What Is Deep Work and Why Is It Important?

An epidemic has broken out: people living distracted and unproductive lives.

According to author, Cal Newport, the advent of “the Internet,” and other social media platforms, exacerbated this problem. Newport advocates for deep work: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate” (3). In other words, you’re focused and doing meaningful work.

If some work is considered “deep,” the opposite is shallow work: “Non-cognitively demanding, logistical style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate” (6).

To put it bluntly, shallow work is stuff which really doesn’t matter.

Not only are many workers doing stuff that doesn’t really matter, but they’re spending their lives in a frenetic, distracted pace of life. Being distracted all the time can permanently damage your brain and cause someone to be unable to focus (7). Being able to do deep work is incredibly vital in our new economy, a knowledge economy. Because deep work is increasingly care, it is becoming increasingly valuable. (14). Deep work means creating new insights and producing your absolutely best work. If a worker is able to do this, he or she can thrive in a knowledge, and rapidly changing, economy.

Deep Work is Valuable

The economy is changing. We no longer have industrial economy, but a knowledge one. Newport identifies two important qualities workers must have in this new economy. First, they must be able to master hard things quickly. Second, they must be able to produce awesome content (29). “If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive,” writes Newport (31). The foundation for these two abilities is deep work: Being able to focus and harness your mind to attention.

Learning hard things requires deliberate practice, which is pretty much synonymous with deep work (34). The only way you’re going to produce really awesome content is if you spend a lot of time concentrating on it. If you spend a lot of time on something but don’t really pay much attention to it, it won’t be great. Furthermore, sometimes you just need to log a lot of hours on something before a breakthrough happens.

Some may object and claim, “But what about jobs like that of a CEO who needs to be connected to his company all the time?” Newport answers this objection by examining the nature of the job. CEOs will often have to be highly visible and engage in a lot of shallow work (responding to emails, shaking hands, meeting with people). But that’s the nature of the position. They gained their value because they’re able to do that and still lead the company well.

Deep Work is Rare

Workers often embrace distraction in the workplace for reasons which are actually arbitrary. Things often fall into the “metric black hole,” a concept coined by Newport. The metric black hole means that it is very difficult to measure someone’s contributions to the success of the company (55).

For example, workers spend much of the their time responding to and sending emails. Does this really produce anything worthwhile? It is does, how would we know? That’s the metric black hole. Because it’s hard to measure the amount of shallow work we do, and the value that it generates, we can deceive ourselves into thinking that we are contributing more to the success of the company than we actually are.

Furthermore, it’s just easier to do shallow work than deep work! And so we default to the easy. We all can substitute busyness as a proxy for productivity (61). In the Industrial Age, you could show your productivity by outward visible results. If you produced a certain amount of items in a certain amount of time, you knew you were productive.

In the knowledge economy, things are much more ambiguous: How do you really know you’re producing? Business had tried to answer this question by actually reverting back the Industrial Revolution era measure of productivity. Many businesses will measure productivity through the number of emails sent or the number of social media posts. This is not a good measure of productivity. It just means that a lot of shallow work is being accomplished.

There’s also the ideological view of “the Internet.” A lot of people think that the internet is amazing. In fact, it often works like a cult. The argument goes: If you’re not connected, if you’re not online, if you’re not using the Internet, then you are backwards and not keeping up with the times. But the Internet is inherently distracting. Prolonged use can diminish our concentration capacities. 

Deep Work is Meaningful

Why do deep work?

In chapter three, Newport attempts to justify the importance of deep work. Deep work isn’t just valuable. It won’t just give you a good paycheck. It will actually give you something much more valuable: meaning.  

First, Newport present a neurological argument for depth. As you learn to focus, such practice actually changes your brain. Focus is incredibly important because focus really defines your personhood: “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love–is the sum of what you focus on” (77).  Furthermore concentrating on important things hijacks your attention apparatus, preventing you from noticing the smaller issues going on in your life (79). When you can focus, you are happier: “A workday driven by the shallow, from a neurological perspective, is likely to be draining and upsetting day even if the most the shallow  things that capture your attention seem harmless or fun” (82).

Next, Newport talks about psychological argument for death. Our best moments often come from stretching ourselves to the absolute limit and getting “lost” in a project. This phenomenon is called “flow” (84). Humans beings do their best work when facing challenges. 

Newport goes on to make a philosophical argument for depth. According to Newport, figuring out the meaning which is inherent in the world is much more satisfying than trying to create your own meaning in life (88). The world of the craftsman illustrates this point. Although the work of a craftsman is difficult, it is rewarding. Why? Because he is able to see the world full of “bright, shiny things” (86). 

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