Many of us are, says Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Particularly since the internet has become a part of our lives, our tendency is to multitask almost all of the time. For example, I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve written with my email inbox open. I might also have Facebook Messenger open, and have my phone on to receive text messages. Dividing our attention in this way–even if we are not aware of the division–diminishes our ability to engage in the kind of deep reflection necessary to produce truly important and innovative work.
Newport distinguishes deep work from shallow work. Shallow work consists of tasks like answering emails and signing forms. These tasks don’t require a great deal of creative energy. Deep work, however, is where we make our most meaningful contributions. It requires space, time, attention, and prolonged periods of focus. We can’t do this if we’re constantly monitoring our inboxes or checking status updates on Facebook. To write a great sermon, book, or poem, to develop the next great idea for church planting or evangelism–these require deep work. Even a quick glance at email can get us off track.
The problem, however, is that many of us are addicted to this kind of distraction. If you can’t resist checking your email while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, chances are your brain has been conditioned to expect distraction. It becomes a compulsion and intrudes into the space in our lives where our best work could potentially happen.
It is crucial, then, that we intentionally cultivate skills that will enable deep work to occur. We must develop habits that will build time for careful and focused thought into our weekly routine. If we do this, Newport argues, the quality and quantity of our work will improve, and we will generally be happier people.
There is no one right way to develop the skills of deep work. After all, different jobs require different kinds of schedules and involve different demands on our time and attention. Newport provides several models of what a life devoted to deep work might look like. What is important is that we habituate these ways of thinking and living so that deep work simply becomes a part of our lives. This requires self-discipline, but the payoff is worth it.
Reading this book helped me to identify practices in my own life that diminish my capacity for productivity. It seems to me to be a particularly helpful resource for pastors, who need to be able to reflect deeply for the work of preaching and teaching.
Many thanks to Kevin Watson for pointing out this important book to me.