Adapted from a post in Smarter Living on the New York Times on 14 January 2019
Deep work is the activity of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It describes, in other words, when you’re really locked into doing something hard with your mind.
In order for a session to count as deep work there must be zero distractions. Even a quick glance at your phone or email inbox can significantly reduce your performance due to the cost of context switching.
Every time you switch your attention from one target to another and then back again, there’s a cost. This switching creates an effect that psychologists call attention residue, which can reduce your cognitive capacity for a non-trivial amount of time before it clears. If you constantly make “quick checks” of various devices and inboxes, you essentially keep yourself in a state of persistent attention residue, which is a terrible idea if you’re someone who uses your brain to make a living.
Two rules for “Deep Work:”
- Don’t get distracted by the internet and social media. People need to be way more intentional and selective about what apps and services they allow into their digital lives.
- Drain the shallows. “Shallow work” is anything that doesn’t require uninterrupted concentration. This includes, for example, most administrative tasks like answering email or scheduling meetings.
If you allow your schedule to become dominated by shallow work, you’ll never find time to do the deep efforts that really move the needle. It’s really important to aggressively minimize optional shallow work and then be very organized and productive about how you execute what remains.
It’s not that shallow work is bad, but that its opposite, deep work, is so valuable that you have to do everything you can to make room for it. Instead of focusing too much on what’s bad about distractions, it’s important to step back and remember what’s so valuable about its opposite. Concentration is like a super power in most knowledge work pursuits. If you take the time to cultivate this power, you’ll never look back.