Reclaiming deep work

"Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they had decided to show their full measure" - Antonin Sertillanges

Thank you for joining me for blog 15 in the series, highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.


Concepts you will read about today: deep work, shallow work and mono-tasking. We will also look at how technology is being used to enhance deep work e.g. Flown, a start-up company currently in this space.


It's 6.45am, and I am staring at some notes I have made on my phone during the week for today's blog. This is not a humblebrag - quite the opposite. Only by finding time where I am completely undistracted do I seem to make serious progress whilst writing, and my reward for finishing the writing is breakfast. Apparently, I am not the only one struggling.


Today’s blog is about Deep Work: 1) what it is 2) why we need it 3) how tech might help us.


What is deep work?


The best definition of deep work I could find is below from Cal Newport (funnily enough the author of a book called "Deep Work").


Deep Work Definition



'Hard to replicate' is key from the definition above. This ties in with Blog 13 which was about learning (Today's superpower - learning (hartejsingh.com)). Deep Work helps bring about the focus part of the focus, feedback and fusing which is required for optimal learning.

So far so good. So if that is Deep Work, what is the opposite?


Shallow work definition


Why we need Deep Work

I looked into Deep Work, as I would sometimes feel that after a days worth of ‘work’ I felt that I had not achieved much and, in particular felt that important but not urgent things weren’t progressing.


It turns out that I was making the error of letting the day play out, rather than having a plan for how to make the day count. I'm an Investor and if I counted up reading and responding to emails, attending meetings and reading research/news, it was an unacceptably high portion of my day. This did not leave me time to get deep and research some key things in the depth I needed to, leaving me feeling that I had been busy but without any satisfying wins to the day.

Why is shallow work more of an issue now?


In period dramas, the aristocratic men (and they are always men) have a library in which to lock themselves away. So a room, without anyone else in it, no iphone, no watch buzzing away, no social media, no email, no instant messaging. This is quite different to the office of today, with many people around, and many ways to get distracted.


Do we need to be available every second of every day? Whilst there are some things that need a response relatively quickly, do they need an instant response? It is definitely possible to carve out slots where you can get your head down and work without that feeling that you are going to miss something.


The third error I was making was multi-tasking, trying to parallel process a number of things that seemed like they did not require my full attention. This included trying to have a conversation with someone whilst responding to an email, or switching between a meeting I was in, whilst trying to read a research report. There were times I caught myself checking email, but had not even realised I was doing it.


The problem with multi-tasking


We all know that situation where we are half-way through something, and then something else equally important pops in your head. You then start working on that new task and after a while, the unfinished old task pops into your head. All experiments that I have read, have shown that switching between two or more tasks, will generally feel more demanding and will result in slower progress - interruption slows down tasks.


The science behind this has been around for about 100years. The Zeigarnik Effect (1927) is the idea that uncompleted tasks are more easily remembered than completed tasks (i.e. even if you're not doing something, if it is uncompleted it still takes some of your mental bandwidth). More recently, the evidence of 'attention residue' has been confirmed in experiments. This impact means that when switching between tasks you are not achieving 100% focus on the task in hand, there is some part of your brain, which hasn't moved on and 80% focus results in less progress. Put simply, where possible, it is better doing tasks sequentially rather than in parallel, with a view of which one takes time priority. This is monotasking in action.


Diagram of the effect of attention residue on tasks performed


An ode to deep work


The reward for incorporating deep work into our day would be to improve our learning, concentration, productivity and feel our work is more meaningful as we see tangible progress. Reclaiming deep work is essential for those who want to research, write, or think deeply about something. I have found that regular practice has increased my ability to concentrate and stay on task (but there is a lot to be done still).


To minimise mental switching, batching up similar tasks is also a significant time saver. I now pay bills every Saturday in one go, and could imagine I would save a lot of time by working out upfront when we should get food shops and what should be in it only once a week.


The final thing is, deep work should be scheduled in your day. An empty diary soon fills up without clear prioritisation.


In our heart of hearts we know that the equation below is true, so to fully unlock your focus, we need to work more deeply

How is tech helping us here?


If you want a workout you might use the peleton app, or if you would like a mindfulness session you might use Calm, but what about deep work? Flown is a growing start-up in this space and helps those either working for themselves, working remotely, or just requiring some structure to their day, to take on a deep work practice. I was introduced to Flown by the CTO of the company Mike Harris, who back in the day was a rising star in the credit derivative research field.


An example of how people use this is they attend 'Flocks' (live deep working sessions). In a “flock” people will introduce themselves on a Zoom call to create a collegiate atmosphere, work on their own projects, have a 10-minute break, then finally check in on each other. The participants won’t necessarily work with each other at the same company but all share the same goal of trying to get their head down and complete the task.


I think Flown will play an important part of the future of work, as people try and reclaim deep work.


How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:


1) Removing distractions and focusing on one task at a time (monotasking) helps you achieve a deeply productive state where 'value-add' work happens. It is reasonable to expect yourself to make better decisions in an environment where you are more focused.


2) This undistracted work is more difficult in a highly connected, open-plan environment. It needs to be unapologetically prioritised (within reason) and scheduled.


3) Deep work, when possible has left many people (including me) with a great feeling of progress in their day, and for those new to the practice, there is technology to help you (e.g. flown.com)


Thank you for joining. The next blog in a week's time will cover Attention.


Link to Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World: Amazon.co.uk: Newport, Cal: 9780349411903: Books


To learn more about Flown


Flown.com