There is no question that life moves at a much faster pace now than at any point in history. In that sense, it really is quite the time to be alive. Our technological progress allows us to do things that would have been impossible a generation ago. It has, in so many ways, made life easier and more comfortable. The result has been that almost all of us fall prey to the notion all new technological developments are beneficial and therefore we need to incorporate all new technologies into our lives.
In my last post, I pointed out that so many of us simply need life to slow down. While technology has made life faster and, perhaps, more convenient, the increased speed of life and the increased mental stimulation brought about by technology have wreaked havoc with our peace and contentment. Life becomes a blur of constant and rapidly changing information, activities, ideas, and opinions. Don’t blink or you’ll miss something, literally.
The troublesome part of this phenomenon is that most of the information that bombards us is trivial, having no bearing or impact on our lives. This avalanche of never-ending, rapidly changing trivial information, combined with lives that are incredibly fast-paced, has resulted in lives that are shallow, distracted, and discontent. For men seeking significance, meaning, and purpose, such a life is highly unsatisfying.
In his 2016 bestseller Deep Work, professor and author Cal Newport explored the impact that technological developments are having on the ability of many people to produce their best work, which he calls “Deep Work”. Newport explains Deep Work as follows:
Deep Work: 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.”
This idea is contrasted with “Shallow Work”, which Newport defines as:
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 replicate.”
Why Deep Work Matters in the Current Economy
Without deep work, Newport argues, we will not produce our best work, and producing our best work is more important in these days than ever before in history, for two reasons. First, our new economy is based on information and systems that are rapidly changing and often very complex. As a result, the person who can learn complicated systems and process complex information quickly will thrive. Those who cannot will struggle. As you might imagine, learning complicated things quickly requires deep work.
The second reason that those who can engage in deep work will thrive is that the information age has created greater access to content than ever before. People who in the past might have been stuck with content that was provided by their local library or book store now have access to almost anything they wish to find. As a result, if the content they read is not of high quality, they can more easily move on and find something better. Thus, those who are able to produce their best work, which results from deep work, have the best chance of thriving. Those whose inability to concentrate at a deep level for sustained periods of time are much less likely to produce high quality work, and thus much less likely to gain and hold followers, customers, clients, etc.
Newport calls this phenomenon The Deep Work Hypothesis, which he states as follows:
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill and then make it the core of their working life will thrive.”
Why We Avoid Deep Work
As you can see, Newport’s purpose is to explain how deep work is critical to our success in business. However, my primary interest in his ideas is in how it relates to improving our life experiences as men. The connection between the two is that men who can provide value to others will be the most content. Providing value is not the only element to a meaningful, content life, but it is a necessary element. Newport offers some significant insights on how to do that more effectively.
In making his argument for the necessity of deep work, Newport cites a 2009 paper that highlighted the idea of attention residue, which is a detrimental effect of multitasking. As we move from activity to activity and task to task throughout our day, we lose focus on each subsequent activity. Our body may move on to the next activity, but mind doesn’t entirely follow. Instead, it remains partially focused on the task we just left, whether it was a meeting or reading an e-mail. The average person’s day is full of this busyness, moving from e-mail to phone call to meeting to social media scrolling to web surfing and back again. The result is that the vast majority of our day is spent in semi-distraction, which results in a diminished ability to perform.
Newport goes on to explain that because the metrics for analyzing most people’s job performance is quite vague, most of us feel pressured to appear busy. What better way to appear busy than to attend every meeting for every company project and chime in immediately on every company e-mail. What’s more, this is easier for us; it’s what Newport calls the Principle of Least Resistance, which he explains as:
The Principle of Least Resistance: “Without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.”
So, instead of staying away from meetings, staying out of our e-mail inbox, and turning off of phones so that we can concentrate deeply on an important task, we take easy road and signal busyness without accomplishing much of real value.
Three Arguments for Deep Work
The Neurological Argument: Our Brains Adapt to the Subject of our Focus
Finally, Newport presents neurological, psychological, and philosophical reasons that deep work creates a life rich in meaning. Neurologically, he begins with the well-accepted theory that our happiness in life is a result of the things to which we give our attention and focus. Those who focus on their stressors, troubles, and misfortunes will be less happy and less content than those who focus on what brings them joy. He cites a cancer patient who improved her life experience by determining that she would keep her focus on the things in life that brought her joy (“movies, walks, and a 6:30 martini”) instead of her disease. Most of us understand at this point that “life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we respond to it”.
The interesting thing about this is that we can train our brain to respond to certain stimuli, whether positive or negative. Those who focus on the positive train their brains only to respond to positive stimuli, with the result being increased happiness. Our focus, then, gets solidified in our brains, for better or for worse. Guess what happens to those focus primarily on the shallow things of life, such as irritating e-mails, Twitter posts, news shows, and Facebook feeds? Their brains get trained to react to negative stimuli, thus making them less happy.
The Psychological Argument: We’re Most Content when Challenged
Psychologically, Newport points to a study measuring the psychological impact of various activities. Workers were given a beeper (it was the 1980’s) and instructed to record their feelings when prompted throughout their day. The finding:
“[t]he best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
This finding undergirds one of the foundational principles of this site: Men need to be challenged and will be at their best when using their abilities (strength, courage, skillfulness, and honor) to accomplish meaningful things. From Newport’s end, he points out that deep work is required to stretch our minds (or our bodies) to their limits; we cannot do it in a state of distraction.
The Philosophical Argument: We Find Meaning by Embracing the Craftsman Ethos
Newport’s final argument is one that highlights one of the masculine virtues: skillfulness or, as Jack Donovan calls it, mastery. Newport gives it another name: craftsmanship. The idea is that whether we are woodworkers, builders, authors, or attorneys, we can find deep meaning (and deep contentment) by mastering our chosen craft. The woodworker and builder immerses himself in turning a piece of wood into something useful or beautiful. The author immerses himself into a world of storytelling that entertains, mesmerizes, inspires, and challenges his audience. The attorney immerses himself in a situation and produces the ideas and arguments that are both logically sound and rhetorically compelling, and that produce the proper outcome in a case. Such is the work of the craftsman and, in every case, it requires deep work. Though it requires struggle and strain, the craftsman finds meaning and contentment in his craft.
Last week, I wrote about our need to slow down in life. One cannot work deeply unless he slows down. The busy, distracted life is one that is lived in the shallows and remains focused on the trivial. Such is the not the recipe for a life of meaning and contentment. Next week, we’ll look at Part II of Deep Work, where the author looks at some practical strategies for getting out of the shallows and increasing the amount of deep work in our lives. Until then, think about how you can remove distractions and create sustained periods of deep focus on the things that you care about. This is the man’s life.
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