Deep Work ICM501

The Pursuit of Deep Work

I spent numerous nights in the art building as a college student. The building would be practically empty except for a few other students, and I’d play my favorite music (usually featuring Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire, and/or The Decemberists) while working through the night. Whether in the darkroom, screen printing studio, or design lab, I was able to maintain a deep state of focus for hours on end. I built an intimate relationship with my work—one filled with curiosity, judge-free exploration, and constant learning. 

These days, my work feels more constrained and fragmented. My ability to learn and retain new information is harder. My eyes and attention are no longer focused solely on my work but rather distracted by social media, text messages, emails, and an endlessly wandering mind. I’ve been reflecting on those college nights a lot lately; and recognizing how much I learned and created during those highly focused, distraction-free sessions. Now I’m on a mission to re-learn how to do what I once naturally did—focus intensely and intentionally on my work for extended periods of time. 

“To learn requires intense concentration”

Cal Newport, Deep Work

This is where the book Deep Work by Cal Newport comes in to play. Although I have only begun reading the first chapter, his message already feels like it is speaking directly to me. Deep Work is defined 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.”[1] By giving our brains the space to focus completely and intentionally on one thing, we not only learn and retain more, but we also spend our time more wisely and fruitfully. Deep work does not mean more work. Deep work means making the most of the time we are already investing by giving it our full attention. 

Beyond self-fulfillment, why does deep work matter? Simply put, because it is required to succeed in our new economy. The continuous advancement of technology over the decades has shown that more jobs can be automated—this means more jobs are becoming obsolete for humans.[2] Furthermore, the talent pool for companies is no longer limited to those within their own city limits. With remote work becoming increasingly possible and popular, companies can now choose to hire individuals from anywhere in the world. Our skills are now in a constant state of competition with the best of the best on a global scale. In this new economy, there are two capabilities that can help us achieve success and increase our value. These skills are at the core of deep work:

  1. “The ability to quickly master hard things.”[3]
  2. “The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.”[4]

Because we live in a hyper-distracted world, these two abilities are nearly impossible for most people to obtain—we have lost the attention span and discipline to do so easily. As Cal Newport states “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.”[5]  

“To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing—a task that requires depth.”

Cal Newport, Deep Work

Although rare and difficult, achieving these abilities through deep work is not impossible. I intend to practice deep work deliberately in my own life and am excited to see the outcome. I’ll be updating you as I progress through the book and implement its guidance. I hope to not only add value to my skills, but also regain that same sense of self-fulfillment I felt during those late nights working in the art building.

[1]  Newport, C. (2016). Introduction. In Deep Work. London: Piatkus.

[2]  Newport, C. (2016). Ch 1. In Deep Work. London: Piatkus.

[3]  Newport, C. (2016). Ch. 1. In Deep Work. London: Piatkus.

[4]  Newport, C. (2016). Ch. 1. In Deep Work. London: Piatkus.

[5]  Newport, C. (2016). Ch. 1. In Deep Work. London: Piatkus.

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