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.