How to work 'deeply' and change your life

November 9, 2018

Did you know that working hard is not enough? You need to work deeply too, which means working without distractions and pushing your cognitive capabilities to their limit. How can you train yourself to do some 'deep work'? Here are some ways to improve your skills and work the right way...

Twice a year, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, is known to log out and take time off for what he calls, “Think Weeks”. During this time, he isolates himself to do nothing but read and allow the meditative spirit of solitude help him come up with big and better ideas.

What Bill Gates has long known is that it is important to be free from distractions to squeeze out the last drop of value from our brains.

Cal Newport calls this ‘Working Deeply’

He defines deep work as: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Before understanding ‘deep work’ it is important to understand ‘shallow work’ or the kind of work most of us are indulging in at our workplaces: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Did non-cognitively demanding tasks often performed while distracted ring a bell, or perhaps a notification sound? It should.

In an age of the internet, professionals—by constantly sending and receiving messages like devices themselves—prohibit themselves from the benefits of concentration and clear thinking which then leads to substandard quality of work. You could be working on a new pitch, a business strategy or learning a new skill but you’re being constantly interrupted by your smartphone. To make matters worse, Newport warns in his book Deep Work, “There’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow is not a choice that can be easily reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.”

All influential figures work deeply

J.K. Rowling’s staff started her Twitter handle in 2009 but for a long time, a year and a half to be precise, she only tweeted once, saying: “This is the real me, but you won’t be hearing from me often I am afraid, as pen and paper is my priority at the moment.”

It’s important to discuss the behaviour of people like J.K. Rowling or Bill Gates and their forced solitudes to do exemplary work because more and more of us are forgetting the importance of going deep. Writer Neal Stephenson, for example, has said, “If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time... there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.”

Most of us are not going deep but we’re busy and stressed out as ever, what explains this?

Networking tools or simply services like e-mail, WhatsApp, SMS, social media, and of course, news and entertainment sites are to be blamed. A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone.

But when there is a broken concentration, there’s a solution.

Newport advocates a number of ways to start working deeply. One key way is to, like Rowling or Stephenson, cut contact with the world entirely to focus on your work but since that is neither possible nor advisable if you want keep our current job, here are some suggestions that will work:

The ability to concentrate is an important skill

The Bimodal philosophy

Newport’s bimodal philosophy of deep work asks you to divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leave the rest open to everything else. If your job, for example, requires coordination and communication with others, you cannot necessarily stay away from your inbox or instant messaging. But you can, however, try to do deep work once in a while. Newport, however, warns that “To put aside a few hours in the morning is too short to count as a deep work stretch for an adherent of this approach.” What you need is at least one full day to reach maximum cognitive intensity—the state in which real breakthroughs occur.

Creating rituals

The best way to create a productive day is by creating daily rituals

The reality of being unable to extract a day to think deeply because of work and familial obligations means you need rituals.

This is the simplest trick in the book but one that its practitioners swear by: Develop a daily ritual of working deeply for a couple of hours a day. It has to be at the same time of the day and nothing in your schedule should be able to stop you from doing it. Newport notes one advantage of creating rituals over a bimodal approach of taking days off: By supporting deep work with rock-solid routines that make sure a little bit gets done on a regular basis, the rhythmic scheduler will often log a larger total number of deep hours per year.

At Thrive Global, too, a significant part of our enterprise solution is to develop ways in which people can single-task rather than multi-task. A practice that helps is meditation as studies show that those who meditate are able to return to what they had been focusing on faster than non-meditators.

The Journalistic philosophy  

The journalistic philosophy of deep work is the most difficult approach and one that Newport follows himself: If you can neither develop rituals because of your erratic schedules nor spend days off the grid, you need to develop enough will-power and belief in what you’re setting your mind to do.

You must be confident of the value you’re bringing and then practice the skill of going deep. Newport, for example, maps out when he’ll work deeply during each week at the beginning of the week, and then refines these decisions, as needed, at the beginning of each day.

This journalistic philosophy asks that with practice of going into deep mode and confidence in own abilities, you can rapidly switch your mind from shallow to deep mode.

Whether it’s deep mode for a few hours every day, a day a week or a week in a year, it’s deep work—and not make-do tasks interrupted by your smartphone—that will help you  produce what can be neither dismissed nor replaced.

(This article is from Thrive Global)

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