The Deep Work Hypothesis and its Limitations by@roxanamurariu

The Deep Work Hypothesis and its Limitations

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Roxana Murariu

Web developer writing essays about mindset, productivity, tech and others.

In his Deep Work bestseller, Cal Newport coins the term “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.”  

In contrast, Newport defines shallow work as “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” Examples of shallow work are time spent on social media applications, data entry, replying to emails, etc. Unfortunately, shallow work tends to quickly fill a day, as we all know too well the siren song of the little tasks and interruptions that creep and must be attended to right away. 

When our focus is fragmented between social media, emails, Internet news, texting, it is becoming harder to access pockets of uninterrupted time to find flow. Flow is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced, according to him, “chicks sent me high”). 

Flow, as I wrote in another article, is when “we feel a perfect match between skill and challenge, a loss of consciousness, and we experience timelessness in the flow state” or that “when we are involved in it, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.

There is little wonder that Newport mentions flow in his book, too: “Deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state“.

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Interruptions or distractions, which sometimes are unavoidable, pull us from a flow state to more mundane tasks. Unfortunately, these interruptions have a “stickiness” or, more scientifically put, “attention residue” (after we handle the disruption and we go back to our work, a part of our focus still stays with the interruption). And so, it becomes increasingly difficult to switch from shallow work to deep work.

Newport argues that we must keep firm control on our interruptions because 

As we shift to an information economy, more and more of our population are knowledge workers, and deep work is becoming a key currency — even if most haven’t yet recognized this reality. 
 

Though an increasing number of people will lose in this new economy as their skill becomes automat or easily outsourced, there are others who will not only survive, but thrive—becoming more valued (and therefore more rewarded) than before. 

But how deep work would lead to thriving? Newport identified two abilities for thriving: the ability to master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level in terms of both quality and speed. To master these abilities, Newport proposes a few deep work philosophies.

Deep Work Philosophies 

The Monastic Philosophy is the most focused form of deep work as it involves spending almost all working hours on deep work and minimizing all other types of work. Obviously, this style is not realistic for most of us who must do some context switching in our work.  

This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. Practitioners of the monastic philosophy tend to have a well-defined and highly valued professional goal that they’re pursuing, and the bulk of their professional success comes from doing this one thing exceptionally well.

Newport offers an example of this work philosophy in Donald Knuth, a famous computer scientist. This is what Knuth’s page states:

My full-time writing schedule means that I have to be pretty much a hermit. The only way to gain enough efficiency to complete The Art of Computer Programming is to operate in batch mode, concentrating intensively and uninterruptedly on one subject at a time, rather than swapping a number of topics in and out of my head. I’m unable to schedule appointments with visitors, travel to conferences or accept speaking engagements, or undertake any new responsibilities of any kind.
 

Or here

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. 

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study. 

On the other hand, I need to communicate with thousands of people all over the world as I write my books. I also want to be responsive to the people who read those books and have questions or comments. My goal is to do this communication efficiently, in batch mode — like, one day every six months. So if you want to write to me about any topic, please use good ol’ snail mail and send a letter to the following address…
 

The Bimodal Philosophy allows for a high amount of deep work to be obtained by arranging a year, months or weeks, into chunks of deep and shallow work. 

This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.

For example, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung would spend several months each year living alone at Bollingen Tower. Here, Jung would reflect on his works or writing with little interruption. 

Another example Newport offers is Adam Grant, a business school professor and writer, who stacks his courses into one semester and focuses on deep work the following semester. During “deep” semesters, Grant would shut his door or put out-of-office auto-responders to his email so that he could work on his research with no interruption. Outside of these deep sessions, he would be open and accessible to others.

The Rhythmic Philosophy is an ideal strategy for those with a reasonably static work schedule. If we know in advance our working schedule, we can block hours for deep work with breaks for shallow work, thus obtaining a daily “rhythm”.

[The rhythmic philosophy] argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.

Newport gives the example of a PhD student, married and a new father, who would wake up before 5:30 AM to have a few hours of uninterrupted writing for his PhD thesis. 

The Journalistic Philosophy is a technique to practice deep work sporadically, for when schedules are not static but hectic. The name derives from some journalists’ ability to quickly switch from shallow work to deep, intense, focused mode. Journalists would have slots of only a few minutes between interviews and writing, so they would have to enter deep mode quickly.  

You fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule.  

This strategy is not recommended for beginners as it requires immense mental concentration to switch at will from shallow work to deep work. Newport describes the routine of journalist and author Walter Isaacson: 

It was always amazing … he could retreat up to the bedroom for a while, when the rest of us were chilling on the patio or whatever, to work on his book … he’d go up for twenty minutes or an hour, we’d hear the typewriter pounding, then he’d come down as relaxed as the rest of us … the work never seemed to faze him, he just happily went up to work when he had the spare time.

