Contributor: Ali Ahmed
Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).
Cal Newport, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, and the author most recently of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, a book which argues that focus is the new I.Q. in the modern workplace, and So Good They Can’t Ignore You, a book which debunks the long-held belief that “follow your passion” is good advice. He spoke with Stew Friedman about the importance of emphasizing deep vs. shallow tasks.
Excerpts below. Full podcast.
Stewart Friedman: Distraction is a huge topic on this show. We’ve had many guests talking about distraction — Catherine Steiner-Adair, Jenny Radesky, Ned Hallowell, Bridget Schulte, Maggie Jackson — and others who have talked about the problem of distraction in the digital age, and how much it is causing all kinds of health problems and productivity issues. What you’ve done is flip the question and look for ways that we can find focus, deep focus to be able to pay attention to the people and projects that need us, and that require full attention when they need us. Give us a brief overview. What is it that you have discovered? What is this thing that you call deep work?
Cal Newport: The point you just made is a great one. It’s that we spend so much time worrying about distraction and it’s an ambiguous worry because these things that distract us also have benefits. It’s confusing and what are we supposed to do about it? We don’t spend enough time talking about what’s so good about its opposite. And that’s what I call deep work, when you focus without distraction for a significant amount of time on a cognitively demanding task. And the simple summary is that this tool, deep work, is incredibly valuable, but almost no individuals and no organizations are actually focusing on it. I think that this is a great opportunity if you’re one of the few who actually focuses on building their ability to apply deep work. So, if you prioritize focusing without distraction for significant amount of time on cognitively demanding task being at the core of your workplace or the core of your organization, I think there’s huge advantage to be gained.
SF: Competitive advantage is what you’re getting at.
CN: Yes, this is an economic opportunity. It’s something that’s becoming more valuable, this skill, at exactly the more time it’s becoming more rare.
SF: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t need to develop this skill. In my work here people complain about this all the time. They’ve tried various methods, some quite successful and some probably consistent with what it is you’ve discovered in the four rules for how to make deep work happen, which I want to get to in just a minute. But before we do, let me just ask you to clarify. When you say a significant amount of time, can you quantify that, please?
CN: It’s got to be more than an hour, and probably at least 90 minutes before you’re getting the full benefits of depth.
SF: Alright, so that means doing one thing for at least 90 minutes?
CN: Yeah, that’s right one cognitively demanding task. And I have a zero-tolerance policy for distraction. It doesn’t work, even if you just quickly glance at your inbox every once in a while. Even that glance is really going to impair the amount of work and quality of the work you are able to produce.
SF: Right, because we know, and we talked a lot about this on the show, that there is no such thing as multi-tasking. When you switch, there’s a cost to switching from one task to the other.
CN: Yes, and it’s important because we have shifted on from the behavior we had from the late 90’s when people literally tried to multi-task, where they would actually have multiple windows open at the same time. We’ve moved on from that. So, now people will single task, but switch quite a bit. You’re working on something hard, and maybe you take a glance at your inbox, and you think, “I’m doing a good job, I don’t have it open, I don’t have notifications on, so I’m doing the right thing”. But actually, research makes it clear that that’s not the case. It’s exactly what you said about switching. Even a quick glance at something like an email inbox leaves a cognitive residue, which could actually create a relatively significant cognitive impairment for quite a long time to follow. So, really the worst thing you can do, if you’re trying to use your mind at its maximum limit, would be what almost everyone does, which is let me just take a quick glance at the phone, or the web, or my email every ten to fifteen minutes. That’s like working with a significant cognitive handicap.
SF: Because there’s a residue of what it is you are switching over to look at that requires you to process it so that you can start up again when you switch over to the task you were working on or the new one you were just checking out very briefly.
CN: Yes, the actual term that comes out from the studies is ‘cognitive residue’. That’s what they actually call it.
SF: Yes, I chose that term intentionally. I have read some of that research. It’s a great term too because it really helps you to see or envision the idea that it’s sticky when you go from one thing to the other there’s no on-off switch. There’s something there that resides that you have to deal with even though you are not necessarily conscious of it. So, better not to even get a little peek of what’s coming up on your email screen.
