Whitefield Academy Blog

7 Ways to Find Success Through Deep Work

by | Sep 26, 2019 | Classical Christian, College, Education, Media, Reading | 1 comment

While most of us understand that social media and other online activities cut into our ability to do good work, high-tech gadgets and constant connectivity to the web have become so common that it seems hard to imagine life without them. In a recent popular business book Deep Work, Cal Newport offers some ways to reduce the noise of these distractions and enhance our ability to do valuable and meaningful work.

1. Understand That the Most Meaningful Work is Deep

Much of Newport’s argument is economic: deep work is valued in the marketplace and those able to do deep work have better opportunities for high-paying jobs. But he also points to studies showing that deep work has positive effects on our well-being. We know this intuitively as we think about the satisfaction a master craftsman receives when he creates a beautiful piece of furniture. Newport also argues that the way modern people have made themselves autonomous arbiters of meaning and truth, imposing our will on the world rather than accepting the sacredness and truth of the good things God has given us, makes it more difficult for us to find meaning in our work. A master craftsman, on the other hand, finds and cultivates beauty in his raw material.

2. Don’t Find Your Passion; Master a Craft

The exhortation to “find your passion” suggests that the most important thing is to find the right job. Of course, for most of history people had very little choice in their job, and even today our career options are far more limited by our abilities and the vagaries of the economy than we usually admit. According to Newport, rather than finding our passion, we should focus on doing deeply whatever job we already have, developing craftsmanship and finding meaning in the high degree of skill we bring to our craft. Such advice echoes the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to bondservants (slaves) in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”

As parents we want the best for our kids, and usually that means something better than what we have. Encouraging them to find their passion may seem like a good way to help them find satisfying work, but we would do well to instead help them develop the ability to “work heartily” so that they find satisfaction in whatever work they do.

3. Schedule Time to Work Deeply on Difficult Tasks

Newport distinguishes between shallow and deep work. Deep work demands sustained and focused attention on difficult problems and is usually the most valuable work we do. Shallow work is much of the busyness that office workers’ days are filled with: answering emails, attending meetings, and chatting with coworkers. It is easy to flit from one shallow task to another, and we naturally gravitate to these rather than work up the energy to give sustained attention to harder tasks. In order to make sure we get the most valuable and rewarding work done, Newport suggests scheduling blocks of time where you are unavailable to others and work solely on work that requires depth.

For our upper school kids, deep work might include challenging homework or college application essays. If they’re struggling to complete these tasks because they gravitate to shallow ones, it can help your student to schedule a specific time away from distractions in order to complete them.

4. Disconnect From Your Social Media Accounts

A growing number of commentators have noted the addictive nature of the Internet, social media in particular, because of the way it continuously stimulates us with things tailored to distract our attention. Perhaps counterintuitively, studies have shown that social media use is correlated with social isolation and depression. Many people keep these services because they’re free, but Newport points out that though there is no monetary cost, the cost in terms of distraction from deeper involvement in your real life often outweighs any benefit they provide.

5. Schedule Internet Use

Having recognized that the Internet is addictive and corrosive to deep work, we should find ways to limit its ability to interrupt the time we have for deep work and engagement in our lives. Some people have suggested “Internet Sabbaths” where the Internet is not allowed for certain parts of the day, and these have become especially popular with parents trying to curtail their children’s Internet use. But Newport thinks this method has it backwards. The Internet Sabbath doesn’t do anything to diminish the distracting nature of the Internet and the crave for constant connectedness the Internet fosters. Instead, he recommends not using the Internet except during designated periods in the day. Then you can develop the ability to postpone distraction and work deeply until the next designated Internet time.

6. Memorize Things

Classical school parents will be interested to know that Newport recommends the practice of memorizing as a way to improve the ability to concentrate on a single task. He uses the example of memorizing the order of a deck of cards, but anything (such as Scripture or Latin declensions) will work. A study of “memory athletes” (this is a real thing) has shown that the cognitive ability these individuals possess isn’t actually memory but the ability to devote their attention to the task of memorization.

7. Stop Reading This Listicle and Pick up a Book

The “listicle” is a form created especially for the Internet due to the ease with which they can be produced and consumed. Sites like Buzzfeed have profited from the addictive nature of this kind of writing, and for some people these sites have become a significant part of their leisure time. Newport points to Arnold Bennett, writing in 1910, who hoped that in the new machine age common people would have leisure time to spend reading great works of literature. In the new information age, the popularity of sites like Buzzfeed attest to the fact that people have leisure time to read, but it seems a terrible waste that they would spend it on listicles. Constantly allowing yourself to be distracted by shallow things during your leisure time will also make it more difficult to develop habits of deep work. Deep Work is not as ponderous as the great books Bennett wanted working men to read, but reading it would certainly be a better use of time than a few hours of Facebook scrolling and listicles.

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