Deep Work

About a week ago I finished a book that caused me to have a paradigm shift. That’s saying something considering how much I read. I like to read. That’s a lie. I love to read. I’m an unapologetic bibliophile. My wife thinks it’s disease. I think it’s a gift. I digress.

Back to the point of this post. The book I finished that caused a change in my worldview is Cal NewPort’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. As you can tell by the first paragraph I’m not a distracted person. That is probably why I so greatly enjoyed this book, I needed it. Like a moth to a flame I read through this book and enjoyed every morsel of research and devoured each chapter.

Cal is unique individual. He seems to have a predisposition to cut through the noise and get to the meat of things. From the descriptions he gave about how many research papers he publishes each year to his tenured track at Georgetown University, this guy means business. His style is easy to read and his thoughts are so clear that I sometimes had to pause and appreciate their profound importance.

What was it about this book that changed my thinking? Cal makes the point early on that we live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with useless information, phone notifications, banner ads, and trivial alerts. Our brains are addicted to social media code that is written to lure us into a time suck vortex. We clicked on Facebook and Instagram to quickly check in only to later realize we’ve spent several hours down a digital rabbit hole and forgot to work on that project.

Now, that was all stuff I had heard before. Social media is bad and a waste of time, blah, blah, blah. I knew that, that’s why I spend so little time on it. At least that’s what I tell myself. Where the book and his ideas really shine is when Cal explains that the ability to do deep, meaningful, distraction-free work is a special ability. An ability that will be highly sought after and will be something akin to a superhero power. Cal goes on and on about various tools, tips, and methods to deep work but the concept of deep work being unique and sought after is what made it interesting to me.

I became even more intrigued when Cal started explaining the difference between what he calls shallow work and deep work. This explanation hit me so hard that I came to the realization that most of what I do is shallow work. What? I do shallow work? Yes, and so do you. Yes you. You’re doing shallow work.

So what is the difference between deep and shallow work? I thought you’d never ask. Shallow work is defined by its ability to be easily replicated. Or said otherwise by Cal, the ability for you to train a recent college grad to do the same work. In essence, the quicker the recent college grad can be trained to do your work, the shallower it is. The more difficult it is for your work to be replicated, the deeper the work you are doing. If you can train Parker to do you your job as effectively as you can in a week or two, your job security might be in trouble. If it will take years of training to get Parker to where you are and there is a chance he may never get there, then you my friend are doing work that is both deep and providing you some job security. Well this is assuming your job is necessary and/or in demand in the marketplace.

I’m oversimplifying what is a well thought out book to give you some of the broader points. Deep work is meaningful work. It is greatly satisfying work. It usually doesn’t involve filing papers or filling out generic forms. There is nothing wrong with doing those things as a job, but it is not deep work. Deep work usually involves several layers of critical thinking, creativity, and imagination. It is the kind of work that if done consistently could change your life. It’s obvious you don’t want to waste your life just merely being entertained. That’s not being productive. But we also fool ourselves into thinking that we are being productive when in reality we are not really working, or worse, we are bogged down in shallow unimportant work.

So what is the solution? The solution is to be brutally honest with ourselves and ask hard questions. How much time am I really working in an 8 hour day? How much of the time when I am supposedly working am I doing deep work as opposed to shallow work? If I’m wasting time with shallow work is there anyway that I can minimize it or find a way to delegate it?

The other thing that is great about this concept is that it trickles down to every other aspect in your life. If you can be brutally honest about how you are spending your time and whether or not you are doing the most important thing, you will start to ask yourself questions like I did. Is this the best time of day for me to focus on this? Turns out it’s better for me to focus on the really hard things earlier in the day. Is this work really something that I need to or should I delegate this? What is the most important work that I could be doing right now?

It’s hard enough to face the hard truth of how little we actually work and how much time we waste with things that are not important. It’s taking you to a whole other level to analyze your “work” and see whether it is deep meaningful work or frivolous shallow work. This is something that is varied from occupation to occupation, but most people when honest with themselves know the difference.

Reading this book has changed the way I perceive and analyze the work I am doing. It has also helped me to be more honest with myself and has helped me to realize how much of my life is skewed by my own perception of what I think I am doing, and not necessarily what my time and results actually show.

What I have also found is that when I do deep work, work that challenges me in many ways, it is then that I am happiest. When I meet resistance with focus and get lost or entranced in what I am doing, that is when joy melds with productivity. May we all find more moments of blissful deep work.