CN: In some sense that can be worse because to see an email that’s important and you know you have to answer, but you don’t have time to do it then, that’s really going to leave a residue. So, even the very quickest of glances can actually be the worst because your mind says, “wait a second, I just fell upon something that I’m going to have to do. I have got to pay attention to this.” You can try to bring attention back to that really hard memo you were writing or computer code you were writing but now you are thinking about this new information, too.
SF: I’m very curious about what you’ve learned about deep work. Let’s just jump to that, and then we’ll get back to how you got to this, especially how you got to it as a professional computer scientist. What’s a computer scientist doing thinking about psychology anyway? First, tell us Cal, what are the guidelines that you’ve developed from your research about how to create deep work in your life?
CN: I broke it down into four guidelines. So, the first I call the rule work deeply, and at a high level, what this means is you have to be relatively aggressive about protecting time for deep work, having rituals and routines that surround your deep work to make it as effective as possible. The second rule is to embrace boredom, which captures a point I think is important, that deep work is a very hard skill to get good at. We all assume we know how to focus, and it’s just a matter of finding time. But actually it’s a skill that requires practice. And if you want to be serious about using to deep work to get ahead, you’re going to have to get serious about training your ability to focus. My third rule is controversially titled, as it turns out. It’s called quit social media. If you want to be serious about your ability to really to focus and get all of the benefits that that can give you, you need to become much more selective about what you let into your attention landscape. And the final rule drain your shallows means you have to be careful about all of the non-deep work obligations on your plate. Eliminate a lot more than most people do, and be much more efficient about what remains.
SF: Sounds easy enough, Cal. Let’s dig into these. So, it’s work deeply, which means aggressively bounding time for specific tasks, embracing boredom – I have to learn a little bit more about that, quitting social media – why would anybody object to that? –, and being more disciplined about cutting non-deep work obligations. I think the last part might be the hardest one. Which do you find people struggle with the most?
CN: People think they are going to struggle with the quit social media, but as someone who has never had a social media account I can tell you that nothing bad happens, and people who do cut back figure out that that is actually the case.
SF: You’ve heard of FOMO? Do you not suffer from FOMO? Fear of missing out?
CN: I guess I miss out a lot, and I don’t realize it.
SF: So you’re blissfully ignorant.
CN: I guess so. To me it’s important to recognize that companies that provide these social media platforms have done a very good job of marketing this technology as somehow being at the cornerstone of civic life in the 21st century. But the reality is that they’re media companies that sell advertisements and hire people who are very highly trained at figuring out how to grab and distract as much of your attention as possible. Someone like a serious athlete is going to be very careful about what they eat, I think someone who is a very serious mental athlete, someone who makes a living using their mind to do skill-based labor, should at least be wary about voluntarily and regularly using services that are really meant to make them worse at that type of work.
SF: That’s a great way to put it. Very persuasive. So how do you deal with people who are addicted to social media or feel it’s necessary perhaps because of FOMO or other reasons? How do you help them? Or do you have guidelines for how to quit because that seems like a daunting task, especially for certain people in certain industries who rely on feeds and social media?
CN: There are certainly people for whom social media makes sense. What I actually presented was a new way to make that decision about whether or not you should use these different tools. My inspiration for this process might be unexpected. I talked to a farmer. And the way I thought about it was this: farmers use tools, but they have to be very selective, right? They only have so much money. They are very careful. The farmers I’ve known are very careful about tool selections. So, I sat down with a farmer and said, “Walk me through how you decide which tools you use in your life and which tools you don’t.” At the crux of the decision making process was this idea: Every tool has some benefits and wouldn’t be offered for sale if it didn’t have some benefits. I’m very careful about bringing into my professional life the tools that are going to have positive benefits that will substantially outweigh the costs. And I think that’s the same way that people should think about tools, like social media. Of course, some things you might miss, but the question is do these tools bring substantial benefits to the things you care about most that substantially outweigh the negatives upon grabbing your time and attention? And I think for some people, the answer is yes, but for many more people than we see today the answer really would be no.
SF: So, it actually pays for them to quit, and what they really need to do think through ‘is this a tool that’s helping me’?
CN: Exactly. Not only does it have any benefit, but do the benefits substantially contribute to the things I find most important in my professional and personal life?
SF: Right. Most people probably tell you, “Oh, I can’t do that,” right?
