Like most people, I’m constantly trying to free myself from distraction and find focus in this world that now constantly buzzes, flashes and rings.
That’s why I was so excited to hear that Cal Newport – author of the bestselling So Good They Can’t Ignore You – had tackled the topic in his latest book. It’s called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.
We get a glimpse into that better way with Cal in the Q&A below.
Paul: Cal, I’m thrilled that you would take the time to discuss your latest book, Deep Work. I’ve always considered myself to be pretty good at focus and being productive. Still, your book has disrupted my thinking in some wonderful ways.
Perhaps the best starting place is to distinguish between shallow work and deep work. What are you getting at with this distinction?
Cal: Deep work is when you focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task, push your skills to their limit and produce the best output your capable of producing. Shallow work is everything else. This distinction is key because shallow work is what keeps you from getting fired while deep work is what gets you promoted. If you’re whole life is dedicated to being busy with shallow work, you shouldn’t be proud of your diligence, but should instead be worried that you’re stuck.
Paul: People are constantly asking about work-life balance. Your idea of no work after 5:30 seems to be a powerful way to start. Can you explain how people can do this?
Cal: You need to be organized about your time. I plan out my whole day in advance and adjust the plan as soon as things change. Once you can control your time, you can keep deep work isolated from any distractions, and therefore produce high value in a small amount of time, and you can batch shallow tasks so they can be dealt with efficiently.
Paul: I love the idea of isolation. How can we make that happen when we work in large spaces with lots of people nearby?
Cal: Go somewhere else. People respect the idea that when you’re doing deep work, you go to locations conducive to deep thinking.
Paul: Another “how to” idea resonates with me—schedule the next time you will access the internet. Please expand on this idea.
Cal: Most people are terrible at concentrating. That is, even if I give them three hours locked in a room to focus with no distraction, they will struggle to achieve much intensity of focus. To change this – and to reap the rewards that true depth of thinking can produce – you have to train your ability to concentrate. One important step in this training is to wean your mind from its addiction to novel stimuli. If you take a quick glance at a phone or a web site every time you’re a little bored, then you will struggle to be able to concentrate when it’s time to go deep. A good training regime here is to start scheduling when you will use the internet. You don’t need to figure this out for the whole day in advance, but just have written down at any moment the next time when you will use the internet. And then, until you get there, don’t use it. Sounds simple, but it gives your mind a lot of training with wanting to be distracted, but you then resisting.
Paul: As a manufacturing person, I know that tracking and measuring are key to performance. In your book, you advocate keeping a tally of deep hours. Please explain.
Cal: If you start keep tracking of the number of hours you spend per week doing deep work, you will, at first, be embarrassed. This is good: it will force you to confront the reality of your schedule and make major changes.
Paul: Finally, what else do you think people need to be more thoughtful about as they strive to be more present and productive in a world that is increasingly distracted and fragmented?
Cal: It’s not about distraction being bad. I could care less about distraction or its relative merits. The headline here is that the ability to perform deep work is very, very good. It is becoming more rare at the same time that it is becoming more valuable. If you’re one of the few to put in the hard work required to train and protect this ability, you’ll thrive.
Cal Newport is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. In addition to studying the theoretical foundations of our digital age, Newport also writes about the impact of these technologies on the world of work. His most recent book, Deep Work, argues that focus is the new I.Q. in the modern workplace and that the ability to concentrate without distraction is becoming increasingly valuable. He previously wrote So Good They Can’t Ignore You, a book which debunks the long-held belief that “follow your passion” is good advice, and three popular books of unconventional advice for students.