Naturally, we need to examine our schedules, experiment and determine which option would suit us best.

As the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic showed, the lines between work-time and home-time are blurred. We had to bend our rules and adjust our time blocking to make sure children were fed, understood their school assignments, and that we managed to keep up with our daily jobs. A challenge that sent us from most probably rhythmic philosophy to journalistic philosophy (or better called, the parent during a pandemic philosophy).

One of the most in-depth guides derived from Deep Work is this article from oist, and I would highly recommend reading it. In a nutshell, the rules for deep work are: 

  • Focus on the wildly important.
  • Act on the lead measures (instead of concentrating on lagging measures such as the number of blog posts written we should concentrate on the number of hours spent in deep work mode).
  • Keep a compelling scoreboard (keeping count of how many hours we spent in deep work mode and display it in a public place to remain motivated). Newport presents “the chain method” attributed to comedian Jerry Seinfeld as an example. In this method, a calendar is kept on the wall, and we mark with an X the day where we did our deep work. After a few days, we would have a chain. Our goal is not to break the chain.
  • Create a cadence of accountability with either an accountability buddy or daily/weekly reviewing of our progress. 

What we want is to

minimize the shallow in my life while making sure I get the most out of the time this frees up. I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output. 

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But in this article, I want to argue that deep work, although a crucial skill, is not enough to thrive in our jobs.  

First of all, there is no denying that a million things are happening at once, all vying for our attention. And of course, the longing call of social media: oh, somebody liked our photo! There is a sale on that product from my wishlist! Oh, look at what happened in that X place! Hell no, somebody is wrong on the Internet!! 

And so, deep work is indeed a rare and valuable skill we all must hone so that we can accomplish increasingly complex work.

Ultimately, we all must learn this simple lesson: if it is important, we should make time for it, and if not, we should make an excuse

Across the book, Newport mentions knowledge workers that will benefit the most from longer and longer deep work hours as we move to a new world, where “unprecedented growth and impact of technology are creating a massive restructuring of our economy”. 

What is a knowledge worker? According to Wikipedia, examples of knowledge workers are “programmers, physicians, pharmacists, architects, engineers, scientists, design thinkers, public accountants, lawyers, and academics, and any other white-collar workers, whose…main capital is knowledge.”  

Combined with Newport’s split of work between deep and shallow, I can’t help but wonder, what about care work?

According to Newport’s definition, deep work is “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. ” 

So, to check if a task is a deep work, we can ask: 

Does it require focus? Does it require specialized knowledge? Does it create new value? Is this task hard to replicate? 

Ask any dedicated preschool teacher, and they would answer yes (keeping tabs on a dozen children at once, which child needs medication or has allergies, jumping to provide CPR in case of choking, etc. ), yes, yes and … yes. And no, preschool teachers are not by definition white-collar workers or knowledge workers, but pink-collar workers

And here we reach a conundrum: care work is deep work performed in a state of continuous interruptions (“Teacher, when is my mummy coming? Teacher, I need help with the toilet! When are going to the garden? I am hungry! It’s my turn and X doesn’t let me!”). 

I understand that Newport tried to provide knowledge workers with a system to handle the ever-demanding workforce reality, and I follow his time blocking system daily. But simply dividing work into deep and shallow might create a powerful dichotomy that devalues the critical care work.

After all, if we are in hospital, recovering from viruses or operations, wouldn’t we want dedicated nurses and doctors that care for us, even if that means they can’t have long, uninterrupted periods dedicated to deep research work? And wouldn’t this care work be more valuable than the deep work of knowledge workers? 

Also, Newport assumes that “unprecedented growth and impact of technology are creating a massive restructuring of our economy”. But as the COVID-19 pandemic and mass reactions to vaccines and lockdowns showed us, our society is prone more than ever before to fragmentation and tribalism, as social media amplifies echo chambers.

So maybe future economies will not be shaped only by growth and tech impact but also massive unrest and social movements. In such a future, deep work might not be as valuable as critical thinking, collaborative thinking or empathy.

Would a knowledge-oriented economy that does not focus on social services (cheap and reliable access to childcare, education, housing, medical services, transport, etc.) survive this century?

And then, the book is built on the premise that 

To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.

I argued in another article that the most valuable skill our children and we need to possess is perpetually reinventing ourselves. Deep work is a valuable asset when we will need to up/re-skill as we would have to “master the art of quickly learning complicated things”.

Even though we might become masters of quickly learning new technologies, would we have the mental stamina to sustain this rhythm for decades on end? Would we still keep the joyful curiosity of burning to learn more, know more when we are in our 60s? Would we not instead become blasé? Been there, done that, have the T-shirt. 

