Is deep work another productivity fad?

Is deep work another productivity fad? Photo by Allef Vinicius

At first glance, deep work sounds like a productivity fad – the type that fits in with waking up early and standing desks. But there’s more to it than meets the eye.

The term ‘deep work’ was coined by Cal Newport, author of ‘Deep work: rules for focused success in a distracted world’ and is summed up by the following formula: high-quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus). Deep work is a skill that you can use to produce meaningful work of a high calibre under conditions where you are free from distractions. If you’re able to dive deeply into your work, you’ll find that you can produce more and master your craftmanship at a faster rate.

So, how do you actually achieve deep work?

Newport suggests that blocking out time (ideally, no less than 90 minutes) to undertake a task is crucial, as is meditation to train your mind to focus on the present. Embracing boredom and resisting the urge to engage in social media in those rather dull moments when you find you have nothing to occupy yourself with, such as waiting in a queue, allows your mind to feel comfortable being bored and enhances its ability to rewire itself so that it can dive into deep work when necessary.

Physical isolation is another way of achieving deep work. Mark Twain retreated to his cabin where he could write in peace, Carl Jung would head to the Bollingen Tower, and John Irving withdraws to his writing shed. These are just a few proponents of solitude as a basis for creativity.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But there’s a catch.

Deep work sounds like a pretty straightforward concept, but when was the last time you were truly able to throw yourself into your work with no external impediments? A typical day at work feels like a blur of tasks, disjointed concentration, emails that require your response, and let’s not forget our phones – these are usually lying innocently somewhere close to us on our desks, flashing, blinking, beeping with a continuous stream of alerts that crave our attention. And more often than not, our wills bend to the pull of social media.

Social media isn’t the only culprit. Although multitasking has become ingrained in the current work culture, Sophie Leroy points out that switching from one task to the other leaves us with an ‘attention residue’. So, if we decide to leave a task unfinished and move onto the next one, the latter task suffers as a result because our attention still contains remnants of the former. In fact, Newport argues that “it’s the switch itself that hurts, not how long you actually switch.”

Perhaps what businesses can take away from this is that flexibility doesn’t only extend to working hours and holidays, but to the way we work as well. Being able to shut off, setting up auto-reply emails warding off distractions when you’re in the midst of deep work (a tactic used by New York Times bestselling author and Wharton professor, Adam Grant), or scheduling time within your day (as though you’ve got an appointment) to get your deep work done are different ways that can give you the space you need to think and create. And it might just boost your productivity too.

Posted on 12th September 2017 in Capability
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