"Deep Work" and Who Is Allowed to Do It
I grew up listening to NPR. "Fresh Air" is linked directly in my mind with the scents and sounds of my father baking, and "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!" with the stress of speeding to church on Sunday mornings. When I moved away from home, listening to NPR podcasts on the go kept me feeling connected and engaged.
One of my favorite NPR podcasts is "Hidden Brain", which "uses science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices and direct our relationships" (NPR). I generally find the show to be thought-provoking, well-researched, and often applicable to daily life - which is why I was taken by surprise when one of the episodes felt wholly out of touch.
In the episode "You 2.0: The Value of 'Deep Work' In An Age of Distraction", Cal Newport discusses the idea of "deep work" and the potential dangers of constant distraction, arguing that people are happier and more fulfilled when they are able to immerse themselves fully in their work, and warning that the cost of constantly switching tasks does more harm than good.
To which I say...of course.
I am not trying to downplay the work that Cal Newport does or to argue with his ideas about the virtues of deep work. Being buried in one task in a world that is constantly vying for my attention sounds downright wonderful. But I also believe that most people would agree with me that deep work IS the ideal state. The idea that people don't know that focus will make them happy feels misguided at worst and patronizing at best. Newport's argument also fits into two narratives surrounding "work" that I disagree with:
1) It is possible to cut out distractions if you have enough personal discipline.
2) Work that requires sustained, deep, individual thinking takes precedence over work that does not.
Both of the above statements majorly overlook divides of gender and economic class that undercut their validity, and a closer look at the transcript of the interview below brings to light some holes in the discussion.
NEWPORT: This was something I noticed was very common to influential thinkers, is that they all seem to have this drive to, on a regular basis, cut themselves off from their lives of busyness and communication and distraction and isolate themselves to think deeply...
VEDANTAM: What do they do specifically?
NEWPORT: Well, what you'll notice is that they often will have a location, a separate location they go to when they want to think deeply that's often cut off from the rest of their life...J. K. Rowling, when she was struggling to finish "The Deathly Hallows," rented out this big suite at the Balmoral Hotel next to the big castle in downtown Edinburgh where she'd go and just think Harry Potter-style thoughts. Mark Twain had a cabin for a long period of his life he would go to on the property of their house. It was so far from the house that his family had to blow a horn to try to catch his attention...
NEWPORT: ...And let him know that dinner was ready.
This exchange, very early in the interview, demonstrates both of my issues with Newport's argument right away. Newport states that influential thinkers have a desire to "cut themselves off from their lives of busyness and communication and distraction and isolate themselves to think deeply". He then cites JK Rowling using her almost billion-dollar net worth to book a luxury suite just to "think Harry Potter-style thoughts" and Mark Twain's use of a private cabin on his own property to write and wait for his family to call him for dinner.
Mark Twain's cabin, where he thought deeply while his wife cooked.
In other words: Influential thinkers both want and have the means to isolate themselves from daily responsibilities (working for a regular paycheck, doing household chores, preparing meals, interacting with family or co-workers) in order to perform their influential thinking.
The idea that anyone can achieve this unincumbered workflow ignores the resources needed to procure this time and space. It also requires the work of cleaning, cooking, childcare, and anything else to be done by family, spouses, or hired staff so that the more important work, the deep work, can be achieved by the influential thinker.
This sentiment is summed up well in a tweet by writer Chloe Angyal, who states "As I apply for writing residencies, I'm continually struck by how what they offer - peace and quiet, meals cooked for you, limited domestic labour to distract from your "real" work - is what so many men authors have had forever by virtue of having a wife."
It is important to remember that this kind of dedication to "real" work was not even an option for most women throughout most of recorded history. A woman who was expected to care for children, run a household, and feed her family - a role that many women have continued to shoulder even after entering the professional workforce - did not have the option to politely ask for alone time to work on her own projects without distraction.
As the interview continues, we focus more on Newport's personal habits.
VEDANTAM: Cal, you lead an enormously disciplined life with a lot of rules and rituals. Describe them to me. How do you structure your day to allow yourself plenty of time for deep work?
NEWPORT: There's a few things I do. One is I've never had a social media account, and that's on purpose. It's not that I think I'm better than social media. But to quote George Packer's essay on this, it's because I'm afraid I'd let my kids go hungry if I exposed myself to that. So that's one thing I do. Two, I'm very organized with my time. I work during very set hours during the day, and I plan out the day like a chess player moving the pieces around. This is what I'm going to work on when. I don't let my mood dictate how my day unfolds.
