(**My apologies for this being a day late. I have been out all week again with a spine issue. Scoliosis in my neck caused a muscle tear. Good times.)
Last year, Cal Newport’s Deep Workwas listed on a proposed reading list for class that then was postponed until this week. I noticed the title that resonated deeply with me because it came at a time when I found myself being constantly interrupted from assignments – like exegetical research or sermon writing and formation, to policy work or letter writing or completing an assignment for class – by tweets and emails and basically random thoughts that would pop into my head that would cause me to jump to the internet in search of an answer to a question or that I just remembered I needed to order beard balm from Amazon, and how difficult it would then be to get back to the place of deep concentration where my writing, thinking, studying, or brainstorming, could return to its flow state. This was a long way of saying how eager I was to read a book I felt I desperately needed in my work and in today’s hyper-tech society.
For this post, I am choosing to write from my memory of what I took away from the book last spring, while it continues to remain in an unpacked box in my garage (we are still a long ways from being settled in our new home). It is an easy concept to explain. We all know what is shallow work because we experience it every day – responding to emails, text messages, sitting in boring meetings, cleaning our bedrooms, pulling weeds, driving to work. And most of us know –at least, every doctoral student—what deep work requires. The focused concentration of writing a term paper or drafting a legal statement, or performing spinal surgery, are all examples of deep work. The problem is that deep work in our day of digital communication is constantly being pressed upon and interrupted. It’s easy to escape deep work and trade it for the little adrenaline rush of responding to an email, but it takes so much longer to get back to that level of depth of concentration once interrupted, that our times of deep work need guarding.
Newport suggests some very practical things that I continually remind myself to implement, such as scheduling chunks of 2-4 hours of “deep work” each day, where I shut off everything else—phone, email, all unnecessary applications, and try to work for those hours and I find it is amazing how much can be accomplished. This is because the brain finds its flow state and our potential is more likely able to be reached in these moments.
At the same time, much of our – or at least, my – work requires fielding contacts, emails, mindless reports, various tasks that do not require high levels of concentration. This is shallow work. Shallow work is not bad work or less meaningful, it just utilizes a different part of the brain and has a different set of requirements.
I am reminded that Newport’s work is not necessarily new, though it is packaged in a way that makes great sense for our context. But most of the greatest writers and preachers of history will tell you that having a carved-out time for writing, in the same place at the same time, with no interruptions, is the best way to find success in writing and accomplishing deep-level work in the shortest amount of time. This is because these writers (Fred Craddock is one who comes to mind) understand intuitively that our bodies have memories that are established through consistent routines. So, to sit in one particular desk at the same optimum time for the same two hours each day for the same purpose of, say, writing a novel, communicates to the brain that this is not time to think about politics, or the state of the economy, or the problems with your bi-polar son—no, this is time to write the novel. In other words, Cal Newport contextualized with thorough research and personal experience, a theory that some of the greatest writers, thinkers, preachers, and inventors have known intuitively for centuries.
One of the things I learned from our time in Hong Kong that connects to Newport’s concept is that even our capacity for deep work has limits. Many of us on the trip (myself being the first) found ourselves reaching max capacity to listen and receive deeply the messages and sharing of people like Alex and the Saddleback Hong Kong pastor. Each of these experiences required deep work (at least in terms of mental and emotional engagement), and there were times when we needed to find some light or “shallow” space to breathe. So I am reminded again of my need to block time for deep work, shallow work, self care, and everything else that deserves time in this demanding and hurried world.