Deep work – the basis of fulfilling work

April 22, 2020 | Jacob (eno)

Across many fields, the most successful teachers often embody a unique synergy of skills: breadth of third-party experience, depth of first-hand knowledge, and a knack for systematic communication. Paul Graham is one such expert in the productivity space. 

A computer scientist by trade, Paul Graham helped create several notable tools first-hand early in his career – most notably Lisp, and Viaweb. Later in life, Paul became the cofounder of YCombinator, where he mentors and coaches hundreds of startups every year. During this time, Paul took the metaphorical spotlight with his popular essays on company building and productivity. 

One post, in particular, stood out to me: a 2009 essay titled “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.” The thesis is as follows: managers tend to segment their day in 1-hour blocks because this format is most conducive to meetings and task-switching. To contrast, makers and creatives tend to prefer segmenting their day in 4-hour blocks, as this is most conducive to deep, sustained focus. Paul argues that any attempt by a maker to utilize the frequent task-switching methods of a manager will destroy productivity, since makers require sustained focus in order to produce quality work. 

The essay resonated with me as I read it around the same time I was introduced to the seminal book on the subject – Deep Work by Cal Newport, another expert in the field of productivity. In Deep Work, Cal argues that deep, uninterrupted focus is the most important skill of the 21st century. This was two years after I published my own book, in which I state that deliberate, distraction-free sessions are the most effective way to study for university classes. Comparing these works, I realized that we all came to the same conclusion: deep work is imperative to producing quality work.

This conclusion that Paul, Cal, and I each came to independently is not innovative. Most of us intuitively minimize distractions when our work gets difficult. In fact, the idea that focus leads to better results rarely surprises anyone. The novelty comes from Paul and Cal’s ability to use the breadth of experience, depth of knowledge, and communication ability to systematize this conclusion in a way that’s useful and applicable.

 In this post, I argue that deep work, as Paul and Cal describe, is the basis of all creative work, and explain how it is the only solution to our distraction epidemic. 

What is Deep work

Cal Newport defines deep work as the following:
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.” 

Deep work is what we imagine when we say we are concentrated – a single-minded focus on one task, in which we pour all of our cognitive energy. It’s the type of work we aim for when we get to the office each morning.  

Deep work directly contrasts shallow work, which is defined as such: “Noncognitively demanding logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.” Shallow work encapsulates the rest of our day: emails, meetings, messages, and other multitask-style work. Tasks get sidelined. Ideas are lost. Distractions abound. For many of us – for better or for worse – the majority of our time each day ends up being spent in shallow work. 

The dichotomy between deep work and shallow work is especially noticeable in creative, knowledge-work professions. Designers, developers, and writers often describe the need to get away from the office to be able to get any work done. When prompted, these same people often cite “not feeling inspired” or “feeling distracted” as the reason for wanting a new space. In reality, these justifications are merely symptoms of a larger issue: if you can’t do deep work, little work will get done. 

This is not to say that shallow work is entirely wasted. Indeed, in any project, organization and communication is a huge part of the job. However, the only way to produce high quality, creative, valuable work is through deep work. It’s our job, then, to maximize the time we spend in deep work sessions. 

Achieving the flow state using deep work principles

In psychology research, high-output, the single-minded focus goes by another name: the flow state. The seminal work on the topic was done by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who defined the flow state as “the state of optimal performance” in which: 

“[one is] completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.” 

The flow state goes by many names: getting “lost in your work” or being “in the zone” are other ways of saying that your mind is in ‘flow’. MRI scans show a decrease in activity in the default mode network during flow. This is a region of the brain thought to be responsible for your mind drifting away, and also your sense of self. Studies show that creativity, speed, and overall work output increase dramatically when we’re in flow. Not to mention that generally, it feels pretty amazing. 

Since Mihaly’s research, many books have been published describing deep work strategies to enter flow. For some, extreme sports provide a push in that direction. Others find flow through creativity, spending hours designing and building from inspiration. Many cite coffee and stimulants as beneficial for flow. What’s common to these descriptions is the following: flow states can occur when you’re deeply invested in an intrinsically rewarding, non-distracting task. In other words, deep work is the key to achieving the flow state. 

Deep work tools for focus training

Deep work – and by extension, the flow state – is a necessary precursor to a great work session. However, it also serves a secondary purpose: training your brain to favor focus. 

In the second post of this series on concentration, we described how internal distractions are the result of years of cognitive conditioning; every time we respond to a distraction, we encourage the behavior and become more likely to get distracted again. Years of email notifications and phone vibrations have rendered us ultra-sensitive to distractions. 

The opposite, however, is also true: ignoring distractions discourages the behavior, and attenuates the likelihood that we’ll be distracted in the future. Just like a muscle, we strengthen our subconscious’ ability to focus on a single task every time we practice it. The more we engage in deep work, the better we become at avoiding distractions. In other words, a deep work schedule trains our brain to favor focus. 

This final step is the key to why deep work is the solution to our distraction epidemic. Deep work is not only a tool for producing great work, but it’s also the cognitive workout we need to improve our concentration. On par with good nutrition, quality sleep, and frequent exercise, deep work sessions are the foundation of high performance. 

In order to perform at a high level, we need to master the skill of entering the flow state through deliberate deep work. The only way to do so is to follow the deep work rules. We owe it to ourselves to put in the necessary effort to cultivate this skill, one deep work session at a time. 

So, what now?

In theory, the idea of deep work is very attractive. In practice, incorporating it into our daily routine is surprisingly difficult for most of us. Most work environments are not conducive to deep work. Open offices, frequent meetings, slack posts, and emails are the bane of any focused work. Despite our efforts, we still arrive at the end of our day having accomplished much less deep work than we would have liked. 

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this problem. The resulting conclusion became the core of eno. We’ll explore this more in our next post.