Severin Perez

On Deep Work

March 09, 2020

In 2016, Cal Newport introduced a new term into the business lexicon: deep work. It’s an idea that has since taken hold of disaffected knowledge workers everywhere, due in no small part to the promise that they could finally start doing what they were hired to do—create value. More importantly, intertwined with this promise is something more nebulous—something fragile and fleeting. Dare we call it self-actualization? Anyone who has worked in a modern office knows the creeping sense that what you’re doing doesn’t really matter. It’s that unspoken but ever-present worry that your life is little more than a series of TPS reports. Deep work promises something different—it promises that we can be craftsmen who take pride in our trade (even if that trade involves sitting at a computer all day.)

I won’t reiterate the finer points of Newport’s work—suffice to say that deep work is all about ditching distraction and focusing on what really matters—but four years on from the publication of Deep Work, now seemed like an appropriate time to reflect on our collective progress in working more deeply. Regrettably, but perhaps without much surprise, I must report that we aren’t doing very well.

Organizations are hard to change, and yet, the necessity of change grows more urgent by the day. In the near future, the needs of both organizations and employees will be drastically different than they are today. If we, both as organizations and society as a whole, are going to navigate this change, then we need to do so in a thoughtful fashion. In other words, we need to work deeply. This means casting aside the short-term satisfaction of shallow tasks and focusing instead on the long term health of our organizations, our society, and ourselves.

The Future of Work is Deep

Early in his book, Newport posits that the groups in our modern economy that will do best are “those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.” At first glance, this seems a somewhat obvious position—talented and wealthy people will thrive—but Newport’s point is actually much deeper. It’s not just that people from these groups will do well, it’s also that people outside these groups are at risk of being left behind.

Much of the anxiety about the “future of work” revolves around the concern that humans will be replaced by machines and thereafter left to fend for themselves. This is a legitimate concern, made all the more pointed by Newport’s recognition that people who know how to work effectively with machines will have an advantage. For those without technical expertise, “working effectively with machines” might seem like a distant fantasy. And it’s easy to see why—terms like “machine learning” and “artificial intelligence” can come off as oddly dystopian and threatening to the layman. The “future of work” doesn’t have to be intimidating though, because ultimately it’s about doing what humans do best—thinking. To put it in Newport’s terms, the future of work is about working deeply.

Machines are already very good at the kinds of shallow tasks that Newport encourages us to de-prioritize. When it comes to things like data entry, document parsing, or widget hammering, machines are untiring and destined to be our superiors. Humans, however, have an advantage. We have the capacity for intense and creative focus. This is an area where machines don’t even come close to our capabilities. If, however, we are to succeed in the future of work, we need to make use of this competitive advantage. Let the machines work shallowly and let us work deeply.

This is not to say that concerns about the displacement of human workers by machines is mere hand-wringing. Humans have lives, and families, and dreams. Machines have none of those. And the truth is, those humans who excel only at shallow tasks are indeed very much at risk of displacement. If that’s something that we care about, then we need to take action. And that means changing the corporate culture that values busyness over productivity. That means allowing humans to work deeply so that machines can work shallowly.

Deep Organizations

Part of what makes Deep Work such a good read is the criticism it levies on the modern workplace. Newport provides numerous vignettes that will ring true to just about every knowledge worker. There are bosses who expect immediate replies to emails, open offices full of distraction, and endless demands for the knowledge worker’s limited supply of time and attention. Taken together, these are the things that make the modern workplace hostile to deep work.

If you were to ask a hundred workers about whether deep work is valuable, the vast majority would likely say ‘yes’. If you were to ask a hundred managers the same question, most of them would probably say the same. And yet, when you put more than a dozen people into one organization, their collective priorities invert. Deep work is quickly displaced by shallow (but more visible) priorities. Group psychology tends to differ dramatically from its constituent parts, and that is as true of the workplace as anywhere else.

