“The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.”
Georgetown University professor Cal Newport’s simple observation has never been more urgent. Never before have there been so many distractions vying for our attention. Social media and traditional media alike promote constant distraction. Forbes Magazine even describes ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) as the Entrepreneur’s Superpower.
All this distraction crowds out what Newport refers to as “deep work”—the kind of concentrated work that pushes our cognitive capabilities to their limit. As a result, knowledge workers have lost the skill to go deep. We have allowed our “mental muscle” to atrophy.
Newport’s latest book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World [2016, Grand Central Publishing], offers a way to create a deep work regimen. You might even think of it as a training manual in concentration.
He begins by setting the stage to motivate our journey into deep work. Deep work is critical, he writes, in developing two core abilities required to master the new economy: the ability to master hard things; and, the ability to produce at an elite level. Without deep work we’ll succumb to the shallowness of mere busyness and miss the meaningful contributions we can make in our work.
To get beyond our penchant for the path of least resistance, Newport offers four strategies for cultivating deep work habits:
- Schedule periods of deep work. Setting a ritual for deep work is an essential and something I’ve found to be true in my own life since setting up my own morning time rhythm for concentrated work.
- Embrace boredom. We need to recognize our present dependence on distraction and take steps to wean ourselves from it. “Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus,” Newport writes, “you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give into distraction.”
- Quit social media. Newport makes a cogent argument for evaluating the value of a social media or network too. He suggests taking a “craftsman approach” to selecting a tool. Use it only if its benefit substantially outweighs the distracting downside.
- Drain the shallows. By this, he means to be thoughtful about your use of time. He suggests scheduling every minute of your day—not to create a rigid plan, but to foster thoughtfulness about your most important tasks and the time required to accomplish them.
I found Deep Work to be a thoroughly engaging read and highlighted a lot of techniques that I’m now putting to use. As one who has a passion for cultivating strategic margin and helping others do so, I cannot recommend another book on this subject more highly.
Comment below: What deep work habits have you cultivated?
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