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Find Meaning in ‘Deep Work’

The older I get, the faster the day goes by, or so it seems.  I don’t know how it is possible but I think I also get busier every year.  A master at multi-tasking I think I have finally reached my limit, and recently have been forced to re-evaluate how I do things. Recent research provides ample evidence that rather than increasing our productivity, multi-tasking actually wastes time.  My hard-core multi-tasking self is finally starting to believe this, but changing my ways is proving harder than I would have ever believed. Recently, this has made me wonder if my multi-tasking habits, cloaked in good intentions of responding to a myriad of demands in my personal and professional life, has evolved into a form of procrastination.  Like an artist sitting down to a blank canvas, inspiration for any project requires focus.

Yesterday, while unloading the dishwasher, a  mundane task that is well-suited to multi-tasking, I clicked on my favorite podcast, Hidden Brain, with host Shankar Vedantam.  “A conversation about life’s unseen patterns,” is the tagline for the podcast, and that is exactly why I am drawn to it. By examining unseen patterns in our daily habits we grasp the opportunity to reinvent ourselves. 

Scrolling through the titles, it took me about two seconds to choose which episode I wanted to listen to: The Value Of ‘Deep Work’ In An Age Of Distraction.  Vedantam’s guest, Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, speaks to the multi-tasking issue I have been grappling with. He claims that as a culture we have lost the ability to immerse ourselves in “meaningful work.”

Meaningful work is a phrase that can be interpreted in many different ways.  The first time I heard it, my heart leapt with,‘Yes! I want my work to be meaningful!’ Then I began to question whether only the financially and intellectually elite can produce meaningful work.  Can unloading the dishwasher be meaningful? How about weeding your garden? Taking out the compost, answering emails, making sure your children do their chores, etc? Can processing vegetables for a small farm business be meaningful? How about stocking shelves at the local grocery, waiting tables at a diner, working in an assembly line or teaching preschool? What defines the parameters of meaningful work?

Let’s take a look at what keeps us distracted from meaningful work and the feelings that distraction produces.

Email and social media top my personal list of distractions from settling into my ‘real’ work.  I am not sure if I spend more time distracted by those things than I do by mundane tasks like making dinner, doing laundry or feeding my children, but my psyche feels a clear distinction between the two types of distraction: the one group connects my brain to a device, the other feels more meaningful and essential.

Recently, while waiting at the Honda dealership, thanks to a wire-chewing mouse, I decided to attack my email inbox.  Two and a half hours later, phew! I had answered only ten days of backed up emails, in only one of my four accounts.  

Newport addresses the priority status we have given to email. 

He uses the term “knowledge work positions” to define the type of work that calls for undistracted attention called deep work.  He says further, that in our society, deep work is almost unknown. Instead, every five minutes we interrupt ourselves and do a “just-check.” That is when we convince ourselves that we are still single tasking, “just” checking our inbox or other social media accounts.

He says we pay an imperceptible price every time we switch our focus off our main task.

This adds up over time with a very significant impact on both our productivity and our sense of satisfaction.  He says it is the switch itself, more than the time spent on the distraction, that is the problem.  

In other words, changing gears from one task to another puts a strain on our creativity, inspiration, and of course our focus. 

“If your brain is how you make your living, then you will really have to worry about cognitive fitness,” says Newport. Taking care of your brain fitness prepares you to achieve a higher level of performance.

Email and other digital communication methods, while convenient, have become an expensive use of brilliant minds, that might otherwise be productive in a more valuable way. 

The financial cost of the amount of time people spend on email was examined by Tom Cochran of Atlantic Media. He calculated that each individual email was about 95 cents of labor costs, with an annual expense for his company equivalent to the purchase of a Learjet.  

While very few of us have answering emails as part of our job descriptions, most of us do it…a lot.

How do we escape the necessity of email? Newport claims that nobody ever made a fortune by sending and receiving emails (I know some social media experts that would disagree) yet we have adopted a modern system of communication that ends up acting more like a time sink than an effective method for accessing the heart of our brain power. 

Communication channels and expectations must be re-negotiated and configured differently to make time for deep work. If hiring a person to pick up your slack isn’t feasible, as is the case for most of us, space can still be created but only through effort and mindful planning of how to manage our list of distractions.

Focusing too much energy on responsiveness builds a sort of co-dependent relationship with those who expect to hear from you right away.  Newport explains that consistently prioritizing convenience costs us in effectiveness, and maybe in happiness too. 

“The human brain has become one of the main capital resources in our economy,” he says. Many of us our use our brains to produce value, even if we are not winning Nobel or Pulitzer prizes. Distraction not only prevents us from our best productivity, but also leaves us with a sense of dissatisfaction and frustration.

Deep work, he says, is truly fulfilling. Joy in one’s work actually depends on this ability to avoid these distractions and so utilize our brains in a way that feels meaningful to us. 

Deep work is a skill which requires training and systematic practice and Newport has several recommendations for those wanting to make changes in their daily structure: 

  1. Do not let your mood dictate what you are going to do each day.  Instead develop a disciplined schedule.
  2. Beware of social media accounts; they may be less profitable than you think. 
  3. Get comfortable ignoring requests for attention and re-negotiate how you communicate with others. 
  4. Block out time on your calendar for deep work. Maybe it’s only a few hours a week. Keep a tally, so that you can keep track of whether you are avoiding deep work. 

To perform deep work, he argues, is to be truly human, and brings unique ideas into play in a way that distractions cannot. By disciplining your time you actually set the stage to become less robotic and more human. Scheduling yourself, even hyper-scheduling yourself actually helps you gain a sense of freedom.

“Adding structure and control to your time really can be the key to getting the biggest insights and most interesting work produced.”  Cal Newport

While many ideas can come upon us during off-work activities, in the shower or driving our car, for example, it is the disciplined practice of deep work that develops the likelihood that a we will be able to manifest something useful from our ideas. 

Many of us have a deep longing to make a difference, to contribute in a meaningful way to society. Unrest, feelings of overwhelm, anxiety and longing arise as signals that distractions are dominating the scene. Meaningful work, accessed by creating space for it, satisfies the drive for life purpose, lasting contribution, and brings a sense of reward and joy to our work. 

I kept a running tally of my distractions while writing this post, some I gave into without thinking, some demanded my complete attention, and others I managed to observe only.  The count was over a dozen, from thinking about clipping my nails to actually feeding my daughter lunch. Even though keeping track was in itself a distraction, it feels like a way to create an awareness of how my psyche operates when I try to focus. I am excited to practice this, and make some lasting changes to how I approach my work.  

What keeps you from your best work? Does the idea of creating space for deep work seem impossible? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, as I have a long way to go to master this skill.

Listen to the Deep Work podcast on Hidden Brain.


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