In the 1970s, the Bee Gee’s harmoniously asked “how deep is your love?” Well, fast forward about four decades, and there’s another depth-related question that is on many peoples’ minds, but this time it’s not about wild passion: it’s about work performance.
“How deep is your work?” is the question that author Cal Newport tackles in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. As the title suggests, Newman attempts to throw a lifeline to workers in all roles and fields who experience ADHD; not as a personal condition, but as an organizational norm.
Indeed, whether it’s an endless stream of emails that drip forth one PING at a time (remember when you first got your smartphone and actually liked that sound?), being “invited” to yet another pointless status meeting or anything else that impedes rather than enhances focus and flow, many of today’s workers are under siege from a distraction monster that never slows down or takes a break. Like that scary spider from Lord of the Rings, it always needs to feed.
Fortunately Newman lays out some rules that create more opportunities for deep work to take root:
- Establish habits, routines and rituals that enable deep work. Some of these are external, such as choosing to work on some tasks in a quiet and concentration-friendly space like a conference room. Others are internal, like using willpower to turn off the internet during a deep work session.
- Exploit rather than avoid idleness by strategically carving out periods of downtime throughout the day. This recharges physical, intellectual and emotional batteries, and can trigger valuable insights or even breakthroughs.
- Ban social media. Yes, you read that right, and the horror you’re feeling is a symptom that it’s past time to step calmly and slowly away from the keyboard or keypad. Of course, the idea isn’t to eliminate social media altogether. Rather, it’s to recognize that social media is all about chasing emergent activity streams. Sometimes that’s worthwhile, or simply fun. But it’s antithetical to deep work. Can you imagine if during his entranced pondering over the Theory of Relativity, Einstein was interrupted because someone he hardly knew wanted to send a picture of their lunch?
- Reduce superficial work that takes too much time, and isn’t worth the effort or opportunity cost (Newton calls this “draining the shallows”). Using intelligent project management software that automatically puts communication in-context—so team members instantly see what’s important and what isn’t—helps keep these inconsequential tasks from taking over; especially since they tend to erupt from out of nowhere, and somehow seem to KNOW when you’re about to dive deep into work. They’re like angry bees that know they’ve got you on the run.
Discovering Your Flow
Whether it’s called deep work, getting into the zone, finding flow or anything else, the fact is that concentration is a rare and precious commodity on today’s work landscape. No, that doesn’t mean enterprises should replace the foosball tables in the staff lounge with sensory deprivation tanks. Nor does it mean that the clicks, clacks and PINGs that sound throughout the work environment should be replaced by library, hospital and museum-grade SHHHHHHHHHHing. Distractions exist. And sometimes, they aren’t harmful, either.
But in the bigger picture, enterprises need to invest in technology and create conditions in their environment where deep work isn’t the uncommon exception. It has to be a reliable go-to place mentally, physically or both, when workers need to focus on a cognitively demanding task, perform at their best and help their teams succeed.