A difficulty I’ve faced in promoting the practice of deep work is that many people think they engage in this activity regularly (and don’t get much out of it), even though what they’re really doing is far from true depth.
To better understand this possibility, consider the following two hypothetical scenarios:
- Scenario #1: Alice has to write a difficult client proposal. She decides to work away from her office for the first half of the day. She begins by going for a long walk to clear her head and play around with the different proposal pieces. She ends up at the local library, where she settles into a quiet corner for an hour and tries to write a rough draft. She feels the pitch is still too muddled, so she walks to a nearby coffee shop for more caffeine and works the outline over and over on paper. Finally she hits a configuration she likes and returns to the library to work it into the draft. After another hour she has something special. For the first time that day, she checks her e-mail before heading into the office.
- Scenario #2: Alice has to write a difficult client proposal. She checks her e-mail, sends off some replies, then drives into work. At the office she closes her door to work on the proposal. She finds it hard going, but sticks with for a couple hours. She only checks her e-mail a few times an hour during this period (much less than normal) and peeks at Facebook to relieve her boredom only once. She does take a break halfway through to gripe about an unrelated manner in the office kitchen with a colleague.
In both scenarios, Alice dedicated a good stretch of time to working on a cognitively demanding task. Many people, new to the concept, would therefore consider both scenarios to describe deep work.
But they would be wrong.
Here’s the key observation about this example: in the second scenario, Alice never went more than twenty minutes or so without switching her attention away from her primary task to something else. It’s tempting to dismiss these breaks because they’re so fleeting — lost in the standard background noise of knowledge work — but their cost is substantial.
Something that came up again and again when I was researching my book on this topic, is that switching your attention — even if only for a minute or two — can significantly impede your cognitive function for a long time to follow.
More bluntly: context switches gunk up your brain.
This effect has been validated from many angles in academic psychology and related fields, spanning the work of Bluma Zeigarnik, Clifford Nass, Gloria Mark and Sophie Leory (whose theory of attention residue I write more about here).
In the first scenario, by contrast, Alice gives herself the time required to really let her brain get up to speed on the demanding problem and then stay in high gear long enough to make progress.
Having studied and experimented with deep work for years, I can tell you with confidence that the session described in the first scenario has the potential to produce an outcome an order of magnitude more compelling and effective than what Alice could produce in the state of pseudo-depth described in the second scenario. The former also describes a more satisfying work experience.
I try to put aside one day per week to spend a stretch of six to seven hours straight without distraction — no e-mail, no Internet, lots of walking (some in the woods), too much coffee — all focused on a small number of crucial, hard work tasks. This week I managed this on two different days.
It was a good week.
The bottom line is that if you’re intrigued by depth, give real depth a try, by which I mean giving yourself at least two or three hours with zero distractions. Let the hard task sink in and marinate. Push through the initial barrier of boredom and get to a point where your brain can do what it’s probably increasingly craving in our distracted world: to think deeply.
(Photo by Luis Marina)