Cal Newport’s Deep Work is a strategy book for leaders who want to make sense out of chaos, free themselves from unnecessary distractions, and improve their concentration while working. Newport’s premise holds that multitasking “kills productivity” and promotes shallow work that is ineffective and decreases the global leader’s efficiency in the marketplace. I related negatively with Newport’s claims that “multitasking” creates an attention residue when switching from one task to another and is “likely to demonstrate poor performance on the next task.” While I disagree with his findings on multitasking obtained during controlled laboratory experiments on human subjects, I wonder what he is really saying and want to dig deeper and see if I can find any useful themes or ideas that can be used in my dissertation research on spiritual warfare. while following Jesus’ advice to “Put out into the deep” and let my net down for a catch (Luke 5:4).
First, Deep Work strives to help the leader develop distraction free zones of practice that enhances concentration and improve effectiveness. Planning tasks, freeing up time, and eliminating obstacles are all good in the day to day pre-planned activities of life. I agree with Newport on this principle. Nevertheless, we must prepare for the “life-happens” events that are not controlled or anticipated outside of the sterile and controlled research laboratory setting. I think this is where my spiritual warfare research could add value to Newport’s work since Christian leaders plan for and utilize Biblical solutions for the dark forces, principalities, and evil schemes of the devil that do not subscribe to Newport’s deep work strategies.
Second, Newport’s ideas on workplace discipline, scheduling, and time management fits nicely into the Hong Kong multicultural leadership context that we just experienced. I envision some of my cohort members will like his ideas, will make improvements in several ministry areas, but will not give up their day job to join the Deep Work movement.
Using the Elder approach to critical analysis I pulled several reviews on Deep Work. Dixon says the Deep Work is not for “all workplaces” and that it is “easier said than done.” Further, she says that distractions are “part of the work place” that connect people, organizations, and ideas; “differentiating between necessary and unnecessary” distractions is the key to improving focus.
Pederson disagrees with Newport’s thesis that the internet is “high jacking” our ability to concentrate and argues that this is the age of big data, powerful processors, and faster speeds for information flow. He argues that future leaders must be able to both “absorb” diverse sources of information while simultaneously maintaining “focus” that he calls the “distraction-focus paradox.” Pederson’s cites research on how to manage attention in a distracted age with the following:
- Diverse Tweeters generate better ideas
- Intense focus enhances multitask prioritization and planning
- Productive distraction promotes self-reflection and weak area compensation
Newport has degrees in computer science from MIT, teaches as Georgetown, and has written a few books on how to be successful and lead productive lives. I reviewed several articles and biographies on Newport and could not find any solid connections to the Christian world. He appears to mock the Sabbath with what he calls the “internet Sabbath” or digital detox and supports a Zen philosophy and wrote a blog-book on The Zen Valedictorian.
Even through Newport provides some practical ideas on how to improve concentration and promote effectiveness he did not explore, research, or experience the next-level multitasking events involved in leading people through critical incident responses like a mass-casualty, natural disaster, terrorism, or war. During my police and military careers, we always had to plan for the “high risk-low probability” scenarios that required radical leadership strategies for success. Consequently, I agree with the low risk-high probability deep work rules that Newport is selling, but believe he needs to get out of the office and go into the mission field, so to speak, and walk in the shoes of the leaders who must manage what Dixon calls the distraction-focus paradox.
I also think Pederson is right; slowing down and trying to stop distractions so we can focus better does not keep leaders in pace with the continuously evolving and faster information technology pace. For example, when LGP8 does a Zoom video conference there are multiple levels of communication going on simultaneously. We must multitask within the Zoom voice feed, static internet connectivity distractions, visual Zoom ques, nonverbal ques, and sidebar written group or private chats, supplemental information links to the internet, and side jokes and jabs all going on at the same time. I think this is an excellent example of how we can and do manage the distraction-focus paradox. Bayard, who taught me how to move between the center and periphery of the authors ideas and themes while seeing libraries of books is another author who supports absorbing and focusing on information in volumes, not pages.
After reflecting on Deep Work, I believe I fall between Newport’s Bimodal and Rhythmic approaches on normal day-to-day leadership opportunities. Notwithstanding, my multitasking daily approach is to intentionally put on the whole armor of God. This discipline helps me integrate Biblical solutions with workplace training and experience so I can move horizontally or vertically in response to chaotic crisis and situational stress incidents as ministry leaders may face in God’s sovereign plan.