In today’s world, doing “deep work” — anything from writing an article, to learning a new skill, to creating an effective business strategy — is tough. There are distractions at every turn. It’s hard to give a task your full attention when you’re trying to reply to email or stay on top of Facebook posts. Or you need to tweet out links to promote your work and connect with others.
Cal Newport, a writer and assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, coined the term “deep work” on his blog Study Hacks: Decoding Patterns of Success. In his newest book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he explores how we can do deep work amid potential distractions — such as email, instant messaging, social media, meetings and open offices.
Newport defines “deep work” as “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.” In contrast, an example of shallow work is “constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction,” he writes.
Today, there’s an interesting phenomenon at play that hampers deep work: Anything having to do with the internet is automatically deemed “innovative and necessary,” according to Newport. We praise and prioritize rapid email replies and active social media presence — both of which are almost considered non-negotiable.
While I use Twitter and Instagram, I can’t tell you how many people are surprised — even puzzled — that I don’t have a Facebook account. (Newport doesn’t have one either. In fact, he doesn’t participate in social media at all. He’s also very disciplined with email.) When new social media sites spring up — everything from Periscope to Snapchat — many people assume they should immediately jump on the bandwagon. Because if they don’t, their business might suffer, or they’re somehow missing out.
Deep Work is filled with significant insights and actionable steps to help us navigate distractions and focus fully on our most important work. One of my favorite strategies is adopting a “craftsman approach” to social media. That is, instead of automatically assuming that a tool, such as Facebook, is beneficial and appropriate for you, you get curious and explore its value for your own priorities.
According to Newport, this approach “simply asks that you give any particular network tool the same type of measured, nuanced accounting that tools in other trades have been subjected to throughout the history of skilled labor.” (An example is farming.) That’s because “tools are ultimately aids to the larger goal of one’s craft.” The approach involves these pieces:
- List a small number of professional and personal goals — without getting too specific. For instance, Newport’s professional goals are to be an effective teacher, researcher and mentor to his graduate students. Your professional goal might be “to craft well-written, narrative-driven stories that change the way people understand the world,” an example Newport gives. Your personal goals might be to parent well and stay connected to people who are important to you.
- List two to three of the most important activities that support these goals. For instance, activities that support you in crafting stories might be researching patiently and writing carefully. Activities that support your relationships might be helping your loved ones and taking the time for meaningful connection (e.g., by going out together and talking on the phone).
- Consider the tools you currently use, and for each activity, consider the tool’s effects. Consider whether each tool “has a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact on your regular and successful participation in the activity.” Finally, keep using the tool if it has positive effects, which outweigh the negative.
In other words, Newport notes, the question isn’t whether social media provides some benefits. It’s about whether it offers enough benefits. For a college freshman who’s trying to meet new people, it might. It also might offer enough benefits for a soldier who is overseas and wants to keep in touch with loved ones. But it might not for a writer or scientist.
Basically, it isn’t that social media — or the internet — is terrible. Rather, Newport’s approach reminds us that learning and doing deep work are powerful. Intense concentration is vital.
It reminds us that we are the decision-makers. You might decide that using social media and responding to email right away are both key to your profession (maybe you’re a publicist or an agent). Or you might decide that they only take away from your priorities and values. The great thing is that it’s up to you.
What I like about Newport’s approach is that we can use it for other things, too. It can help us evaluate potential projects and commitments. For instance, this can help you figure out if you’d like to say yes to giving a talk at a conference. It can help you figure out if you’d like to write a book.
Essentially, such an approach helps us determine how we’d like to spend our days. Because our time, attention and energy are limited resources. It’s important for us to use them on what matters most.
Writer at work photo available from Shutterstock