What is deep work? It’s a term coined by best-selling author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, and Georgetown University associate professor, Cal Newport.
Cal Newport defines it as, “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.”
The perceived rewards of deep work are invaluable: one can complete a degree, write a magnum opus of a book, or become fluent in a language concurrently with their current life and work. What makes it so difficult for others to adopt this discipline, then? I see the primary barriers to deep-work being our insufficient awareness and understanding of how it works and the natural barriers that stand against it.
In itself, deep work is not an emergent discipline of the 21st century for hacking-work or productivity in the Digital Age. It’s been practiced and cultivated by thinkers in time, more notably, Henry Thoreau, who retreated to Walden Pond to live and write more deliberately, Carl Jung, who built the Bollinger Tower in order to produce high level work away from the pull of daily obligations, and Yuval Noah Harari, who’s credited Vipassana meditation and 60 day meditations for his ability to focus and produce a high quality of insights and work.
“The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure.There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk… those who work more, do not work hard.” – Henry David Thoreau
The Driving Forces Behind Deep Work
To understand what happens when engaging in deep work, we’ll get comfortable with two parts of the brain, the Amygdala and the Basal Ganglia: The Amygdala is an almond-shaped area in our brain and the center behind much of our emotional processing and formation of automatic response. The Basal Ganglia, sitting north of the Amygdala and looking like a horizontally elongated swirl is related to reinforcement learning, conditioning (e.g. looking at immensely dry text and having a recurring desire to recoil from it), habit formation and procedural memory. When you engage in deep work regularly and with relative ease, it’s an indication that your amygdala sees the activity as rewarding or even exciting! (Naturally, the feeling of pleasure affects one’s perception and level of attention to any kind of activity. The basal ganglia reinforces this and facilitates repetitive action and automation, making something that is objectively cognitively demanding significantly “easier”– more smooth; hence, you are able to do deep work over an extended period of time with less effort.
Why Deep Work Can Matter to You
With a strong muscle for deep work, we have the ability to activate flow on command. We can experience heightened levels of productivity, quality in work, insight and more. Deep Work not only helps you achieve your professional goals– it can change your life. If you’re looking for less busyness, more productivity, more substance, or an additional practice to increase your level of fulfillment in life, this is a good ability to have.
There are so many upsides to deep work, so why is it that so few of us are doing it?
Most of us have a tendency to pull away from deep work; we have a habit of unfocus over focus. Many tools, frameworks for living and working, and products at our disposal today reinforce thinking and behavior patterns that acclimate us to distraction, a prioritization of many things (which is really the prioritization of nothing), and rampant context switching.
More essentially, our preclusion from deep work comes from two things: we either do not have the sufficient desire to perform deep work, or having the sufficient desire, we lack the sufficient discipline— we fail to plan ahead, be realistic about our current schedules, environment, and self, or set boundaries around activities and other people that compete for our attention and time.
Developing a capacity for deep work is possible, but it requires discipline, flexibility to adapt to what works and let go of what no longer serves, and lots of patience. Scheduling time-blocks or focus days, setting aside a relatively isolated-quiet location for deep work, setting boundaries around other demands and stimuli, meditation, and having an accountability partner are all tools that can help you succeed with deep work.
If you’re working to develop your capacity for deep work or already have a framework in place, share with an accountability partner (a friend, a spouse), or leave a comment on a process or a guardrail you are implementing or leaning on to get better at deep work. Is it blocking out 9-2pm on Saturdays to go to the library and work? Is it implementing a strict time limit on social media or media? Let me know!
A reference to support your journey as you develop your own roadmap for deep work:
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport