On my third day of reading, Cal Newport‘s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (available on Bookshop and Amazon*), my younger daughter, said “Mommy, I get now that deep work is important, but do you have to talk about it so much?”
The book provides so many practical strategies to knowledge workers in today’s overwhelming busy, fast-paced, and highly distracting digital age that I couldn’t help but share its wisdom with my family. Here, I will share the main premise of his book, and just one strategy that I believe is most relevant to caring and talented women and parents–those who are often asked to do more because they are so capable.
Dr. Newport is an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He makes a distinction between deep work and shallow work:
Deep Work: 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.
Shallow Work: Noncognitively 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.
His core argument is that …
The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
But, what researchers have found (and he quotes many) is that initiating deep work, or cultivating deep concentration required for such work, is difficult for two main reasons: The first is because…
You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tire.
The second is due to the highly distracting and addictive nature of network tools:
This is a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit….The use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.
A Useful Deep Work Strategy for Talented Women and Parents: Employ a Shutdown Ritual
Because researchers have found that downtime is actually critical to developing those willpower muscles to sustain attention, Newport suggests that we protect “evening downtime” and end your professional work day with the same ritual. Its key components include:
Ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right.
He also suggests, making a declarative statement like, “Shutdown complete.” I have started to announce to my family, “I’m done with work for today!” as I walk away from my home office,
Then, the really hard part, I try, to do what he suggests….
At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.
…but it isn’t easy.
How might you engage in your deep work?
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