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The Downside of Deep Work

By Craig Irons

Craig IronsI just read an acclaimed new book that has led me to take stock of my work life. It’s called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.

The Downside of Deep WorkNewport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, understands what’s undermining so many knowledge workers in our hyper-connected workplaces: distraction. And it’s hard to argue with him.

In the book he compellingly documents the distracting downsides of open office plans, constant connectivity, and the modern tendency to confuse “busyness” with true productivity. The result is a workforce of knowledge workers that find it increasingly hard to focus and, most importantly, to produce highly valued work.

“Deep work” is the necessary alternative that Newport prescribes. He defines “deep work” (he coined the term) as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” Examples of deep work include holing up to concentrate on and quickly learn something new, shutting out the world to compose an article or report (or even to just think), or turning off your electronic devices to write computer code, uninterrupted, for large chunks of time.

Newport provides numerous examples of famous people past—Carl Jung, Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain—and present—J.K. Rowling, Nate Silver, Adam Grant—who benefited from engaging in deep work. But who does deep work is less important to Newport’s thesis than why it’s important.

“To remain valuable … you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things,” he writes. “If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances … [It’s] a crucial ability for anyone looking to move ahead in a globally competitive information economy that tends to chew up and spit out those who aren’t earning their keep.” Yikes.

Newport couples this warning with helpful advice about how to do more deep work. His suggestions range from sound (“schedule every minute of your day”), to aspirational (“finish your work by 5:30”), to arguably rude (“become hard to reach”). (For email, in particular, he offers specific pointers for how to keep the beast in check, though none as fun and enviable as the tactic employed by a co-worker of a friend of mine at a large financial institution. He returned from a two-week vacation, quickly took stock of his bulging inbox, and brazenly deleted all of the messages that had come in in his absence—with no consequences!)

By my reading, while Newport does acknowledge that collaboration is important and has its place, his recommendations add up to becoming a bit of a hermit and cutting off contact with other people, whether they are co-workers, family members, or friends. This includes consciously pruning, limiting, or eliminating the electronic distractions that define the modern workplace—email, instant messaging, social media—as well as avoiding a good deal of live human interaction (e.g., water cooler chitchat, low-value meetings, saying no when asked to join a team or take on any assignment or task that will take you away from your precious deep work).

This is where he loses me. While, yes, the benefits of undistracted and highly focused work are undeniable (we’ve all experienced that sense of accomplishment when we have been able to successfully shut out the world and get something important done), there is more to work and to being a valued worker than just the work itself.

Shutting down email and my web browser for long stretches of the day are smart practices, ones I’ve started employing. Same goes for booking time in a conference room for a couple hours here or there to concentrate and get some writing done.

But while Newport is obviously a brilliant guy who knows how to produce valuable work such as books and peer-reviewed journal articles, he doesn’t give the impression that he is a member of a tightly-knit team or a popular co-worker with a lot of friends at the office—telltale signs of an engaged employee. I could be wrong about this, of course, and for his sake I hope I am, but it’s the sense I get from the book.

I once had a coworker I hadn’t thought about for a long time before reading Deep Work.  She came to mind because she, in many ways, personified the approach to work that Newport advocates. She sat at her computer for hours on end, always in a deep state of concentration. Her spouse had a job with a lot of flexibility and was able to deal with the occasional sick child or repairman coming to the house; she could steer clear of these nuisance distractions. She rarely engaged in much more than cursory conversation with anyone. The boss loved her because she was highly productive and focused, but she wasn’t particularly popular with the rest of us.

What made me think of her while reading Newport’s book wasn’t her capacity for deep work or the fact that her approach to work didn’t much endear her to others. No, what I remember most about her was that it seemed she would have been just as happy deeply doing her job anywhere. And in time, that’s exactly what she decided, too. She left for a job at another company. She did deep work, but in the end it turned out that she wasn’t really all that engaged. That’s an important distinction.

At the same time that Newport is advocating deep work, others are extolling important skills or traits that have nothing to do with locking yourself in your office or becoming hard to reach, but which have everything to do with better human interactions: emotional intelligence and empathy.

In his 2015 book Humans Are Underrated, FORTUNE magazine senior editor Geoff Colvin tells the story of a newly hired senior IT professional at a major U.S. airline. When an HR executive asked how the job was going after a few days in the position, he took the opportunity to vent.

“People here are strange," he replied. "They want to talk to me in the hallway! They ask how my day has been, and they really want to know! And I just want to go back to my cube and work.”

He was fired shortly afterward.

So, which is more important? The ability to get a lot of hard, mentally taxing work done or the ability to build and maintain relationships with others? The answer, it seems to me, is both. Or rather, it’s about attaining the right balance.

Work deeply when you must but never lose sight of the fact that we also have to work hard at working well with others. Work relationships, like all relationships, require their own form of effort, singular focus, and capability (that’s what DDI’s Interaction EssentialsSM are all about).

It’s this balance that will make not just your work valuable, but make YOU valuable—to your company and to other people.

That is something I deeply believe.

Craig Irons loves to tell stories and is managing editor of DDI’s GO Magazine and Newsletter.

Posted: 06 May, 2016,
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