Deep Work and Mindfulness

It seems that everything I read is telling me we all need to be more present, more focused, less distracted.

Over the past five years,  I’ve read Jon Kabat-Zin,  Mark Williams, Les Fehmi and pretty much everyone else under the sun to help me deal with constant and persistent work and life stresses. Bottom line: be in the moment, appreciate the gifts of boredom, avoid distractions whenever possible, and meditate every day. I haven’t been able to get fully there yet and don’t actually know anyone who has, but maybe I’m travelling in the wrong circles.

Then I came across Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, which demonstrates advice that I can actually put into my daily living. Deep work is essentially mindfulness you can bring to work. The book is separated into two parts. The first, “The Idea” espouses his theory and the second “The Rules” discusses his ideas in a practical way.

We are bombarded by statements from everywhere that workers in today’s world need to be great multi-taskers, agile, swimming beautifully through constant change, etc. Work environments are now open and collaborative to help foster creativity and innovation. But what if this was all a pipe dream?

Newport’s thesis is that you can only accomplish a high level of quality work if you deeply concentrate and focus on that work for prolonged periods of time, ideally for at least four (4) hours at a time. His idea is that in dividing focused work into smaller chunks (ex. one hour) you lose precious time and effort and will never achieve the amount of quality work you would in working four (4) straight hours. He states: “Don’t take breaks from distraction. Instead take breaks from focus.”

He then moves to state that open-space offices do not increase communication,  collaboration and productivity but are actually “an absurd attack on concentration”. He lauds instead “soundproofed offices connected to large common areas” which he believes support  chance encounters and focused thinking. I agree.

Quoting Clifford Nass discussing his research on attention switching: “People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted (…) They’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

Feeling great yet?

He also discusses the overwhelming place social media takes up in many lives (both in personal and work lives) and how it destroys focus and is used to keep boredom at bay in a way that negates your capacity to focus – the more mental distractions you use, the more your mind is constantly looking for distractions. Having just finished Reclaiming Conversations by Sherry Turkle, I also see a number of links to her conclusions. Turkle studies younger adults and realizes that they cannot handle any boredom moments, and use their phones to avoid these moments at all cost. I would venture to say that adults of any age are in the same situation.

Newport is an academic and his work experience is not necessarily something that is scalable to other work environments, especially when he goes into his idea that you should only do “deep” work and never “shallow” work and that your boss will understand this or you’ll move to another job. As well, I see very few workers benefiting from his suggestion to use an automatic email reply that essentially states: “I will only respond if I see an inherent benefit in doing so”.

I also question the long term effects of his only do the work that is the deepest, foregoing any unnecessary meetings and tasks on his work relationships. Relationship building involves some give and take and also favour exchanges (ex. would you mind reviewing this for me, could you attend this meeting for me, etc.) for longer term benefits. What happens then if everyone is busy doing deep work that only benefits themselves?

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed this book and would wholeheartedly encourage you to reading it, if only to start overdue discussions on the state of work environments and how things could improve.

What are your thoughts?

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