Deep Work

The common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance – Cal Newport

Do you feel that you get constantly interrupted at work? That you never get the really important strategic work done? Do you feel you need to be available all the time for your clients? Warning: this article may change your life, forever.

The phrase ‘Deep Work’, coined by Newport, is defined as: 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. In other words they are things we must focus clearly on to be able to do really well and that we can monetise to make the most of our professional value.

Most of us don’t ‘get the time’ to do work of this nature, right? Wrong. Most of us just don’t take control of our days. We allow people, emails, Twitter to distract us to a frightening extent. Much can be achieved if you plan your life to include some Deep Work sessions. I now do my Deep Work between 5am-7am on weekdays, time I used to spend dealing with admin. I walk downstairs, get a cup of tea and open my iPad. I get straight into my Deep Work task. I do not check emails, I do not look at my ‘to do’ list. After 90 minutes or so I have another 1500 words for my book, or a finished article, a book review, a script for an audio session. These are things that will increase my brand penetration, raise my profile and add value for my clients.

Newport argues that Deep Work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. This attitude, he states, is in sharp contrast to most modern knowledge workers, who spend their time answering their emails, sending text and whatsapp messages, tweeting and being constantly online. Those who, when faced with a minute or so wait time - in a coffee queue, or while on the loo - immediately get out their smart phones and surf the web are eroding their ability to engage in Deep Work. For Newport, Deep Work necessitates the acceptance of boredom. The problem with this is that workers report being busier than ever, yet their output doesn’t always match their perceived level of input so people report feelings of frustration at being constantly busy yet never getting the important things done - a complaint I hear daily from my clients.

Cal Newport begins the book by telling stories of famous high achievers who adopted Deep Work practices: Carl Jung, Mark Twain, Woody Allen, J. K. Rowling, Bill Gates. He argues that there’s a high correlation between people who are outstanding in their success and those who practise Deep Work. His argument is convincing. All the above were/are conscious of their Deep Work behaviours and deliberately adopted strategies that enabled them to produce the quality of work for which they became famous. Newport’s fear is that the ability to do Deep Work is being eroded in our always-connected society. Newport does not have a Facebook or Twitter account and purposefully makes himself hard to reach in order that he can work, undisturbed, on that which is important to him and his success.

The examples above are impressive but perhaps you think their success is beyond you. Here’s an example from me that might be easier to relate to:

In 2007 I decided to go back to university. I wanted to wring everything I could from this experience so I applied only to Oxford and Cambridge, two of the best universities in the world. I received offers from them both, but they required me to take an A Level and achieve an A grade. I hadn’t done anything academic since leaving university the first time in 1992, some 15 years earlier. While running my own business and working 60-70 hour weeks I completed an English Language A Level - an entirely new area of study for me - and achieved one of the top five marks in the country. This did not come without effort - there was no ‘talent’ involved. On weekends, when everyone else was having a lie in and relaxing, I was up at 4.30/5am getting 4 hours work in before Kris, my husband, got up and wanted to spend some time together. I did this for the 8 months or so that I had before I needed to sit the exams. In the month before the exams I completed some 80 practice exam papers, diligently marked by my tutor and in which I got better and better scores. Doing well at something takes hard work and practice. By achieving this result I received a scholarship from Oxford University, in effect monetising my A Level result. My degrees from Oxford University help establish my credibility and my gravitas in my current field of work. So, my ability to practise Deep Work back in 2007, enabled me to perform at an elite level, which affects my ability to bring in business now. Rather less impressive than some of Cal Newport’s examples but rather more relatable to. How can you use Deep Work to move your business forward?

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