And then three, I've made myself very comfortable with annoying people. I'm bad at email. I have just set the expectations that I'm just not available a lot. I'm not someone that you can expect a quick answer from. And that also causes some trouble, of course. But all this adds up to allowing me to regularly have long portions of many of my days focused on deeper thinking.
So let's break this down a little. Newport has three methods that allow him time for deep work.
1. He does not use social media.
While I am fully in support of cutting down one's usage of social media, it bears mentioning that most professional networking has now moved onto much more personal platforms. The reality of making connections is more and more often done via sites like LinkedIn, Facebook groups, and verified Twitter accounts. So while it is certainly possible to avoid social media and still be successful, it often requires building upon connections or a reputation you have already established. A writer, as many of Newport's deep thinkers are, would have an extremely difficult time getting their work out and read without a social media presence - more so, not having one would often be perceived as a roadblock to their career. This is especially true for anyone who does not present as the ideal of a credible professional, e.i., someone who is young, white, and male.
2. He plans his day ahead of time and sticks to it.
Scheduling out one's day is another strategy I am in full support of and try to do as much as possible. However, life has a way of disrupting even the best-laid plans. I find it is less likely that my mood dictates how my day unfolds than some other circumstance beyond my control, such as urgent errands, my physical state, or the needs of someone else in my work or home life. But maybe I should try harder to just block those out.
3. He is comfortable with annoying people.
Although Newport delivers this one lightly, it is important to break down what he is actually saying. "I am comfortable with annoying people" in this context is means two things: I am comfortable with inconveniencing others to do my work and I am confident that they will continue to respect and work with me even after this treatment.
I fully believe that this has worked out well so far for Newport. He has written six books, attended MIT and Dartmouth, and teaches at Georgetown. He is well-respected and well-regarded in his field, and I imagine that many people would be willing to wait for a response to an email from him, even if it ended up being inconvenient. David Eggers has been known to do the same:
However, imagine that you are a young writer trying to start out your career and working on your first or even second book. Maybe you are trying to keep up a teaching position a graduate studies. Maybe you are working with an editor, or an agent, or a university. Now imagine trying to set the precedent that "I'm just not available a lot" and seeing what that does for your career. My guess is that instead of being impressed with your personal discipline, your peers, mentors, and employers will find you difficult to work with - a label that it is worth noting has always meant different things for men and women.
I may be unemployed, but look at all my nebulas!
To Vedantam's credit, he makes an attempt to bring Newport down to earth later on in the interview. But it became clear to me the more he spoke that Newport's earth is very different than my own.
VEDANTAM: I want to ask you a couple of questions that push back against this idea from a practical standpoint. What if people are in workplaces where they have managers and bosses who aren't enlightened enough to say, yes, you should spend several hours engaged in deep work?
NEWPORT: Something that has seemed to be effective is, in that type of situation, having a conversation with whoever your boss is, whoever supervises you, and say, I want to talk about deep work. Here's what deep work is...And I want to have a conversation and decide, what should my ratio be? That is, in a typical work week, what ratio of my hours should be deep work versus shallow work and actually nailing down a number, an aspirational target, that everyone agrees, yeah, this is right for your position in our company. It's not saying hey, boss, stop emailing me so much; you annoy me.
This, like the rest of Newport's strategies, sounds reasonable. Until you consider that most supervisors may not appreciate being told that their employees will work better if they would just leave them alone. Even the most agreeable boss may acknowledge that you would be more productive with uninterrupted time - until something needs to be done, and someone needs to do it, and the chain of command has not stopped just because of the way one person has prioritized their time.
Vedantam continues on this train of thought:
VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if some people might say your advice is really advice for people who...are at the top of their food chains. So if you have an author who basically is able to say, I'm going to disconnect from the world for 18 months...someone else is probably picking up after this person in all kinds of different ways. If Cal Newport says, you know, I'm going to close the door in my office, I'm not going to answer my phone, I'm not going to check my email, but someone needs to get in touch with you in an emergency, that person is probably going to reach an assistant of yours. And that assistant doesn't have the same luxury of deep work as you do because he or she needs to be available to hear what the emergency is or to hear what the request is. Does having a group of people who are engaged in deep work necessarily mean there must be essentially a second-tier of workers who are engaged in shallow work to allow the deep thinkers to do their deep thinking?
