Sitting down to do my work today, to write this very blog post, meant not only turning toward the task at hand, but also turning away from everything else that I might possibly be doing. I had to log off of Facebook, which I had been mindlessly surfing. I had to turn off my Gmail account, which I was scanning hopefully for responses from colleagues. I had to turn off my web-browser, where the path toward cnn.com, espn.com, and nytimes.com is well-worn. I had to put my phone out of sight, close my office door and block out the time on my calendar. All of this is quite necessary if I am going to “get some real work done”, which is my stated goal.
Does this sound familiar to you? According to Cal Newport in his helpful book Deep Work, this is what life is like for the modern knowledge worker. Newport writes that, “A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone.”
Newport argues persuasively in his writing that almost anybody who uses a computer as part of their daily routine, is likely to slip into what he calls “shallow work”. This is defined as, “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.” But shallow work also seems to describe the lack of depth when it comes to producing material of real value. So, it can be distracted work, or it can be low-quality work, but either way, it is not deep work.
I read this book over a year ago, after our lead mentor Jason Clark mentioned it to our cohort. I had been struggling at the beginning of my DMin studies to make the time and space in my schedule for the work that I needed to get done. Deep Work was a revelation to me.
I still use the term as a kind of short hand for “putting away distractions and getting things done.” My wife, my church staff, and even my neighbors will still ask me about this because I shared about it so exuberantly. Not only does Deep Work correctly diagnose the problem, it also has a set of practices that are obvious in retrospect, but that are powerful to experience.
One of these is simply about scheduling. Newport argues that it is necessary to schedule time for the deep work that we need to do, which helps to set the context and mental space to really think, create and engage. He quotes columnist David Brooks who says, “(Great creative minds) think like artists but work like accountants.” He means that, the discipline of accountants, who move methodically line by line, is counter intuitively the way that great art can be made. I wish that I could be productive while working in the energizing and stimulating environment of a coffee shop or café, but the reality is that I need to be hermit-like, and to do my work in my office with the door closed.
Newport is not a Luddite, and his book is not an anti-technology screed, however, there is a strong preference within it for stepping away from the tools of technology. When it comes to scheduling, he doesn’t just mean the time and the place, but he also prescribes scheduling limited time to be on the internet, or social media, or email. His thinking is that left to its own devices, these distracting baubles will creep into every moment of our time and our thinking. It will distract us continually from doing deep work.
This resonates with what Tina Seelig writes about in Insight Out. She describes the way the short term win or immediate need gets in the way of doing the bigger, harder and more important work in our lives. She calls this “low hanging fruit” and says that many people, “fill their time with commitments and then, once their day or week is full, can’t imagine ways to add anything new. They’re tackling the things they need to do, so they don’t have time to do the things they want to accomplish.”
Every email, text or message that pops us can seem to be so important and immediate. However, Seelig and Newport argue that it is possible to corral those things that come up, which seem so important, but actually aren’t. At the same time, Newport presses for workers to embrace fallow time, rest time, periodic breaks from work. It sounds a lot like Sabbath-keeping.
The way that I have taken this on, is by going on walks through the neighborhood around my church. I see it as a reward for getting a task done, but also, it clears my mind, awakens my body, and helps me return to the next deep work task.
My analysis of this book, which is full of suggestions for things that will seem counter-intuitive or hard to do, is that Newport is purposefully pushing the limit. His hope is that by offering a basket that is overflowing with fruit, that a reader would be prompted at least to take one or two bites.
His ideas run counter to the popular mood of the day, about multi-tasking, using technology to get more done, and open-space office environments. However, his suggestions for monkish work habits make a lot of sense. In fact, even taking on a few of the routines that he describes can have an immediate, positive effect for those feeling caught in the rat race, or drowning in the shallows.