Last week, Cal Newport was a guest on James Altucher’s podcast, which I highly recommend. Newport was discussing his new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.
While the conversation around that book was very interesting, it was the discussion of his earlier book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, that piqued my interest. Even the title is interesting to me, primarily because I find myself easily distracted.
Deep work, he explained, “requires hard, hard focus and pushes your skill to its limit.”
The analogy he used related to his skill as a guitar player. He practiced by playing songs he liked over and over, jamming without pushing his limits. When he practiced with a musician who was better than he was, he found that the other musician practiced by learning a new lick or song and practicing it faster and faster, getting outside of his comfort zone to master the new piece of music. There was a reason why he wasn’t as good as the other musician and it was evident in the way they approached their practice.
When I was younger, I made up a story that I studied better with music on in the background. Rather than being distracted by everything, I distracted myself with one thing and could bounce back and forth between the sounds coming out of the speakers and the work in front of me. To this day, I prefer working with music on in the background, even joking at home that I will do any task, as long as I can listen to music.
The concept of “deep work” vs. “shallow work” made me think more about the kinds of work I was doing when I was listening to music or otherwise distracted. I would be the first to admit that I could have been a better student.
My studying was shallow. I wasn’t pushing my skill to its limit in any way.
We all do a lot of shallow work each day. Answering emails, sometimes canvassing, talking on the phone, gathering market information and other tasks can all be done during the day while the office is buzzing. But think about the kind of work you do when you really focus. Are you answering emails at the same time? Checking your phone for texts? Looking at social media?
It’s impossible to do deep work and multitask at the same time.
In 2012, Altucher wrote a blog entry titled, Multi-tasking Will Kill You. Perhaps as a follow up to his discussion with Newport, it was reposted this week. In the article, he explains that we are applauded for being able to do two (or more) things at once. But are we really focused on either one? He argues that we would be better served doing one thing at a time, doing it well, and then moving on to the next task.
I’ve written in the past about shutting email and the phone off for an hour to eliminate the constant distractions, so it’s not a new concept, even for me. However, it was a great reminder.
So the lesson for today is, if you want to get better at your job, need to concentrate on a call, proposal, or any task during the day, then go deep. The more you push yourself to that limit and improve your skills, the better you will become overall.