This is why Newport insists on his book prioritiing mental and physical recovery from deep work. I fully agree with him. Without time aside for recharging breaks or holidays, continuous deep work is a recipe for burnout. Still, our and subsequent generations are like no others considering the ever-changing pace of knowledge. We can’t assume that all who use deep work to learn new things would not grow, over decades, somewhat dispassionate to keeping up with the demands of their work.

So, deep work solely is not the whole answer because, as I wrote 

adapting to new realities requires immense reserves of cognitive flexibility. Every few years, we and the future generations will have to reinvent ourselves, either through upskilling or switching careers entirely. How to become resilient in the face of never-ending change is everybody’s lesson to learn, unlearn and relearn. 

Another deep work detail I want to discuss is

The Deep Work Hypothesis: 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. 

Except that the world does not function as a meritocracy. Especially with minorities (and I include women as a minority, even though women are around 49.6 of the world population), there are power relations that men coming from privilege tend to ignore. 

In her book The Authority Gap, Mary Ann Sieghart tells an anecdote regarding Mary McAleese, a former president of the Republic of Ireland. While serving her presidency term,  

he led an official visit to the Vatican to meet Pope John Paul II. She was in the audience room at the head of the delegation, about to be introduced to the pontiff, where he reached straight past her, held out his hand to her husband instead, and asked him: ‘Would you not prefer to be the President of Ireland rather than married to the President of Ireland?’ Her husband knew better than to take the bait. As McAleese told me in an interview for this book: ‘I reached and took the hand which was hovering in mid-air and said, “Let me introduce myself. I am the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, elected by the people of Ireland, whether you like or whether you don’t.” ‘

The Pope later claimed it was a joke, but, if so, it was in poor taste. He had managed to snub a head of state before even acknowledging her presence. As McAleese recalled: ‘He said, “I’m sorry, I tried a joke because I heard you had a great sense of humour.” I said, “I do, but that wasn’t funny because you would not have done that to a male President.” ‘

There is no doubt that Mary McAleese worked hard and employed some sort of deep work to get to her position. And yet, there she was, mocked despite her accomplishments.

This is where the deficit of the deep work hypothesis comes: simply working deep is not enough to thrive, as ours is not a fair world, and not all who work deep will reap the benefits as their results will sometimes be snubbed or ignored. 

Sure, we can argue that we need to focus on lead versus lagging measures, but the thorn remains. Biased thinking will most certainly undermine deep thinking.

Another aspect I want to note is that the methods Newports cite to employ deep work might not be helpful to some of us. For example, keeping a scoreboard to work deeply to assess how many hours we would need to perform a task. Although I time block my days, I never tracked my deep work hours.

Indeed, we might need some visual cues when starting with deep work methods. Still, as we progress, we want to move from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation, from external rewards (seeing how many hours we have in deep work or how the days are chained in “the chain method”) to ingrained behaviour. 

And lastly, Carl Jung had five children, born between 1904 and 1914. Jung built the Bollingen Tower around 1923, and after that, he would spend months away from his family and patients in this tower. Or consider the PhD student Newport mentioned as an example for the rhythmic philosophy who woke up at 5:30 to do his deep work stretch.

So, who took care of Jung’s children while he was away in deep thinking sessions? Who was taking care of the PhD’s baby while he was in deep thinking sessions? Who indeed.

Newport never asks these questions in his book, but we can assume that whoever was in charge of childcare couldn’t afford the luxury of deep work unless there were some arrangements we don’t know.

Perhaps these individuals were lucky, and their babies could sleep through the night with no issues. Perhaps Emma Jung, Carl Jung’s wife, who was “at the time of her marriage the second-richest heiress in Switzerland”, had nannies, cooks, maids or governesses to help her with childcare.

But for each situation like that, there are thousands of cases where parents don’t have extra hands to help them or babies can’t sleep through the night due to colics, silent reflux or other issues.

If the mother is breastfeeding on-demand with no formula aids, then the mother takes care of the baby through the night. I did that, and I will do it again in a heartbeat, even if that means years of long nights where I wouldn’t have more than maybe half an hour or one hour of uninterrupted sleep at a time.

So, that meant that for me, waking up early in the morning to do a deep work session would be complete nonsense, as I would be either dead tired or in the middle of a feeding. However, my husband could have done a deep work session in the morning but chose wisely for the sanity of our family to sleep like a log instead.

And so, the focus of the following articles is my research on how women (who usually experience gender stereotyping like Mary McAleese or are usually caregivers – where care work is deep work in a continuous state of interruptions) integrated work philosophies into their lives. Some strategies might be surprising.

Note: In an AMA (Ask me Anything) interview on Reddit, Jerry Seinfeld talked about “the chain method”: 

This is hilarious to me, that somehow I am getting credit for making an X on a calendar with the Seinfeld productivity program. It’s the dumbest non-idea that was not mine, but somehow I’m getting credit for it. 




Previously published here.

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