CN: Yeah, what I suggest is quit for thirty days. And after thirty days you have to ask yourself two questions. One: Was your life substantially impoverished? Would you find yourself missing out on things in your professional/personal life? And two: Did anyone else notice or care? I think part of the loop of self-regard that keeps people connected to social media is you can begin to develop this idea that I have this audience out there, and they need to hear what I have to say. So, it can be a usefully humbling experience to realize in that thirty-day experience no one noticed you weren’t sending out your insightful tweets.
SF: Part of my work is to help people try out intelligent experiments for about a month or less that are intended to make things better in the four different parts of their life: work, home, community, and the private self of mind, body, and spirit. And I call these four-way wins. And people do these experiments a lot. They look to see where indeed is the benefit in each of the different parts of their lives? In fact, I just launched my Total Leadership course here at Wharton this afternoon, and next month I’m going to have these Wharton MBA students do a digital detox for a day where they shut down all their systems and see what happens when they discover the world beyond their screens. And what I typically find is that most people feel liberated by that process. Is that what you’ve found?
CN: I have. And that’s why I was hinting before that most people think that ‘quit social media’ is going to be the hardest chapter or rule in this book, but a lot of people have the same experience you’ve seen with your students, which is that if you get a little bit of distance from this thing and you can realize how much of a hold it has had on your time, attention, energy, and sense of self. And there is a sense of liberation. Alot of people find that that ends up being one of the easier rules to put into effect. When they let go of these tools they’re not missing them. It’s not like quitting cigarettes. It’s like quitting a bad habit you never liked in the first place.
SF: All right, so that one was pretty straightforward. Let’s talk about embracing boredom. What does that take?
CN: This is where people actually have the trouble. And the underlying idea here is that the ability to really focus and get the full advantage of deep work is something that you have to train. If you haven’t trained your mind to concentrate, you’re going to have a hard time, even if you are able to clear off your schedule. You’re going to have a hard time reaching the level of concentration that allows deep work to be this tool that provides fantastic productivity. So, I argue that most people actually have to train their mind just like an athlete would train a muscle to prepare to do deep work. A big part of that training is you need to be worried about the lack of boredom in your life, and I’m talking about even outside of work.
SF: Worried about the lack of boredom? So the goal here is boredom?
CN: Exactly. The reason I’m asking you to embrace boredom is because if you live your life in such a way that at the slightest hint of boredom – that is, the slightest lack of novel stimuli – you whip out a phone and immediately start looking at something that’s a little bit more entertaining. If that’s how you live your life, you’re basically weakening your executive center’s ability when it comes time to focus to remain focused. So, actually embrace boredom to re-teach your mind that it’s ok to not have novel stimuli, to have it be used to the state without novel stimuli. So that when it’s time to sit down and work deeply, you’re going to be much better at it.
SF: Interesting. So you have to condition your mind so that you’re kind of at rest. Is that it?
CN: Well, the way I think about it is you have analogies as part of your executive center, which is like a bouncer at the nightclub of your attention. If you just let everything in there, you’re weakening the authority of that bouncer. So it’s really hard when you do want to lock those doors down to actually do it. What you do out of work has an impact on your ability to work deeply. So, people who take deep work seriously also take boredom seriously. They’re happy to have long periods of time where there’s not a lot of excitement or novel stimuli coming. They’re able to take long walks. They’ll go places without their phone. They’ll even stand in a checkout line, and just stand in the line. It might seem like, “why do we want to do it?” But actually this is like cognitive calisthenics when it comes to your ability to focus.
SF: The first rule, work deeply, means basically bounding time to be able to focus, right?
CN: Right, putting aside time. How you schedule that time is your schedule, and what you do surrounding that time to get the most out of it. All those types of factors are involved there.
SF: What have you found is the greatest challenge in being aggressive about establishing those rituals and boundaries that enable you to have that hour, hour and a half, or two hours of undistracted activity at one time?
