In this week’s post, I want to talk about one of my favorite books, Deep Work. Innovation professionals today are finding themselves in a number of new work situations. We work in open offices, remotely, use email and IM to communicate, and we document our personal and professional lives on social media in great detail. We are busier than ever, it seems. But are we really accomplishing deep work – work that requires intense focus and concentration, the type of work that leads to new discoveries and elevates our careers?
Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, would argue that most of us are very, very busy but we are busy with shallow work. He defines shallow work as “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted” (pg. 6). He contrasts that with deep work, defined as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit” (pg. 3).
Formally trained innovation professionals can probably recognize “being in the zone“ of deep work from our college days. Intense studying for difficult exams like the ones I had in thermodynamics, reaction kinetics, and mass transfer as a chemical engineer force us into a deep mode of concentration and focus to learn complicated material. Newport argues that such focused learning is absolutely required to become an elite professional in a highly competitive world.
In Part 1 of Deep Work, the author presents several other arguments supporting the need for deep work over shallow endeavors. Knowledge workers, like innovation professionals, must continually learn and adapt as the digital revolution delivers more data, information, and knowledge than we ever imagined. Newport asserts “to remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things” (pg. 13). A firm’s competition for labor and product management skills is no longer limited to a geographical region. Instead we are competing against product professionals all around the world. We have to be the best to succeed, and being the best requires continuous learning.
The author further argues that people in the business world today often use busyness as a proxy for productivity (pg. 64). In this readily-identifiable situation, we measure our productivity informally by how quickly we respond to emails and how many meetings we attended today. Do you ever feel like you’ve spent your entire day doing something every minute but accomplishing nothing? That’s the “busyness” that the author invites us to conquer with deep work. So, in Part 2, he presents four rules to help us learn to focus and concentrate, and to create meaningful work.
The first rule is to work deeply. Studies have shown that when people are working deeply, they are often tamping down desires to do something else that is trivial and doesn’t contribute directly to their goals. In our world today, most of us are easily distracted by incoming email, text messages, and Facebook. Newport’s solution is to turn off those distractions so you can work, free of interruptions, for an extended period of time.
Of course, you cannot completely ignore email from your boss, but a response can probably wait for a couple of hours. In my business, I strive for a few hours of uninterrupted time each morning, so I only check email once for urgent messages on my phone. If there is nothing urgent, it can wait until I sit down at my computer to handle a set of smaller work tasks. Most days I can delay email responses for a few hours so I can concentrate on writing or reviewing relevant research. Both are deep work activities that add value to my career and utilize my brain capacity when it’s at its best (early morning).
Embrace boredom is the title of Newport’s second rule to achieving deep work. It is perhaps easier to describe the opposite of the rule. You find yourself in a queue at the supermarket or post office. Instead of letting your mind wander, you pull out your phone to check Facebook or play a quick game. We fill every minute of our day even if it is with meaningless activities.
Newport argues that, at best, we gain mild entertainment stimulus from Facebook. He recommends it instead of expanding our limited energy posting funny cat videos. Or we respond to posts of a high school acquaintance’s child’s sports scores vs. investing that time in a deep relationship. Isn’t it more rewarding to have lunch with a close friend than to read 20 Facebook posts that flit by in an instant?
Newport’s third rule to help us accomplish deep work might seem heretical to some: quit social media. We have just reviewed Newport’s injunction regarding Facebook. In Deep Work, the author also takes direct aim at Twitter and all other forms of social media. Does social media add value to your career goals? If not, you should quit using the service. He cites examples of popular and award-winning authors who have no social media presence. People buy their books because they are seeking the product of long hours of research and the development of new theories, not because they post 10 or 20 pithy remarks on Twitter.
Newport suggests a couple of strategies to quit social media. First, he advises taking a social media “Sabbath” – quitting network tools for just one day per week. This allows your brain to recharge quietly with your family or in nature. The second strategy the author recommends is to quit all social media cold turkey. If your presence is missed (measured by a direct request for info or posts), then you should start up the service again. Unfortunately, the author fails to discuss LinkedIn, which is typically professional in nature (as compared to Facebook, for instance) and is often utilized by hiring managers to evaluate potential job candidates. My advice is to manage Linked In based on your personal business needs.
Finally, the author’s last rule to achieving high productivity is to “drain the shallows.” Again he describes the heavy time drain of email on our ability to get deep work done, but he offers several tips to handling the onslaught of email that bombards most of our inboxes.
First, not every email requires a response. I am guilty of replying with “Thanks”. This just creates email clutter and too many emails are simply acknowledging the message was received. Newport would admonish me for creating this email clutter. Neither I nor the recipient has benefited or gained value as a knowledge worker from “Thanks“ in this situation. Instead, the email must be handled – read, deleted, or filed. Otherwise, we waste a lot of time that could be used solving a deeper innovation problem.
Next, Newport teaches us how to respond directly and succinctly to email requests. For example, an unsolicited email requesting a meeting should be met with a specific response. It would read something like “Please check my calendar to schedule a 15-minute meeting to discuss this matter”. Personally, calendar applications have increased my productivity because it has put a stop to the back and forth that is often required to schedule a simple meeting. Our email traffic is substantially reduced if we move scheduling a phone call that takes a total of five minutes instead of five emails – back and forth – each taking five minutes to handle and taking away from our ability to work in a distraction-free environment.
Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work, is a great text to read. It is one of my favorite and most recommended books. While we face many structural obstacles in our careers as product innovation professionals, we can learn to focus more deeply on higher value challenges. It is this “deep work“ which will advance our careers and allow us to stand out against the competition.
While you may not integrate every single one of Newport suggestions, many of them offer quick hit advantages to help us structure our personal and professional lives to achieve higher value objectives. Deep Work is recommended for product managers, engineering managers, and project managers who seek to enhance their productivity and gain more satisfaction from their busy work days.
What steps will you take today to achieve greater focus in your work as a product innovation professional? To help you solidify and act on your goals please join our best practices Master Class on Leadership for Project Managers starting 18 August. Register here.