To Thrive in Today’s Fast-Paced Middle Market, Work Deeper: An Interview with “Deep Work” Author Cal Newport

 

Bestselling author Cal Newport understands the importance of immersing oneself in challenging, difficult, and meaningful work. Newport’s most recent book, "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World," makes a powerful, evidence-based case that business leaders and their organizations should be going deeper rather than getting distracted by superficial time demands. The book argues that the capacity to focus deeply on meaningful work is the new I.Q. and can be a massive competitive advantage for middle market leaders in today’s workplace. 

How exactly do you define “deep work” and why is it so important for middle market leaders?

Newport: I define deep work as focusing intensely and without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.

It’s a skill that has a growing importance and value in our marketplace. One reason is that the ability to concentrate intensely helps you learn hard things quickly, and we know this from psychology. The ability to concentrate is key if you're going to learn complicated things quickly. Of course, in a fast moving, ever shifting economy, the ability to keep up with the latest ideas and systems is really important. Deep work will get you there.

The other big advantage for those who are embracing deep work is that it allows you to produce better results in less time. Being able to perform at that type of elite level is something that is increasingly valuable for people and companies as our economy gets more competitive.

What do you see as the obstacles to doing deep work?

Newport: One big obstacle is that we are training our brains, accidentally, to be bad at deep work. What I mean is that the advent of the mobile internet, where we can access the internet anywhere at any time, has left a lot of people with an addiction to novelty. At the slightest hint of boredom, they need to give themselves a jolt of novelty [by checking their smartphones]. We haven’t been able to do this before in the history of the human race, and now suddenly, everyone can do it.
                                                           
Our brains are not wired for this, and so what happens is we get a Pavlovian connection between boredom and novelty. As soon as you're bored, you need novelty. Once you’ve established that connection, it becomes very difficult to do deep work when the time comes. Your brain simply isn’t going to tolerate it. In effect, we’ve trained our brains to be very uncomfortable with concentration.

How can rituals and routines support deep work?

Newport: There’s two different types of rituals and routines; there’s what you do in the background, just to get your mind ready to do deep work. Then there’s what you do surrounding the actual deep work itself to make it more successful. An example of the first category would be that you leave your smartphone behind. So during those periods when you feel, “I’m bored, I want some stimuli,” you don’t get it because you don’t have a smartphone. Small rituals like that can help your brain break that addiction to novelty.

In the second category are strategies that help you prepare for deep work. One is having some sort of scheduling philosophy that’s very clear; “This is when I do my deep work,” so that you're not just trying to figure it out on the fly. A routine that’s useful is having a place you go to, or an activity you do every time you're about to start deep work, which helps your mind more easily shift into concentration mode.

Why are breaks/relaxation so important for deep working?

Newport: Deep work is cognitively very demanding. It uses up a lot of mental resources to keep your attention focused. In fact, most people, even professionals, can't do more than four hours of the deepest types of concentration per day. It’s really important that you prioritize downtime. I work until I’m done working, then I shut work off and sleep, so my brain can unwind and recharge. 

If you're going to concentrate intensely during the day, you have to give your brain a break at night, get away from the email, get away from the second shift, get away from that constant trickle of low-level work stimuli.

How might the physical workspaces at middle market companies impact deep work?

Newport: Environment seems to matter for the ability to concentrate. Obviously, if the environment is full of distractions, with lots of noise or people being able to interrupt you, that will wrench your attention away from the deep work you're doing. In general, I’m not a fan of open-office spaces.

On the other hand, there’s a positive connection between environment and deep work. People can build strong associations through routine and practice with certain environments and concentration. That’s why you see, for example, top fiction writers having very specific locations they go to do their writing: a cabin or a particular office. 

How might middle market business leaders carve out enough time for deep work? 

Newport: One simple practice is scheduling the deep work in advance on your calendar, treating it like a meeting or appointment. So if I say, “Hey Chuck, can you jump on a call with me tomorrow at 11:00 a.m.?” and you have deep work scheduled from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., you simply tell me, “I already have a thing from 10:00 to 1:00. Can we do it at another time?” We’re all very used to hearing this, so can understand. 

The only caveat is that people should do the scheduling relatively far in advance. Maybe two, three weeks in advance, to make sure that they protect that time before other requests come along and start fragmenting their schedule. It’s not about doing less non-deep things, it’s about consolidating or batching together things you say yes to, in order to preserve some long, unbroken periods to get concentration done.

What else would you like to tell middle market business leaders about deep work?

Newport: That we are systematically undervaluing deep work and concentration. This is a skill that produces huge value. Deep work is the work you should be caring the most about, and we’re caught up in other things right now. I say this not to be negative, but instead to point out an opportunity. Because I am absolutely convinced that the middle market managers and organizations that get out in front of this reality and cultivate deep work, before anyone else really does, are going to have a huge competitive advantage.

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