In his latest Reluctant Entrepreneur column, Dr DJ Hamblin-Brown looks at health tech enterprise through the lens of Cal Newport’s influential book.
Assuming that you’re trying to run a business, you’ll be presented with a number of problems. The most ubiquitous of these is a lack of time. Good quality time to get things done.
I would wager that if you’re on a mission to change the world, you get up early, perhaps even skip your workout and breakfast (don’t do this) in order to get an extra hour in at your desk. With an extra hour clearing your email inbox, you can start on the important stuff earlier.
Unaccountably, I would also wager, you’ll find that several hours have passed and your email inbox is still not empty. So, you’ll knuckle down to attempt some important business task – a plan that will clarify what your business is trying to do. After some time messing around with fonts on a presentation and managing a series of annoying WhatsApp messages you may, perhaps, have raised a single invoice (which, on reflection, may not get paid). So you sink a couple more cups of coffee to try to get in the zone.
Before long, the zone has failed to appear, and reluctantly you admit that you’re done for the day. The world is none the wiser, and certainly none the better, for you having been in it for another 24 hours. You order a pizza, down a glass (or more) of red, doom scroll the news apps for a while and watch some rubbish on Netflix – all the more to take your mind off the fact that everyone else appears to be more successful than you.
In fact, you reflect, as you turn out the light that evening, even your former self is better than you are. Cursory reflection would leave anyone convinced that you are less successful today than you’ve ever been. You look back with yearning at the times that you’ve nailed your ambitions. Tasks completed in a single bound. Exams passed – or at least attempted – jobs offered, bookshelves installed. In the past you did something.
Today you did nothing. Today is blancmange.
Let’s put this hypothetical day in the frame of Cal Newport’s 2013 book Deep Work. He defines ‘Deep Work’ 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.”
He contrasts this with ‘Shallow Work’:
“Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replate.”
(I’m not sure whether that should be “Cognitively undemanding” – but I’ll let that stand).
It will be apparent that the depressing non-value-add day described above falls into the latter category.
His assertion is that Deep Work is a skill that most people have lost – or are fast losing – and, more importantly, is a skill worth retaining, re-learning and cultivating. He asserts – with plenty of examples – that Deep Work is:
- Rare: because the modern world is losing its focus, largely due to the pressure and plethora of internet-related channels that distract us.
- Valuable: because it is only through deep and sustained concentration that we can produce good quality work and learn the skills that set us as individuals (and therefore our companies) apart from the shallow norm.
- Meaningful: because it provides us with opportunities for self-development and reflection and moments of peaceful self-fulfilment that are not available to us in a shallow distracted world.
He peppers his arguments with examples from his own life and those of the famous and not-so-famous. But it doesn’t take much to convince me. Looking back on my own life, there are times when I have worked “hard” – I might now say “deep” – and achieved many things.
Professional qualifications, a couple of books, some rusty piano repertoire, perhaps some not-so-pleasing art … and three marathons … (Newport doesn’t mention sport, probably because it’s a “business book” but I think training counts as Deep Work).
In other words, every personal and professional achievement in which your correspondent takes pride has resulted from significant, sustained effort which is well described as “Deep Work”.
In other words, I get it.
The second half of the book tries to answer the question: how do we achieve more Deep Work? And the answer is … well, it turns out not to be so easy. Perhaps that’s not very surprising. Here’s an outline of his four rules – as best as I can summarise.
Rule 1: Work deeply
First, Newport suggests adopting a philosophy of Deep Work. How are you going to schedule Deep Work time? Is this a month a year, a week a month, a day a week, or a few hours a day? And how are you going to increase the proportion within that philosophy.?
For most people a few hours a week is a good place to start – carving out a few parts of the week that fit with your schedule. Maybe then, the odd day-or-two away from the desk, or maybe even a longer retreat thrown in every now and then.
Rule 2: Embrace boredom
Here Newport offers some more useful insights. Essentially, his assessment is that we satisfy our cravings for short-term hits of internet dopamine in order to satisfy our craving for novelty and a fear of boredom.
To counteract this, he suggests we schedule our internet time.
This is not such a great leap but it’s important enough to warrant a line of its own. The key here is to mentally turn-off from our notifications/scrolling/hyperlinking mode … and then notice when our addiction to these shallow-work activities tries to break into our concentration.
You want to look up that fact on Wikipedia while writing? Wait. Do it later. Now watch what happens in the interim. Our brains complain that our dopamine hit is missing, but we get used to it. Our concentration improves and our output soars.
This ‘scheduling’ may sound difficult, but he suggests doing this in 30 minute slots initially. Starting with no more internet until lunch is easier than skipping straight to no more internet for today.
Rule 3: Quit social media
This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who is trying to get more done. His advice – which seems very sensible – is not to quit all social media, but to see social media as a tool. Select one or two platforms that help you get your work done and stick to them.
If you’re on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn … you’re not going to have any time for anything else. If you’re selling to individuals, Facebook will probably be enough. For B2B sales, LinkedIn may be sufficient.
The point here is to combine a sensible diet of Social Media with the techniques of switching-off for periods of time to get more ‘deep’ time.
Rule 4: Drain the shallows
There is some good stuff here. He offers a few nuggets to try to bear down on and remove Shallow time.
- Schedule your day: make sure that your time is allocated and doesn’t drift. If you get knocked off course, reschedule. That means you know whether you’re planning to be in deep or shallow.
- Work out what’s deep: in other words, some things may seem deep – but they are just a bit more involved than others. Involved is not deep. Then try to avoid the shallow stuff.
- Finish by 17:30: counterintuitively, he suggests that shortening your day will help. You can do a lot of unconscious work when you’re OFF work. I’ve tried this. It’s actually working.
- Become hard to reach: He advises that you should not feel beholden to answer emails – even if you think it rude. Use a contact form, rather than a general email, which explains what will prompt a reply from you. If you do answer an email, be very process orientated to reduce back-and-forth.
Is all this new? Not really. I like the phrase Deep Work – and the book has had a positive and stimulating effect on me as a writer. There is more content flowing from this keyboard than there was before reading the book.
You, dear reader, will be the judge of whether that is a worthwhile change, but for this author, it’s a welcome change.
Good luck draining the shallows. Good luck going deep.