Learn how to work deep and shallow
Ben Franklin knew it was easy to get distracted long before the black holes of Facebook and Instagram. He combatted it with dedicated blocks of time for deep work that required focused attention and scheduled shallow work when he was more likely to be tired, interrupted or distracted. His approach is timelier than ever and could actually help you get something done.
Focus is today’s competitive advantage
With a lot of hand wringing about digital distractions decreasing productivity and wigging out our brains, Georgetown University Assistant Professor Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, says the ability to focus has become a point of competitive advantage.
“The worst thing you can do, if you’re trying to use your mind at its maximum limit, would be what almost everyone does, which is let me just take a quick glance at the phone, or the web, or my email every ten to fifteen minutes. That’s like working with a significant cognitive handicap,” Newport said on the Work and Life podcast.
Research has proven that multitasking was always a total hoax and that all we were doing was constantly switching from one task to another, lowering productivity with every toggle. Even the briefest shift in your attention to a text, email or other distraction results in “cognitive residue.” It turns out distractions have a “stickiness” that remains and continues to use up brain space even once you turn back to the work at hand.
On the other hand, if you get your Ben Franklin on and create blocks of time for uninterrupted work, you get more done in less time. Everyone around you will freak out but that’s when you explain the economic impact. Newport says there is huge economic opportunity for individuals and organizations that learn to work deeper as the ability to focus is becoming more valuable as it becomes increasingly rare.
How to go deep
Ben Franklin did it with a detailed daily schedule that started with intentional thought about how to “prosecute the present.” He blocked out several hours early when he was well rested and sharp. Later in the day, he handled more mundane tasks and evaluated what he accomplished. You’ll need cooperation among colleagues to pull it off today, but those who do are likely to reap rewards in productivity and satisfaction.
Newport offers this modern-day approach.
Work deeply at a high level: Get aggressive about protecting time for uninterrupted work. This is where selling the team on its competitive advantage will go a long way to creating mutual support. “It’s the deep work that creates massive amounts of value that can’t be automated, can’t be outsourced,” Newport argues.
Consider launching as a two-week pilot. Can you commit to give each other 90 minutes of dedicated work time per day?
Embrace boredom: Whoa, we didn’t see that coming. But 90 minutes of uninterrupted time can be hard to handle at first. You may need to train yourself to dig in and not succumb to distraction fun. Newport says that whipping out your phone every time you lack stimulation actually weakens the ability of your brains’ executive center to focus and remain focused.
Quit social media: Is he nuts? No, dead serious. At the very least, become much more selective about what you let into what Newport calls your “attention landscape.” Evaluate your social media use with a more critical eye, weighing the costs and benefits of various platforms to your work. Media companies are conspiring to grab your attention for their benefit, not yours.
Drain your shallows: Be a careful gatekeeper of how many non-deep work obligations you accept. Open a conversation with your boss about the ratio of your deep work to shallow work. Taking stock of how much time you spend on shallow work can help identify things that aren’t adding enough value to warrant doing them or that could be done far less frequently.
Going deep can be scary but having the courage to focus can reap huge dividends for individuals, teams and companies. You may just start a revolution.