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Doing ‘deep work’ means ditching distractions

Looking for a quote that captures the paradoxical nature of work in 2017? I’ve got one for you:

“We’re so busy doing our jobs,” writes Seth Godin, “that we can’t get any work done.”

By “work,” he’s talking about really important work — stuff that makes a lasting impact on our careers, clients, and organizations. Publishing original research, for instance, or writing impactful articles or books, or forging strategic relationships, or mapping out new strategies and business models that will set our organizations and our clients apart from the competition.

Deep work, in other words.

That’s the focus of Cal Newport’s important new book, Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World. The book’s key point is this: We’re so distracted by e-mail, and social media, and insidious, non-stop online notifications that we can’t focus on anything truly important and impactful.

Deep work is focused, meaningful work. It’s also hard work. It requires concentration, discipline, and time to think and reason. Want to know what’s easier? Checking and responding to e-mail. Posting stuff to Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. Answering each of the dozens of Slack messages you receive each day, the moment you receive it.

We fool ourselves into thinking that this busy-ness — this tyranny of the urgent — is real work. It’s not. It feels important because we spend so much time doing it. But it’s nothing more than corporate junk food that keeps us from doing the stuff that will truly make a difference.

Sure, there’s an appropriate time for the busy work that e-mail and social media demand. But that time is not all the time, and that’s exactly what too many of us are giving it. Doing “deep work” means being disciplined about turn off the screens, putting down the phones, and concentrating on work that will truly make a difference.

“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task,” Newport writes. “It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship.”

And yet too many of us believe we are effective multitaskers — that we can do busy work and deep work at the same time. We can’t. Multitasking is a myth.

“Recent neuroscience research tells us that the brain doesn’t do tasks simultaneously,” Nancy Napier writes in Psychology Today. “In fact, we just switch tasks quickly. Each time we move from hearing music to writing a text or talking to someone, there is a stop / start process that goes on in the brain. That start / stop / start process is rough on us: Rather than saving time, it costs time, it’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time it can be energy sapping.”

“People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy,” Stanford communications professor Clifford Nass said in a 2010 interview with NPR. “They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. … They’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

Our only hope of doing deep work is to set aside time that’s free from distraction — time that will let us focus solely on the task at hand. We don’t need to ignore e-mail and social media — we simply have to put them in their place.

Their place isn’t when we’re trying to do meaningful, impactful work.

Truth be told, it’s not when we’re trying to do any work at all.

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