Have you struggled to get important, difficult work done? I can relate to this problem; much of my life has felt like a struggle to concentrate. In middle school, I discovered that it was taking me far longer to write school papers than my classmates. It might take me eight hours to complete a paper, when it took my classmates just two to four hours to do the same work. There were times in college when I would get into a productive rhythm at the tail end of a big research project, and it felt great – but once I finished the project I’d lapse into my old, time-consuming, distracted ways. Looking back, it seems like a miracle that I made it through school. And now, after many years in the work world (and an eye-opening diagnosis of ADHD along the way), I continue to struggle to get to that stage of deep concentration. A few months ago, it took me days to get through the design of a leadership training course – a task that takes serious focus and creativity.
So when my career coach, Matt Davis, mentioned the concept of Deep Work to me, it instantly resonated. I tracked down Cal Newport’s 2016 book of that title, and found myself reading it closely.
Newport’s central point is unassailable and important. Deep Work, or achieving that state of concentration and productivity that enables us to get difficult tasks done, is harder today than ever before in an era of information overload. At the same time, deep work is better rewarded in the current era than ever before, because if we produce something of value, we can bring it to a global audience. Shallow Work, or activities like meetings, emails, and administrative tasks, are a part of most jobs and have their value — but in many jobs, the sustained value comes from Deep Work.
So how do we get better at doing Deep Work? It’s important to acknowledge off the bat what we’re up against. Work is work, and our minds seek to avoid it. Studies have shown that we spend a large part of our waking hours fighting distraction, and we give in roughly half the time to those impulses. So we need a concerted strategy to get ourselves into Deep Work mode. Concentration is a finite resource for us; it’s like a muscle that tires, so we need ways to strengthen and encourage it. Each of us, to make our best contribution to the world, needs to find our own personalized set of routines and rituals that will work for us.
Newport describes four different ways to integrate Deep Work with the rest of one’s life. The idea is to identify one that works for you. The first is the “monastic” approach, which works for people whose work is highly focused on discrete activities, like writing novels. A novelist like Neal Stephenson is an adherent to this approach; he rarely communicates on email or speaks at sci fi conferences. His work benefits from large chunks of uninterrupted time, and he has the luxury of being able to organize his time this way. But this approach doesn’t work for most people; most jobs today are not as solitary as that of the novelist.
The second approach is “bimodal.” This approach relies on mixing stretches of intense concentration (perhaps several days at a time) with less structured time. The successful (and phenomenally productive) business professor and author Adam Grant uses this approach by batching his teaching duties during one semester a year, leaving him with large chunks of time at other times of the year to write and complete his research. This approach seems a bit more workable for the average person, but may still be challenging if you are not able to divide your work into large chunks.
The third approach is “rhythmic”. Here, the goal is to set aside time on some kind of regular schedule to do deep concentration work. It might be at a set time every day. Or it might even be more micro. You might set aside timed 45 minute chunks of time with the goal of working one one thing, and one thing only, during that chunk. One of the benefits of the rhythmic approach is that you can leverage the power of routine. When you do something at the same time every day, it becomes habit, and you’ll get some help from your subconscious to make it happen.
The final approach is “journalistic.” The defining characteristic of journalism is the need to produce work on a rigid schedule; journalists either get good at producing a story by deadline, or they don’t last long. This approach uses self imposed deadlines to get to focus and concentration. It helps to have the confidence that comes with repeated success in hitting deadlines.
Your challenge is to find the right solution for you. What’s working for me right now: once I complete my to-do list for the day, I match up the most difficult Deep Work tasks, like writing and analysis, with 45-minute, timed sprints in the morning when my brain works best. I find that 45 minutes is about the longest I can go in sustained effort on one task – then I need a break.
Newport’s book is rich with stories and additional strategies. Check it out for further inspiration and support on your Deep Work journey. What’s been working for you?