Deep Work – a path forward

Working without distractions. Part One

Professor Cal Newport teaches computer sciences at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He was born in 1982. He belongs to Generation Y, also known as Millennials. What makes him stand out is his attitude to the impact of social media and technology.

I have read two of his books. One is called “Digital Minimalism.” Here, he offers a method to detox from email, social media and the internet and be successfully happy, perhaps happier.

The other book that I want to write about is called “Deep Work”. Its subtitle is “Rules for focussed success in a distracted world”. It was published in 2016 when Cal Newport was about 34 years old. He belongs to that generation who seem constantly to look at their smartphones. They worry about image, connectivity. There is also an increasing body of literature that points out the negative impact social media has on our lives. That said, social media offers millions of people the only window to the world. It is a double-edged sword.

Cal Newport writes about working life in the corporate world in a western setting. He describes working for global companies and the contradictory problems one can face, how it affects the quantity and quality of work you achieve and how happy you are doing this. And he has one clear message: we are at the beginning of a significant upheaval. We need to be ready for it.

What is deep work? Simply put, it is fulfilling a task without any distractions. It sounds simple enough, but what are these distractions? Social media, open-plan offices, our working styles, emails, meetings. These are all interruptions that fragment your time and therefore reduce your concentration. This means you achieve less than you wish, lowering the level of your success. The result is that this makes you and others unhappy, inviting unnecessary pressure.

The pressure also comes from another direction. We need to continue learning new skills, especially new technologies and these are becoming increasingly difficult to master. More pressure comes from a globalised work environment. Virtual offices, virtual meetings, virtual platforms mean that one can sit anywhere and work. And if a person in Asia can offer superior quality work at a lower cost to a European counterpart, HR would be a fool not to use the person in Asia. Newport continues to say, that a person who can work deeply, produces results at “an elite level.” The ability to work deeply determines how successful your career will be.

Against this backdrop of change, Cal Newport asks, how can someone be successful if there are constant work distractions, and what can one do about it?

Before sharing his toolbox of solutions, Newport explores the cause of these distractions. And many of them exist because of the work most of us do now. Many people are office workers. They possess a skill that is worth paying a salary. But unlike a “craftsman”, there is no physical result. At the end of a working day, the craftsman can go home and say or show the result. An office worker cannot. But we have an instinctive need to display results. If we cannot, then we invent them. How many emails did you receive? How were the meetings you had to attend? Did you get the number of likes you expected on Facebook? We call this “busyness”. These activities keep you occupied, give a sense of satisfaction but add little to no value.

Checking emails is part of my work, you will say. Yes, but Newport gives an example of the actual cost of emails versus their usefulness. How many times do you receive emails forwarded to you by somebody else? “Just for info” or “thoughts?” is the message that you receive. You are divided. You need to be informed. Your boss demands your “thoughts”, but actually, it is not relevant to your core work. But you read it anyway, and you can be distracted. This costs money. Take an employee’s salary and relate that to writing and reading pointless emails and the technological costs can add up to millions of so-called “soft costs”. Newport calls this the “Metric Black Hole”.

A day at the office in a world full of distractions, you arrive home and ask yourself, is my job meaningful? You might speak to another person about this. Newport cites the example of a blacksmith crafting a sword. To the office worker, the working conditions, the hammering of a hot piece of steel will not be appealing. Too hot, too dirty, and too physical. But doing the task can be very rewarding. The blacksmith studies the hot metal and hits it with the correct force in the right place. Slowly he sees the transformation. He knows where to look and where to strike. He is connected, at one, with the whole process.

If it works for the blacksmith, can it work for the office worker? According to Newport, it can. It works on three levels.

He starts with the neurological level. We want to enjoy our lives. To do that, we focus on things that are positive. Generally, we find our work positive, or else we would not be doing it. But our vision, our connection to our work has been interrupted by distractions. They invade your thinking, your work, your concentration.

Distractions exert pressure. By comparing yourself or your circumstances with others may demotivate you. By focussing on your task, you avoid any distractions. The deeper you go, the more you see it, the happier you become. You become connected to it as if it speaks with you.

It brings you to a psychological level. By becoming happier, you have a positive state of mind and being. You are challenged, pushed, motivated. By engaging in this process, your happiness increases.

Finally, you can look at this philosophically. Whatever it is you are working on, it evolves, and like the blacksmith’s sword, your task can develop into an object of beauty. It may not seem as such to somebody else, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Cal Newport sets out to explain how modern-day technology can hurt your professional and perhaps your private life. If we work in an office, we lack the sense of achievement a person using their hands can have. So, we create “false achievements”, which we then have to track and monitor, and this costs time and money. Their sheer volume distracts us from observing and building a relationship with our task. In the following article, I will share some of Cal Newport’s recommendations on how you can learn to start “deep work”.

Visit Cal Newport’s Website Here

Would you like to improve your professional English by discussing this article and comparing it with your situation? You can contact me at frank@peters-langues.fr

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