Write more by working deep like Cal Newport

deep work image

At the time of writing, the top two trending articles on Buzzfeed are: ‘15 Struggles You’ll Only Understand If You’re Obsessed With Cereal’ and ‘The 15 Emotional Stages of Mobile Phone Ownership’. It’s safe to say that Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, hasn’t read either.

Absent from both Twitter and Facebook, Newport claims to use email sparingly and says he only bought a smart phone in 2012 at the insistence of his heavily pregnant wife who thought it might be handy if they could reach each other.

In short, he’s not an easy man to disturb. And that’s exactly how he likes it.

Shun the shallows

Newport’s book is a manifesto for anyone involved in ‘knowledge work’ (yes creative types that means you) to ditch shallow and ultimately unproductive ways of working and  focus.

His book extols the benefits of ‘deep work’ and by that he means working with intensity on difficult things over concentrated periods of time.

The book also spells out the dangers of living a fragmented life ‘in the shallows’ – constantly distracted by pointless meetings, email chit chat or in general, by modern life’s listical-infused social media babble.

Newport wants you to push your grey matter to the max and believes that doing so makes you highly productive, makes your skills more valuable and ultimately, makes you a happier person.

Peak performance

It’s only by working deeply believes Newport, that people can produce at what he calls an ‘elite level’. Something he knows a thing or two about.

Over the past ten years, Newport has published four best-selling books (Deep Work is number five) authored tens of research papers and become a tenured professor at an Ivy League university. Newport is 34.

Whilst you might think this could make him a contender for the least thrilling person to have at your party, he assures us that it’s precisely because of his deep work focus that he rarely works beyond 5pm, has a fulfilling family life and plenty of friends. Although not on Facebook.

‘Tiny, mean rooms’

Whilst Newport doesn’t focus on writers and creatives (he thinks anyone can benefit from deep diving rather than surface skimming) writers and artists do repeatedly crop up as a breed of folk who routinely pull up the drawbridge when they need to focus.

And that much is true. Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals tells countless tales of authors who need their bolt holes to write and concentrate.

There’s Roald Dahl who famously wrote in solitude down the bottom of his garden in a shed. There’s also Maya Angelou who put her ability to concentrate in daily six-hour stretches down to the fact that she rented “tiny, mean rooms” to work in where there was nothing to distract her.

Newport writes about the rather grander surroundings author JK Rowling chose to complete the finale to her Harry Potter series. Sick of interruptions, Rowling checked out of Twitter, email – and her own house – and took a suite in Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel until she’d nailed The Deathly Hallows.

Good to great

More generally though, Newport believes that being able to concentrate on something complicated over long periods of time – without giving up – isn’t just important to productivity but to our long term skill development.

Newport calls the ability to engage in deep work a ‘rare skill’ and one that’s getting rarer. And it’s a skill that creatives need too.

For Newport, the sheer amount of creative stuff out there means that the ability to focus on hard things over long periods of time improves your chances of making something that’s not just good – but great.

To succeed as a writer, artist, designer or singer nowadays, Newport thinks you have to produce the absolute best material you can. And to do that you need to go deep – and avoid the shallows like the plague.

Distraction costs

But how harmful can the shallows really be? Isn’t it just a bit of fun to be occasionally side tracked by the out of focus holiday snaps of your Facebook pal?

It’s possible Newport realises his advice could be seen as being rather po-faced – even intellectually snobbish – so that’s why he takes great pains to say how damaging he thinks a work life spent in the shallows can be.

In short, it’s really good for us to spend long periods of time working out really tough things. It benefits us when we learn and master new skills – and it helps us flourish.

It’s really bad for us when we jump from one thing to next, aren’t able to concentrate and get constantly pulled away from tasks. This damages us and can cause long-term psychological and emotional damage.

We’ve written before about the work of Paul Dolan at The London School of Economics who talks about the consequences of switching costs – the idea that our concentration is finite and we deplete and damage it every time we flit between that meeting, that Tweet and that Facebook post.

Newport writes about a similar theory from Sophie Leroy from Minnesota University who writes about ‘attention residue’. She finds that every time you attend towards a new thing a ‘residue’ of your attention remains with the old thing – meaning your attention and concentration gets divided and weakened.

He also cites work by scientist Winifred Gallagher who in her book Rapt extols the emotional benefits of remaining focused one thing for long periods of time and the well known study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who finds a clear link between wellbeing and the amount of time we spend engaging in activities which give us flow – a feeling of complete absorption in a task.

Deep routines

But of course, ‘going deep’ is easier said than done. Most of us need to fit in creative work around other things and there’s not many who can decamp to a five star hotel to escape the window cleaner dropping round.

Newport studied many prolific creators for Deep Work and concludes that the most effective workers aren’t people who necessarily shun the modern world or live in exile. Rather, they’re people who excel at one thing – scheduling. Something we’ve banged on about before.

He found that people who produce at an ‘elite level’ are just damn good at dividing their lives into periods of intense work followed by – something else.

Newport takes the example of fellow academic Adam Grant, a multi award-winning New York Times best selling author and one of the most prolific academics in his field (or indeed in any other) in the world. His secret? He batches.

Like many other highly productive people, Grant doesn’t achieve his levels of productivity through living a monastic life – he writes, he teaches, promotes his books, he’s even on Twitter.

Don’t fight distraction – organise

Grant doesn’t fight the desire to be distracted, instead he ruthlessly divides up his time. When he’s teaching he’s teaching and his door’s always open. But when he’s in a writing phase – don’t even try to make contact.

Newport doesn’t claim that deep work is easy but what he does claim is that we have a choice – and that’s what makes Deep Work a liberating read.

Super productive writers and creatives aren’t able to fight ‘ooh shiny!’ moments of distraction because they have special powers of concentration – they’re just like everyone else.

Instead, like Angelou in her sparse motel room or Dahl in his garden shed – they remove the potential for distractions to occur.

They go to the same place every day to work and they use routines and rituals as a means to keep them focused.

They’re productive because they go deep and they’re able to go deep because they’ve deliberately organised their lives to do just that.

About the author: Co-founder and writer in residence at Prolifiko | Ex-philosophy lecturer | maker of unpopular short comedy films.