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Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep Work is one of those books which is really talking about a seemingly single idea, and breaks it down into what proves to be some complex and interesting elements of neuroscience – why we get distracted. I thought it was very well structured, in its two parts.

The first three chapters are about what “deep work” is, and compares it to “shallow work”. Instinctively, I think we know what that means, but Newport’s definition is clear. Deep work for him is something that requires concentration in a way that is uninterrupted, to allow the mind and your thinking process to really work on the challenge. Shallow work, by comparison, is trivial. Many of us, however, spend most of our time doing shallow work. In reality, we’re constantly interrupted with distractions – we’re diverted by an email, we hear that phone ring, etc. Every one of those interruptions creates a distraction that takes us away from our ability to do something more meaningful. All of his examples are of people who have used the techniques, that he goes on to describe. As well as people like Einstein being included, he references ordinary people doing extraordinary things – people that take the time to have developed the ability to separate themselves from distractions.

I really like that the second part of the book is about the ways to achieve deep work. Newport went out of his way to make it very clear what he was talking about, why it’s important, and why it’s rare.

Deep Work talks about social media being deeply distracting, and about doing your utmost to take control of how it interrupts us – so, to use it, or avoid using it in a trivial way, at certain times of the day. I think we all know how disruptive it can be. That message all works for me.

His second chapter on how to do deep work is called Embrace Boredom. Really, what he’s saying is, with the technology and all the things around us today, we have trained ourselves out of the ability to be bored. If boredom strikes, we can always do something else – there’s plenty to do after all – we just don’t allow ourselves to be bored. We jump onto the next task. What he’s saying is that boredom is the gateway into the ability to have the time and the effort to think about things in the right way and to go deep. Rather than seeing it as a negative “Oh, I’m a bit bored”, we should reframe it to seeing it as “Oh, good. I’m bored. Now I can harness the energy of that boredom and turn it towards thinking”.

What I really liked was that he talked about “intentional meditation”. The principal way of learning meditation is to concentrate on your breath. However, the brain inevitably interrupts your concentration on the breath with a thought here and there about something else – like, have I fed the cat? The point of meditation training is to just acknowledge that thought, then let it pass, and go back to concentrating on the breathing. Newport’s intentional meditation states that rather than starting with an intention to concentrate on your breathing, instead focus on and ask: what’s the biggest issue that I face today? What’s the biggest challenge? Concentrate on that, and every time the brain says, “oh, have I fed the cat?”, you acknowledge the thought, let it go, and turn your mind back to thinking about the issue that you’re trying to think about.

I think it resonates, too, with some other books like “More Time To Think” by Nancy Klein, which was about working with a thinking partner to help you have the opportunity to think, without interruption, about a topic. I think that too is a technique that could help get into some of this deeper work.

The last thing I took from it was in talking about scheduling time, and in trying not to view any interruptions of that time as a complete failure. If you’ve intended to spend an hour or two in deep work not being interrupted, and something does interrupt you, just acknowledge it. Then think about how you can reschedule the rest of the day, to put some time in to do that. If not everything gets done… well, so be it. To help with that, turn off notifications on the computer, put the phone on silent, eliminate as many obvious sources of distraction as possible. The opportunity for avoiding interruptions won’t always be entirely successful – there are some things that will still come up – but basically, when I do this, the things that I thought would take me all day were done by lunchtime. That’s the nub of what Newport’s saying in the book – that when you get that deep work level of concentration, you can really motor.

Take the next turn…

Take the next turn…

In an earlier blog I wrote about the woman behind so many of the signs that we see everyday on our roads and railways – Margaret Calvert. I discussed how the important thing to be sure that signs provide is just the right information at just the right time. Information on the road that answers the questions that drivers need, a confirmation that they are on the right road, going in the right direction. At the right moment you get the additional information that is needed to turn off, and the closer you get to the destination, the more local the detail that is needed: the town, then the district, then the road, then the house.

In business too, our prospects need to understand where, and when, they are being asked to turn off the road they have been on and to turn on to ours.

When we’re going to turn off the road, we need to be clear of our intentions to do so. That’s why we signal using our indicators to alert those around us of the decision we’re about to take. That allows others on the road to be ready. In business too, we need to be alert to the signals that those in our markets are giving us. If we make the opportunities clear, then we can expect to see some prospective clients signalling their interest. It won’t be a flashing light, but if you are alert you’ll be able to identify what those signals are. It could be downloading a white paper, or booking an appointment.

Are they indicating that they are about to buy our product or are they simply indicating a glance as they pass us by?

In my opinion, we should get the information to people at the right time and in the right way to meet their (informational) needs, and allow them the space and time to consider the information. When we do that well, we will be able to see whether they signal their intention to turn. Yet just like on the roads, if the signs are too early, or too late, it’s easy for people to miss the turning. We should give them the right warnings that they are coming to a decision quite soon. Timing is important in all our communications.

What happens if they miss your turning?

Yet we all know that on occasions we misread a sign, or perhaps miss it altogether. Perhaps because something else is happening that demands our attention. If we missed the turning, our signpost needs to also tell people that they have still got an opportunity to take a different route. Just like any satellite navigation system when we miss a turning, or turn to the wrong road, they will seamlessly recalculate the route to bring us back on track. We should treat our prospects in the same way. Too often I’ve seen businesses conclude when a prospect doesn’t take the turning that they have decided, forever, not to buy from us. It’s simply not the case. It’s possible our sign was not clear, or they saw it at the wrong time for them; in essence, they may well just be slightly lost. What we can do is reach out and help them. Show them the route back to where we would like them to travel and give them the choice again.

How do I make sure my sales are on course?

When Margaret Calvert was working on the road signs for the M1 she wasn’t just deciding what to put on the signs, but where to put them, how far away from the decision point, and so on. She used experiments, and trail and error, and that continued after the motorway was opened. Even today the signage on the M1 is updated based on experience. Your sales process too should be constantly evaluated. Are your prospects getting the information they need, when they need it? Is it in a form they can easily use?

One of the things that I’ve learned when working with clients is to have clarity around where they are on this journey. I classify potential clients by thinking of them as travelling towards my business. How far out are they? What level of information and data does a client that far away from you need? Probably not much more than the direction an idea that your product exists, that your marketing for those people should focus on keeping them informed of where you are and what direction is best to approach you. For others who are much closer to a decision, you may need to provide much greater information, more frequently and in more detail.

When do you stop giving directions?

On the road, the signposts stop when you reach your destination, but in business I’m not sure anyone ever stops travelling. We always have to communicate about what we are delivering, about what we could deliver, and continue to build the relationships that are needed for business to thrive.