NEWPORT: It doesn't require that, but it usually requires some type of reconfiguration of communication channels and expectations. So when I work, for example, with people maybe in a small consultancy that is client-facing, where they're used to this idea that clients need to reach us, issues pop up, what's important there - just to use this as a case study - to enable more deep work, which, in the end, produces more value for everyone, is just to actually change the communication expectations. That maybe you, instead of having a client just have individual people's email addresses, the company sets up an email address for that client. And the company has set up some agreement on their end that there'll always be someone monitoring that, and here's the expectation of when you can get a response...So I don't think you need actual extra people involved to make space for deep work. But I do think it almost always requires some effort, some sort of reconfiguration of people's expectations on how and when they can reach you.
Here is where Vedantam gets to what I believe is the heart of the issue: in order to enable deep work, who picks up the slack? And Newport's response is to eliminate the slack by changing other people's expectations.
"So when I work, for example, with people maybe in a small consultancy that is client-facing, where they're used to this idea that clients need to reach us"
Employees in a client-facing consultancy having the expectation that clients need to reach them is not an issue that can be easily fixed with some reconfiguration. It is a basic business practice that encourages clients to work with you in a world where they could choose numerous other businesses.
"what's important there - just to use this as a case study - to enable more deep work, which, in the end, produces more value for everyone"
Anyone who has worked in any service job can tell you that customers don't care what produces more value for everyone involved in the long term. They want the service they came for and they want it provided as soon as possible.
"instead of having a client just have individual people's email addresses, the company sets up an email address for that client. And the company has set up some agreement on their end that there'll always be someone monitoring that, and here's the expectation of when you can get a response...So I don't think you need actual extra people involved to make space for deep work."
If I'm understanding this correctly, what Newport is suggesting is that instead of clients emailing the individual employees, each client gets their own email in order to contact the company as a whole. And those multiple emails from clients are always monitored by "someone" with a clear expectation of how quickly they will respond. So the burden is shifted from multiple employees getting emails from the client to one employee getting emails from several clients - one employee who will then have to field the inquiries to their co-workers, because no one employee can do the job that multiple people were doing before. And while some of the employees get to ignore their inboxes and focus on deep work, that "someone" else is now filtering what they see and respond to, while most likely being placed lower in the office hierarchy because "all they do" is manage the inboxes.
Plenty of offices work this way, and I have been that someone. It is a perfectly valid way to structure the workplace. But it does involve a second tier of workers, and practically always will.
VEDANTAM: So I'm going to ask you a question now that's part serious and part teasing. You and I were scheduled to talk last week, and you didn't get the appointment down in your calendar, and I was sitting here waiting for you. And, of course, this kind of thing happens all the time. But in your case, I couldn't help but wonder, did he miss this because he actually hadn't spent the time doing the shallow work to get this in his calendar? And is it possible that when we engage in deep work, we are essentially, you know, getting the benefit of all of that deep work...We're getting the accomplishments, but some of the cost is borne by other people, and they might actually be the people who are getting mad at you when they can't reach you?
NEWPORT: Well, it's a good point. And I think that's actually - was what happened. Because I spend a lot of time working away from my computer, these type of problems happen to me more often. I think, you know, if I spent most of my time at my computer, then it'd be very easy to, of course - I'm going to put this on my calendar. Now, in this case - and, you know, I'm embarrassed it happened. But I - my vague memory was I saw this communication on my phone because I had to be on there to send something to someone, but I was far away from a computer. And so I wasn't able to easily add it to a calendar. I wasn't near a computer. And I was like, OK, I'll remember to do this when I get back to my office next, and I forgot.
And it did cause problems. And I - so I'm embarrassed about it. And that type of thing does happen. And I think this hits on a big point, which is deep work, or a professional life focused on deep work, is less convenient for most people involved. But on the other hand, I want to put out there this notion that that might not be so bad, that it's possible that in this age of digital communication, we are focusing too much on convenience over effectiveness.
What kills me is that Newport really comes so close to understanding the issue at hand. But his acknowledgment that deep work is "less convenient for most people" takes the convenience to those who engage in the deep work and the inconvenience to those who support them and averages it into a level applicable to nobody. His commitment to the long game of effectiveness is admirable, but his erasure of the practical inequalities caused by its pursuit renders his message useless for anyone who does not already have extensive power over their own workflow.
I would love to live in the space that Newport envisions, where we have copious amounts of uninterrupted time to pursue our highest thinking. But until the resources to do so are more evenly distributed, I don't believe deep work to be the solution to our overwhelming digital world.