CN: People sometimes feel guilty about protecting that time. When other opportunities come up, maybe a meeting or call, they say ‘yes’ because that seems more concrete. And they feel bad about turning that down. They feel guilty. Also, deep work is not business in a publically visible manner. If you take the phone call, if you go to a meeting, people seeing you doing it. You’re doing work. You are like, “look I’m doing work. I’m busy.” Deep work is a very private, solo endeavor. You sort of don’t get immediate credit for it, but I think it’s important to emphasize that we have this backwards. So, as we’re in this age of increasing automation and outsourcing, the jobs that survive, the jobs that are going to remain, become increasingly complicated and increasingly cognitively demanding. That’s where the pressures are in the job world. But we often get this backwards. When we think about the stuff that we can actually do to think really hard, to put our skills at their highest level, to apply it at work, to work deeply, the stuff that we can do and that’s valuable we see that as something that might be nice, but not for now. And we define real work to be all the other stuff we do, which is mainly talking about work. We spend all of our time sending emails and going to meetings and hopping on calls and preparing powerpoints together, and we really have that backwards. Today it’s the deep work that matters. It’s the deep work that creates massive amounts of value that can’t be automated, can’t be outsourced. And yet, we spend by far the vast majority of our time – and I mean the average knowledge worker – on these shallow tasks that would be easily replicated. We act like human network routers instead of actually sitting there and doing the deep thinking that’s our one competitive advantage. So, people do have a hard time protecting this time and saying no to the other things, but I think we have that completely backwards.
SF: How do you get over that because the pressures are enormous to be immediately responsive to your online and your face-to-face world? People want your attention. How do you bound it and protect it?
CN: Well, there’s two cases. If you’re not in a big organization, if you don’t have a boss so that you have control over what’s in your life, then be less connected be less responsive, just push things to the side. Prioritize deep work and try to fit as much of the other stuff as you can as it fits. People who don’t have bosses sometimes over-estimate how much connectivity they need to have or how important these easy tasks are. I recently wrote an article that contrasted two popular bloggers and podcasters that were both having real trouble with the amount of email coming in through their websites. The first blogger hired a high-end executive assistant who works with him full-time just to help him keep up with the email. That was his solution. The other blogger took down his email address and said you can write me a letter if you want to contact me. And it turned out nothing bad happened when he did that. Nothing happened to his traffic. Nothing happened to his revenue. But suddenly he had massively more time available to write better content, and it was good for his business. In a lot of cases, we think we need to be really connected, we need to be doing these emails, we need to be saying yes to everything, but the reality is if we ran the type of experiments that you recommend we would realize, “wait a second, maybe 80-90% of the stuff that’s eating up my attention is nice, but not that important.”
SF: What if your manager isn’t okay with the deep work plan?
CN: Yes, so this is the other case. What I recommend here is actually you need to open a dialogue about deep work. I have this suggestion that you talk to your boss or manager about what your ideal deep to shallow ratio should be.
SF: Deep to shallow ratio – that’s a great concept.
CN: “I’m here forty hours. I measure my time very carefully. What should I be aiming for?” And you open up a conversation when you do this. But now when you have this agreement with a boss or a manager, you have a platform from which you can make stronger decisions. So, “the reason I’m going to turn down this meeting or I’m not here is because we’re way off of the ratio you said I should be meeting. I only got two hours deep work. That’s not producing value for this company. You don’t need me sending emails, you need me actually doing what I do best. So, how can we get more time?” I think the meta-point that’s important here is that there’s interesting research that says with these types of issues, once you actually open up a dialogue, a regular dialogue about these types of issues – “deep work is important to me. I’m not getting enough done.” – can uncover lots of different cultural things at your company that really aren’t that important to that the company and that the company can move past, or your group or team can get past. Once you start talking about these things, it’s actually enables changes to the culture that might’ve otherwise seemed hopelessly entrenched.
SF: Exactly. Indeed that is a part of the Total Leadership training that I do with my students in this program that I’ve been doing for almost twenty years now, and also with clients worldwide. After identifying what matters most to you, what projects and people matter most to you, you then engage in dialogue with the key people in your life about what’s important to them and what’s important to you, including the sort of terms of engagement and your expectations of responsiveness. It’s all about those conversations – stakeholder dialogues — because there are all kinds of assumptions we make about what other people need from us with respect to availability in response times. And often they are wrong.
CN: I think a good place to start is having the terminology right. Just by understanding that deep work, for example, is a specific type of effort that returns a lot of value for the company, that isolating it from other types of work is a great starting point. Because now you have a particular tool and you can say, “What do I need to do to prioritize this tool, and what’s getting in the way of using this tool?” To me it’s a productive way to go forward than to just think about the distractions in our lives and struggling with whether the good outweighs the bad.
About the Author
Ali Ahmed is an undergraduate senior majoring in Biological Basis of Behavior and minoring in Cinema Studies.