Here’s a thought: I miss preparing for exams.
I miss the unmistakable ruthless focus they brought. The feeling of going ‘all-in’, arriving and leaving in darkness from the university library. The unique sense of satisfaction after concluding a razor-sharp, productive day of work.
Sue me, I miss it. The self-dependence, the reward, even the selfishness. Preparing for exams was day after day of peak concentration and peak productivity – and I don’t think I’ve felt the like of it since.
In fact, one of the main reasons I started this blog was to restore some of this focus. I wanted an excuse to write, research and think like I used to. Those periods of concentration I’d experienced were where the magic happened.
But of course, it’s easier said than done. I now have hours when I can focus like I used to, but the demands of work life often get in the way. Not only are my spare hours limited, but corporate life can feel like the antithesis of this concentrated state. The scale of distractions and organisational layers can engrain habits that run completely counter – but more on that shortly.
What is ‘deep work’?
What I experienced at university has a name. ‘Deep work’, as Cal Newport termed it in his book of the same name (EN, US), is your flow mode. It’s where you’re deeply focused on a challenging task and able to work in a state of concentration for a sustained period, free from distraction and interruption.
Deep work is also the latest corporate buzzword. CEOs are starting to throw it around at will, and this is trickling down to middle management and wider organisations.
The term is taking off because of the clear potential benefits. Deep work is where the magic happens. It’s where work no longer feels like work. Productivity levels soar. Satisfaction and fulfilment increase. Everybody wins. Easy, right?
The modern counterforces to deep work
Well, not quite. We’re not really set up for deep work. Corporate scale brings unavoidable layers of decision making and constant communication channels. Indeed, sometimes core responsibilities just won’t accommodate deep work at all. It’s a noble corporate ambition, but it requires huge upheaval, not least in cultural climate.
Deep work perhaps offers more immediate lessons at the individual level. But even at this level, we face a range of counterforces.
It’s worth giving some of these some thought. Only by overcoming them can we really take advantage of deep work.
Task switching. Modern life has left us addicted to feeling busy. This perpetual work wheel tends to centre on shallow work, eroding our quality of attention. But as I’ve noted in a previous post, we can also be fooled into the illusion of multitasking, when all we’re really doing is task switching. This approach only serves to undermine productivity and further squeeze our attention.
Task residue. Even when we can combat against frequent task switching, many jobs now require simultaneous management of different tasks and projects during the same day. The problem here is we struggle to shift our attention away from unfinished projects. Because we don’t have space for deep work, we end up working on different projects, with our minds still absorbed by the last. Research has shown that this ‘task residue’ effect negatively impacts work quality on subsequent tasks.
Distraction residue. The modern world is distraction abundant, further impacting the quality of our attention. Studies have shown that even the mere buzz of a notification (e.g. an email or mobile notification) can have consequences for attention and error rates for some time after. Such distractions run counter to the focus required for deep work.
Decision fatigue. As we confront decisions, we burn energy. Our days are increasingly packed with information and choices, which can drain us of the cognitive energy required for absorbed concentration in deep work. As I’ve previously noted, eliminating wasteful decisions can help us become better decision makers, but it can also save energy for deep work.
Deep work can be a huge advantage
We’re in an attention crisis, and we’re not likely to get out of it overnight. That means if you can get past these barriers to deep work and regularly incorporate it into your routine, you’ll have an immediate advantage over the majority.
In a world where the quality of our attention is being ebbed away, the value of sustained, purposeful concentration cannot be underestimated. Assuming you direct your focus at the right target, a regular routine of deep work will give you the opportunity to bring out your best.
Deep play can be deep work’s secret weapon
But deep work cannot be relentless and debilitating. For it to bring real results, it needs to be part of a sustainable routine. The deep work I was doing at university, for example, wouldn’t have been sustainable in the long run. You cannot expect to work during all hours of light without eventually getting burnt out.
Instead, successful deep work recognises that work and rest function in tandem. Both should be given equal importance.
Of course, resting means getting the right amount of sleep – that’s a given. But there are other hugely beneficial ways to recharge our cognitive batteries for the intense focus that deep work requires.
Some hobbies and physical activities hit a sweet spot. They’re not only rewarding, but they take on deeper layers of personal significance. This type of activity has become known as ‘deep play’ by anthropologists and psychologists. It’s a concept that was first popularised by Clifford Geertz in a seminal article about the deeper meaning of Balinese cockfighting for social status, but it has rich applicability to modern life.
“When it’s competitive, deep play has high symbolic stakes. When it’s personal, it offers lasting benefits and satisfaction that shallow play does not.”Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
So what’s the difference between ‘deep play’ and ‘shallow play’?
Deep play activities are mentally absorbing hobbies, allowing us to apply our skills to overcome challenges and solve problems, with clear rewards at the end. It’s a clear step away from our regular work, but often flexes relevant skill muscles, such as concentration, determination and creativity.
Soojung-Kim Pang provides countless examples of deep work in his book. Winston Churchill painted. Nobel prize-winner Albert Michelson played the violin and billiards. Biophysicist Britton Chance sailed. Henry Kendall climbed.
You see the difference? Deep play is more mentally absorbing than watching the television or sunbathing. It can function symbiotically with deep work.
For a satisfied life, work – and play – deeply
Focus is a tremendous asset in the modern world. It can make you richer and happier.
But as with everything, there’s a balance to be found. Those who extol the virtues of deep work often recommend 4-5 hours of deep work. You’re unlikely to get the best from your brain thereafter.
Sustainable deep work also functions in conjunction with rest. Deep play can be a particularly valuable partner. Activities that offer both deeper personal significance and the function of cognitive rest offer lasting benefits. And those benefits may just set you apart.
Combine deep work and deep play, and you’ll have the mother of all skills for the 21st century. You’ll have something most of your peers don’t: focus.
Direct that focus at the right target and it will change your life.