What makes this such a frustrating aspect of the workplace is that it’s counterproductive for both the worker and the organization. Newport argues, quite convincingly, that shallow work does little to offer workers emotional satisfaction or energy. He also points out that workers who do deep work are more likely to produce valuable output for their organizations. In other words, deep work is as good for organizations as it is for people. Few would argue against letting workers reach their state of eudaimonia and produce the best work they possibly can. And yet, our organizations continue to create environments that are explicitly bad for deep work—all while offering window-dressing about how they value innovation and deep thinking.

Newport offers numerous ideas about how individuals can adopt deep work habits, but most of these (very good) ideas are about working deeply in spite of workplace culture, rather than because of the culture. Unfortunately, this will likely prove a recipe for failure for many people, no matter how much they want to work deeply. The cultural pressures of the modern workplace are too intense for most of us to cut email out of our lives, make our bosses wait for results, and generally say “no” more often. Although this may work for some people, it strikes me as unsustainable. It’s hard to go against the culture of your colleagues and especially hard to go against the demands of your bosses.

In order for individuals to work deeply, it is ultimately going to be necessary for their organizations to do the same. Just as an individual can commit to intense focus on hard problems, so too can organizations. It will, however, require a cultural shift away from short-term priorities (like pleasing shareholders, improving social media presence, and delivering products as soon as conceivably possible.) One wonders what our organizations might achieve if they had the freedom to move slowly and thoughtfully rather than move fast and break things.

The Hard Work of Change

Working deeply sounds wonderful as a concept—both for individuals and for organizations—but making deep work a reality is no easy task. Individuals are hard-wired for distraction, even if it’s bad for us, and organizations are even worse. If we want to create environments that support rather than inhibit deep work, then workers at every level are going to have to change how they interact with one another.

  • Managers: Your job is to set strategic direction. Once that’s done, you need to step back and trust your employees to follow-through. Your job is not to constantly monitor progress and make sure that people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. The more you interfere, the less your team is going to get done. Keep in mind, setting organizational strategy is itself deep work—if you have time to micro-manage, then you are probably neglecting your core responsibility.
  • Employees: Your job is to produce the best possible work that you can. You’ve been hired for your expertise in some specific domain and you should strive to be as good at your job as possible. Not only will your organization benefit from your deep work, but you will go home at the end of the day feeling more satisfied with how you spent it. Your job is not to attend meetings, answer emails, and generally look as busy.
  • Coworkers: Your colleagues are as engrossed in their work as you are. You may need something from them before you can press ahead with some task, but it’s not fair to expect that you will get it immediately. Being a good coworker in an office that is friendly to deep work means being willing to wait. Respect your colleagues’ time and attention and they will do the same for you.
  • Shareholders: The short-term gains that you expect when your organization rushes their product to market are just that, short-term. Your job is to step back and be patient. After all, you invested in the organization because you believe in their potential (right?) In the long-run, wouldn’t you rather be part of an organization that does something revolutionary? Frankly, your job is the hardest because it is fraught with temptation. If you’re doing your job right though, and you let your organization work deeply, you may well be rewarded handsomely in the long run.

There’s no question about it—deep organizational work is hard. A work environment is only as friendly to deep work as the least friendly element inside it. If you don’t have complete organizational buy-in to working deeply, then most of your organization is going to end up working shallowly.

In my reflections on Deep Work, I have come to believe that its most important lesson is not just about how to improve my own habits, but about the future of work more generally. Technology is changing the way people work, and if we want to succeed, we’re going to have to start working more deeply. The value of shallow work simply isn’t what it once was. In order to shift towards more thoughtful work though, our organizations are going to have to shift as well.

If you haven’t read Deep Work, I highly recommend it—Newport offers well-researched advice about how to do the best work you can possibly do. But rather than read it purely as a self-help book, I would encourage you to use it as a springboard to think about how you can help your organization improve. After all, most of us work as part of teams, and by their nature teams have to work together. If you don’t believe in deep work as a team, then you can’t expect your team to perform at its best.

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© Severin Perez, 2020