The ability to deeply concentrate and sink your teeth into a task is more valuable than ever, and yet, our attention has never been more scattered at work. Slack, email, and social media beg for our attention, and a lot of the time, it’s the path of least resistance to give in to the urge to check Reddit. There is a better way to work. The antidote to the scattering of our attention and lack of using our mind’s full potential is deep work.
Deep work is a term coined by Cal Newport in his book of the same name, Deep Work. In the book, Deep work is defined as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”. Newport goes as far as to call it the superpower of the 21st century. Deep work is an unintuitive state many of us struggle to achieve without discipline. Shallow work, on the other hand, is low effort communication and producing output that is easily replicated. Shallow work is able to be accomplished while distracted and it rarely produces much value.
Deep work is crucial to producing non-trivial knowledge work. Deep work is how, as a software developer, I produce the most valuable work I am capable of and improve my craft quickly and efficiently.
The ability to work deeply can be improved by intensely focusing on a single task without distractions. While simple in theory, the urge to switch tasks when hitting a mental roadblock can be overwhelming. The key is persistence and discipline. I find blocking time to work deeply on a problem to be the most effective method. Within this block of time, I’m not allowed to reach for my phone or resources irrelevant to the task at hand. All my neurons are focused like a laser beam on a single task.
In Deep Work, Newport highlights multiple examples of people that have embraced the deep life, including Theodore Roosevelt. While at Harvard, Roosevelt explained that he would spend “no more than a quarter of the typical day studying,”. According to Newport, his study time “didn’t usually add up to a large number of total hours, but he would get the most out of them by working only on schoolwork during those periods, and doing so with a blistering intensity.” Despite spending significantly less time on his classwork than his fellow students, he still managed to achieve honors in five of his seven first-year classes.
Working Deeply in an Open Office
It can be difficult to reach deep work concentration levels in an open office environment - headphones can only do so much. However, much of the distraction developers face day-to-day is digital and not physical. Part of this is related to FOMO at work. Signing out of Slack can seem as though you’re wasting time, and being unavailable can be detrimental to your image as a team member. In order to achieve more periods of deep work, I propose blocking off hours solely for deep work and letting your team know ahead of time you won’t be available for those set amount of hours each day. By communicating with your team about what deep work is, how you use it, and what hours you will be working deeply, deep work can then be accomplished without anxiety. A question Newport suggests to ask your manager is “What is the ratio between deep and shallow work that I should be aiming for?”
Another practice to help you achieve states of deep work is to be comfortable with being bored. In an age with seemingly infinite amounts of entertainment options, the idea that you need to reduce your daily media stimulus in order to produce higher quality work can be a tough pill to swallow. However, most people have lost their ability to go deep into anything. This includes watching movies, being engrossed in a book, or being present with a loved-one.
Before working at Rietta, my previous position was in a busy office space in midtown Manhattan, where developers shared an open office with salespeople, designers, and executives. Open office environments have taken over, but there is a large consensus among developers that they are not such a good idea. Open offices are put in place because they make financial sense, but the way they are typically implemented is disastrous for developers looking to reach states of deep work. By allowing programmers to work remotely, or embracing library rules in an open office, states of deep work can be much easier to enter and sustain.
Deep work is one of the most important skills that I have in my toolbox. This essential skill allows me to be more effective at everything I do. As someone who works completely remote, I’m able to achieve periods of deep work much easier than my office counterparts because I am in complete control of my environment. Working remotely and knowing that I can expect to be uninterrupted for long periods of time allows me to accomplish work in a way that is more personally satisfying and more valuable to my employer. If you’d like to strive for greatness in your craft, I encourage you to work deeply.