Go Deep or Go Home


Distractions have been around since the beginning of time. No matter what period of history you lived in, there was always the temptation to do something other than work. You didn’t have to live in a super connected high tech world to find chatting with your neighbor, daydreaming, or taking a nap more appealing in the moment than completing the task. However, it does seem that all those amazing sources of information at your fingertips and all your social media connections ready to converse have taken distractions to a new level.

Some observers and researchers suggest we are rewiring our brains as those distractions are now becoming the way we work and play. Unfortunately, they are not proclaiming this as positive development in productivity. Some are sounding the alarm that we are quickly losing our ability to give sustained attention to problems that truly require us to think.

Cal Newport in Deep Work argues that success in the future requires you to either master hard things quickly or produce at an elite level. Both depend on your ability to continue to learn and deliver. This kind of learning and production cannot be done without longer periods of concentration and effort. If your brain needs to be diverted every 15 minutes to check twitter or your Facebook feed, you are unlikely to get beyond the general awareness stage of most significant challenges. The good news according to Newport is if you are able to do “deep work,” it creates a competitive advantage because fewer and fewer people still have the capability. Perhaps more importantly, he argues that deep work is the most meaningful kind of work. It enables you to experience a greater sense of satisfaction as you challenge yourself to discover your limits and contribute at a higher level.

Newport lays out some rules that apparently have enabled him to enjoy a high level of productivity while finishing his workday at 5:30 and limiting work on the weekends. It probably helps that he has the intellectual capacity to have earned a PhD from MIT. His recommendations are largely common sense and parallel what is preached elsewhere. Encouragements to focus on what is important, keep score, develop accountability and take time to recharge are foundational time management principles.

In terms of actionable items, Newport strongly suggests quitting social media. He encourages us not to fall for the trap that just because a social media tool provides us any benefit, we should use it. Too often, we readily add one more tool without considering all the negatives that come with that limited benefit. Without intentionality, our leisure time, instead of providing a form of deep rest and renewal, is consumed with shallow activities that add very little value.

Other actionable items focus on carefully scheduling your time and protecting that schedule in the way you communicate and accept work offers. Newport tries hard not to present his rules as offering the kind of rigidness only an obsessive disciplinarian could love. He recognizes that scheduling is a continuous process that allows him to update throughout the day to reflect unexpected interruptions and opportunities and the possibility for more deep thinking time.

As a college professor, Newport’s rules certainly make a lot of sense for him. A good portion of his measurements of work success relate to producing research papers that require deep thinking. However, he also does not appear to directly lead many people, if any. So we have to ask, “how does a leader whose focus is on developing and stewarding the talents and efforts of each team member best apply these principles?” Leaders often struggle with the balance between being accessible and leading from the front and finding time for deep reflection and study. A calendar full of meetings often creates wonderful opportunities for input and information gathering but little time for processing.

Whether you see facebook or twitter as an addiction to overcome or a comfortable way to spend your leisure time staying connected and informed is less the issue. Understanding how you best tackle challenges that require deep thinking is what matters. Not every leader’s approach will mirror Newport’s but every leader needs to discover what works best. When leaders lack that understanding they will not only fall victim to the temptations of distractions but will miss the most important opportunities to lead.