A Valuable Trait in the New Knowledge-Economy
An increasingly rare, yet valuable job skill today
Recently, I’ve been at all-time highs with my focus and creativity. Upon reflection, I attribute this to the life-changing habits I developed due to a book, “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. It acted as a catalyst to my personal growth, be it learning increasingly complex skills or mastering my craft. But how, you may wonder?
This book emphasizes the value of Deep Work. But what exactly is deep work?
By Newport’s definition, deep work refers to:
“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
To elaborate, professional activity is an activity that you’re currently pursuing that requires putting in tons of hours to even become competent at. Examples include: learning a programming language, becoming a pre-eminent writer, or excelling in a specific field of work. One way of looking at it is to estimate how long it would take for a college graduate with no specialized training to be competent at the activity? Hence, it also explains why performing these activities well at your mental limit is beneficial to providing immense value to the new economy.
Why is it important? Newport mentions 2 core fundamentals to striving in the new economy.
1. The ability to quickly master hard things
- To become world-class material of any discipline requires you to master an increasingly difficult and complex skillset that others may not be able to do so
- The world is ever-changing and so we must adapt to it before our skills become obsolete
“If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive — no matter how skilled or talented you are.”
2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of quality and speed
- Upon mastery, if you can’t produce, there’s no point
- Similar to programming, it’s relatively easy to pick up certain languages, but are you capable enough to be able to program your own script or website? Are you versatile enough to be able to apply whatever you’ve learned to tackle a specific problem?
- Enables you to quickly master hard skills since learning requires intense concentration
- If we are comfortable going deep, we can acquire complex skills through deliberate practice much more efficiently
- Consolidate your work into intense and uninterrupted pulses to leverage the law of productivity
High Quality work produced = Time spent x Intensity of focus
- Both these skills require you to engage actively with deep work, which highlights its importance in the workplace and school.
How to apply Deep Work to your life
Remember, Deep Work requires you to be in a distraction-free zone of focus. Not only that, but you have to be able to slip into it with as little resistance as possible. This means being able to perform simple, repeatable actions that push your brain to this state of intense cognitive effort.
These are the tools that I applied from the book, namely ritualizing and mindful scheduling.
To prevent unnecessary resistance when engaging in deep work, you need to address the following questions:
- Where to work and how long
- How you’ll work
- How you’ll support your work
Where to work and how long
I believe setting up a place solely for work or study is vital to maintaining focus. Perhaps you’re getting distracted by apps on your computer that are visually prominent. Simply switch user accounts or hide desktop icons! The devil is in the details when it comes to identifying external “noise” that waver your concentration. Once you’ve identified a location, set aside how long you want to complete your task. It’s important to set a time limit for yourself, ensuring that you adhere to it and understanding that you cannot afford to lose this focus.
How you’ll work
It’s also important to have rules to limit yourself from potentially being drawn away from your central thought process. These rules need to be strict, in order to tie down a value that will last you a lifetime. This value is discipline, being able to resist the temptation of looking at your mobile device, knowing that the cost of doing so will disrupt your workflow and prevent you from going deep. Such rules can be no food in the vicinity or no social media/phone. If you know that you’ll be distracted eventually, why not enforce rules that can avoid such mishaps from happening? Prevention over causal effects.
How you’ll support your work
Supporting tools or snacks help to signal your brain that ‘Hey, get ready, it’s time to start work’ are highly useful in getting into the rhythm of work. We do not want to be affected by internal factors like being hungry or fatigued, which adversely affect the brain’s cognitive ability. Such foods can be coffee, tea, or dark chocolate (a healthy snacking alternative) or tools such as applications that complement your work. (Forest and Todoist)
Mindful scheduling (Schedule every minute of your day)
- A Wall Street Journal article found out that Americans think they’re sleeping on average around 7 hours a night, however, the American Time use survey found out that they average 8.6 hours
- Another study found that people who claimed to work 60–64 hours per week were averaging more like 44 hours per week
These are shocking statistics that clearly show how our brains run on autopilot throughout the day. Put simply, we are not conscious of how we use our time.
Time is too important an asset to waste. If we cannot manage our time subconsciously, we have to resort to extreme measures: consciously scheduling every minute of our day. Easier said than done, right? Let’s delve into how we can do so. Recognize that a deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect. If you don’t value your time, you’re simply letting your brain tend toward shallow work; defined as work that can be done while distracted and is non-cognitive.
Decide what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday
Planning in advance, even though tiresome the day before can be beneficial in completing tasks that have a steep learning curve or are challenging in nature. It helps to free your mind from attention residue as you complete tasks during periods of peak performance and avoids mindless procrastination. A rule of thumb would be to engage in mentally demanding tasks first, followed by tasks that gradually scale down in intellectual difficulty.
The more experientially demanding a task is, the more vested you should be toward its completion, prioritising it over any other task that any college student could replicate in a few months.
The investment of time toward high-skilled tasks is a valuable commitment to becoming the master of your field
A suggestion from Newport:
Create a calendar (For the author it’s a notebook. For me it’s Microsoft calendar). Divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks. Not every box has to be work-related, as you need to include lunch breaks or breaks from work (leisure). The minimum length of a block should be 30 minutes to keep things clean. With these blocks, every minute of the block should be spent on an activity.
It’s also common to run into problems like wrong time estimates and having new obligations which disrupt your entire workflow schedule. But realize that this nothing to be afraid of. The schedule is disrupted, simply create a revised schedule for the remaining time of the day. Don’t give up entirely on the structure! The most important thing is to maintain control of what you do with your time looking forward.
To conclude, there are definitely other strategies in this book that are helpful and exhaustive, which I won’t list. I suggest that you pick up this book if you’re really interested. It’s important to note that this is not a one size fits all approach, hence it’s important to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. If this article helps, great! Most importantly, understand that this is merely a structure that you can work with. Without having substance (which is what comes from your purpose, conviction, and newfound beliefs), your efforts are spread thin and do not provide value to your pursuits.
I believe many of us hold ourselves back because of self-doubt and comfort. To practice carpe diem is to live life to its fullest.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the book that resonated well with me. I hope that you gained as much value as I did from these snippets and you rekindle an intrinsic curiosity to learning and creation.
“I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”
— Winifred Gallagher