Learning to Work Deep: A review

We live in an inter-connected world, filled with collaborative tools and awash with information.  But we also live in a deeply-distracted world and this is the serious downside to the interconnectivity we enjoy. We live in a world where few people seem to have retained the ability to concentrate deeply on a single project. This is no less true of missionaries, or at least all missionaries that are connected to the Internet through their phones and computers on a fairly consistent basis.

In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport seeks to Deep Workconvince us of the importance of learning once again the skills of focused concentration and shows us some simple rules that he has learned to help him overcome this constant allure of distraction.

Newport is a professor of computer science (Georgetown) as well as a profilic author who writes about the impact of the technologies of the digital age on our life and work. The guidelines that he promotes in the book are ones that he has consistently practiced in his own life and work.  He gives multiple examples of how they have changed his own approach to work. One of the most attractive selling points of his approach is Newport’s testimony almost never works past 5:30 pm, nor does he work on weekends – while still teaching regularly in a prestigious university, writing multiple peer-reviewed articles each year, and publishing five books. Learning to do deep work is radically different that “drowning” in our work.

What is “deep work”?

Newport defines it as:

“professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”   (p.3)

In contrast to deep work, much of what is done by knowledge workers in today’s world is “shallow work” — administrative tasks that are not mentally demanding, and can be done even while distracted or “multi-tasking”.

Newport points out that deep work is deeply valuable and rare.  It fact, it is increasingly a skill that is becoming extinct in the current workforce. The pervasiveness of instant messaging and social media, and the constant distractions of open office spaces have significantly eroded the ability to regularly do deep work.  But research shows that deep work, although difficult, proves to be the most rewarding, providing the greatest levels of satisfaction in life.

So what aspects of missionary work qualify as deep work? 

We are talking about work we do alone, what we often call “prep time.” For me, preparing a sermon or notes for a training session or class that I will be teaching is deep work.

Definitely writing a blog post fits into this category as well. Writing a report or a newsletter that is more than just a listing of facts, but seeks to provide some type of deeper insight or “big-picture” analysis requires deep work. Occasionally a longer email  requires extended times of concentration, if I am asked to provide evaluation of a particular proposal.  But I think we would have to admit that most of our emails and social media posts are clearly at the shallow end of the work spectrum.

Recently some of my missionary colleagues developed an ethnographical report based on 30 interviews with people from their culture. Analysing the data they gleaned from those interviews, and then extracting some principles that would be significant for the Gospel work in their culture is a huge task, clearly requiring deep work.

But I think that our time in the Word, meditating on its application to our lives and cross-cultural ministry context should also be considered deep work. Unfortunately it often is not.   A quote from another book I am reading highlights this lack:

For most of us, the deficiency is not in hearing or reading, but in marking, learning and inwardly digesting. We hear and read lots of Bible, but we spend too little time prayerfully mulling it over, allowing it to sink in, doggedly re-reading and rethinking those parts we don’t understand until God gives us understanding, pondering how this word opposes or displaces the worldly thinking we currently default to, thinking about how this particular word speaks to our sins and our character, reflecting on the hope this word holds out to us, writing down or committing to memory key verses or insights we want to remember, and above all praying earnestly that God might mould and shape and transform our lives in light of this word.  (The Vine Project, Kindle Location 2373)

So how do become better at “deep work”?

Newport outlines four simple rules:

Rule #1: Work Deeply.  Select work patterns that will make deep work possible.  Choose a system of how you will create opportunity for deep work in your schedule. Most of us will not be able to step away from all our shallow work demands for weeks or months at a time, so we have to find longer blocks of time for deep work in our weekly or daily schedules. What daily rhythms or habits will you establish that allow you to have this concentrated focus times? The greatest minds followed strict rituals in their daily habits, providing regular long blocks of time for thinking deeply. But we also need to make sure that we regularly give our minds adequate time to recharge. Newport strongly recommends “shutting down” work completely at the end of the workday, rather than going back after dinner or the kids have gone to sleep to finish off a few more emails.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom. Our minds are so used to being constantly stimulated that we are addicted to constantly switching to something new and interesting.

the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, … teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.

Train yourself to think deeply.  Newport makes the important point that this is a skill that has to be learned. We need to train our mental muscles to become adept at deep work. We do not simply decide to stop doing shallow work, and begin to do more deep work.
Suggestions in this section include establishing blocks of non-Internet time in your work day and using time walking or jogging to focus attention on a single problem (e.g. developing an outline for a sermon).

Rule #3: Quit Social Media. In this section, Newports argues that we should limit our technological tools to those that have a substantially positive impact on our goals. He proposes that each person go on a 30-day “fast” without social media to evaluate its importance to our work.  Social media is not evil in itself, but it is addictive and distracts one from deep work.  The author warns us not to use the Internet to entertain  yourself.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows. This fourth rule talks about reducing the amount of time we give to shallow work.  Newports recommends scheduling every minute of our workday so that we are fully intentional about how we use our time.  He asks us to categorize the work activities that occupy our time by the degree to which they are “deep” or “shallow.”

Personal Applications

As I worked my way through this book, there was much that resonated deeply with me. It was not hard to recognize that impact that digital distractions have had upon the quality of my work.  It was also sobering to realize how easily I have allowed my mental concentration “muscles” to become flabby. One of my first action steps has been to go on a 30-day withdrawal from social media (Facebook in particular). I am scheduling more time blocks for “deep work” into my schedule. I look forward to my upcoming sabbatical which will give me an extended period of time for practicing this type of work.

But I also see that learning how to do deep work, and teaching others the skills involved is central to my role as director of our organization’s training department. I realize that the success of our training initiatives is dependent to a large extent on the amount of “deep work” that happens in our mission membership. You see, learning, and particularly learning that is transformative, is deep work as well. We can learn facts without much mental focus. But truly understanding the implications and applications of what we have learned for our particular cultural and ministry context will require deep thinking with finely honed concentration skills.

If we are to become lifelong learners, and effective disciplemakers in cross-cultural contexts, we will need to learn the skills of deep work.


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