This article originally appeared in my column at Inc.
See if this scenario sounds familiar: you arrive at work, sit down at your desk, and fire up your laptop. You are still clicking through the emails that have accumulated overnight, when you suddenly realize you are late for your your meeting. You rush to the meeting, which is followed by another one, and then you find that it’s close to lunchtime. Over (and after) lunch you continue to process your email, make a few calls, and check off a few tasks. Now it’s getting close to 3PM, and you suddenly realize that you’ve not even touched your most important project, because you’ve been so caught up in all of the frantic and urgent things crossing your path.
Professor and author Cal Newport calls the work described above “shallow work”, and says that it’s often the biggest obstacle to making significant progress on the work we’re actually accountable for producing. The opposite of shallow work, according to Newport, is “deep work”, which is work performed with intense focus, during dedicated blocks of time, and that actually creates tremendous value for you and your organization. Newport argues that the ability to engage in deep work is the single most important skill you must develop in the coming years if you want to be successful. Deep work, as Newport defines it, is valuable, meaningful, and rare work that won’t be accomplished if simply left to convenience.
How do you engage in deep work, according to Newport?
Dedicate Time On Your Calendar To Work Deeply
If you want to accomplish something, you must dedicate resources to it. Time is – of course – your most valuable non-renewable resource. Take a look at your calendar and establish a block of non-negotiable time this week to your most important project. Then, spend that time focusing on nothing but that important project, and dedicating all of your mental effort to it.
Embrace Boredom And Focus Intensely
Newport says that when you are doing deep work, you will occasionally grow bored. That’s not a bug in your mind, it’s a feature. Often boredom occurs just before breakthrough. However, you must learn to direct your mind to think deeply about your work. Intense concentration is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, it’s a trained skill. It helps to establish challenges, or specific problem statements that you are trying to solve. Breaking your work down into manageable, specific problems will often prevent you from getting stuck and will give you something concrete to tackle.
Drain The Shallows, And Be Hard To Reach
Newport argues that to truly do deep work, you must make yourself difficult to reach. Most of us are constantly at the whim and wishes of anyone wanting our attention. Our phone buzzes or our email pings, and suddenly we are unrecoverably distracted from whatever is in front of us. When you’re doing deep work, you must build a barrier around yourself, shut down distractions, and recognize that your first priority at the moment is different from everyone else’s.
Don’t allow the frantic nature of the workday prevent you from making meaningful progress on your most important work. Build buffers, focus, and engage in deep work.