Coronavirus and a Reset

I’ve read a few articles recently that have discussed the idea of this pandemic being some form of a reset, and others touting an economic equalizer. I’m not sure about an equalizer but if there is anything I have learned in all my years of living it’s that through trials and tribulations come the greatest opportunities for growth and improvement. The Covid-19 disease has already and will continue to change the world as we know it.

Will this be a difficult time for many? Undoubtedly. Everyone will be affected by this in some form or another, if they haven’t already. You can’t have 3.28 million people in America file for unemployment benefits in one week without it having ripple effects. Bloomberg news reported that the number filing for unemployment in Norway jumped 350% and the unemployment rate shot up to 10.4%. This is all in the past two weeks! This is just the beginning and the road ahead will be full of potholes and obstacles for many of us.

Does this mean that everything is gloom and doom from here on out? No of course not. There will be a turning point and things will eventually get better. I’m a believer in the future of the United States of America. I’m also a believer in the future of our world and all of it’s beautiful countries and peoples. Hell, I’m a believer in the human spirit in general, and most of all I’m a believer in human ingenuity. Don’t ever bet against people and their ability to overcome obstacles that stand in their way.

This reminds me of a fantastic book I read recently written by Ryan Holiday titled The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. The title and concept of the book is based on a Marcus Aurelius quote which reads, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” I love everything about that quote. It speaks to my very soul.

Humans are known for adapting and overcoming. That’s what makes us different than other species. We adapt like no other. We live on every climate on the earth and maybe to our own detriment we build like no other species can. You can’t walk through New York, Paris, Shanghai or any major city and not be amazed at the sheer complexity and grandiosity of human creativity and imagination.

You see human ingenuity in the foods, the clothes, the signs, the lights, the cars, the streets, the skyscrapers, and just about everything you see in a major city is a testament to the hand of God working through the human mind.

So am I optimistic about the future. You better believe I am. It’s going to be better than anything we know now. Similar to how we look at the days of yore and lament at the thought of no air conditioning, cars, planes, medicine and dentistry without anesthesia. We will look back at this time and say “that was crazy, but we survived.” The reality is we won’t just survive it but but we will thrive through it.

One day we will look at a chart of the S&P 500 and this whole time period will simply be a blip on the chart. I don’t mean that to make light of the situation but only to point out that in the annals of time and history it will be small. To us, and as we live through the events, it will be everything in that moment. Perspective is everything. Eternal perspective is everything.

That being said after the threat of this virus has subsided, things will look different. Jobs will look different. There will be new opportunities for new jobs and there will also be more liquidity in our economic system due to the Federal Reserve and Congress’ unprecedented actions. There will be more access to cheap money than we have ever known before. With that change will come repercussions that we will have to deal with for years after the crisis.

I’m not sure what unemployment will look like over the next several years but some, including our Treasury Secretary, are saying that it could get to as high as 20%. If that’s the case the economy will shift and some industries will die and new ones will emerge.

One obvious change in the workforce that I can see because of all of this is the increase in remote workers. This has been a great worldwide experiment in remote productivity. If the numbers come back that some companies have been able to thrive in this environment and some employees have even improved productivity, then there is no looking back.

Another outcome that I see unfolding now is an even faster shift from face to face brick and mortar retail to more online stores and more delivery options. We will be a world of people huddled and more isolated in our homes as we can have access to everything we want, when we want. We’ve become little emperors and empresses with the world in the palm of our hands. If Mansa Musa could see me now!

In the end, I’m still not exactly sure how all of this plays out but if history is an indication all world economies will decline for a period and then eventually move higher. The same can be said for our resilience as a people. We will take a hit, people will die, and suffering is inevitable, but we will move on and be stronger because of it.

I’m a believer in purpose. Everything has a purpose. I know that it is hard to find purpose in suffering and loss. There have been times in my life where I have gone through great suffering that seemed to have no purpose or reason. It is only decades later that I am able to see a snippet of the great Creator’s plan for my life. In the moment we never have full context, and the wisdom that comes with retrospection and a fuller knowledge of other forces at work.

There are brighter days ahead and growth to be had both, spiritually and temporally. I’m more grateful now for the little things in life. The fresh air, the sun, the moon, my loved ones, friends, and the use of my senses to name a few. Cherish what you have. There is always space for gratitude. Things will get better. As far as a reset. Sure. Whatever we call it, a reset, a fresh start, time for change, it will all be new and exciting and an opportunity to discover or rediscover who we are, why we are here, and where we are going.