmness, reflection, and commitment to master hard things while forcing us to adopt a working style totally different from that. Quite paradoxical, right? Nevertheless, the concept of deep work helps to understand that even in these circumstances we can achieve great things if we commit to it. In the following paragraphs, I’ll review some of the characteristics that make Deep Work special and I’ll also recollect some of the suggestions to develop this habit.

Deep Work implies understanding productivity.

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

This is how the Law of productivity should work. It explains that high-quality work comes from multiplying the time spent on a specific project and the intensity of the focus engaged in the completion of the tasks related to it. I suggest translating this equation to a reflexive model that may help reflect on the quality of our work and can also be used as a tool for identifying whether we are engaging in deep work or shallow work (i.e. non cognitively demanding, performed while distracted, doesn’t generate value). By keeping this in mind it’s possible to formulate the following questions:

  • How much time do I need for the completion of this task/project? (Determine a specific and realistic amount of time-based on your expertise on it, and the time available in your schedule. If you have no idea you may ask an expert)
  • What characterizes the focus/ concentration that I need to apply in this task/project? (To answer this question, you must evaluate the degree of complexity or difficulty of the task and your existent abilities to succeed in its completion –maybe you’ll need to learn new skills)
  • How do I generate value by working on this task/project?

And, the one that’s most important for me:

  • Why Am I doing this?! (Your passion has to be deeply involved in the task or project you’re working on. If not, find it a place, reflect on the ways in which you can immerse yourself and on the secondary gain you may obtain)

When approaching productivity from a Deep Work perspective we are committing to a reflective viewpoint on our work styles and the requirements of the situation. This allows us to involve ourselves deeply in what we recognize as valuable, promoting satisfaction and growth and identifying the distracting elements of the environment that tend to divert us from this path. As we further develop our ability to understand our own productivity better, we may re-evaluate the role and value of deep and effective attention.

Deep Work creates meaning

As we engage deeply –and consciously- in certain tasks or activities, we are placing all our abilities into play. By this, I mean that when deciding on a Deep Work habit we are choosing a path in which we focus on the things that we decide as truly valuable while ignoring those that may divert us from that path. To exemplify, we all have received some terrible news regarding severe health issues (our own or that of a loved one). What would the quality of our life and work be if we focused only on a bad diagnosis? Is it convenient to focus solely on our difficulties?  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t feel bad, sad or depressed when something bad happens, or that we should just ignore the situations and keep doing what we best know how to do. I see Deep Work as an opportunity to return our focus to that which makes us go forward.

To understand the connection between meaning and deep work it is necessary to review the amount of time we spend in shallow work, such as responding to emails, attending catch-up meetings, surfing the web, etc. Since creating meaning implies making the decision on sustaining the habit of focusing deeply, our time to do that becomes the priority. So, we can say that “time well spent is time worth living”. Meaning then, comes from sustained attention on what matters, making our experience more positive.

Deep Work as a habit needs firm decisions

As we all know, firm decisions are needed to develop any habit. The same happens for deep work. For me this can be either a habit or a lifestyle, and they both require sacrifices and true commitment to achieving great things and ultimately having a good life. So, I suggest as a good starting point a revision of our academic/professional goals, our achievements and our current working styles.

This means that we truly commit to becoming the best at what we do. So, the findings of this reflective process have to translate themselves into strategies aimed at the design of the best method of deep work that suits your particular working style. This can be starting to use Pomodoro in a pre-planned rigid schedule, developing a calendar blocking system, selecting a new working space, permanently blocking distractors (yes, I know, this may be a little too harsh), and so on.

In the next article, I’ll further develop The Rules that Newport explains in the second part of this life-changing book. His proposal may look a little too drastic for some, and I recognize that Newport’s position implies a firm commitment to deep work that criticizes contemporary lifestyles. However, I believe this first part brings a controversial approach to worldwide productivity, which may help us view critically our distinctive realities.

Is our work helping us become better persons?

  • Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work. Rules for focused success in a distracted world. New York: Hachette Book Group.

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