What You Lose With ‘Deep Work’
In the war against distraction, it’s easy to close yourself off from new conversations, ideas, and opportunities
For the past few years, I’ve blocked off large parts of my days for what the author Cal Newport calls “deep work” — the act of focusing, without distraction, on a cognitively demanding task. The case for single-tasking is clear: We’re lying to ourselves if we think we can effectively do multiple things at once. Studies show that interruptions create a more stressful work environment, and that our brains need time to recover from each one.
So for a while, I doubled down in my war against distraction. I avoided social media, kept only the most essential meetings, and deleted every unsolicited email that crossed my inbox. Deep work has been one of my most valuable practices — since eliminating everything I’ve deemed it essential to my productivity, I’ve been able to write hundreds of articles, build an editorial studio, and work on a bunch of fun side projects.
Lately, though, I’ve been having more mixed feelings about this laser focus. I wasn’t sure how to explain my gnawing ambivalence until I came across a speech by mathematician Richard Hamming: “I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most,” he said. “But 10 years later, somehow you don’t [quite know] what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance.”
The point hit me like a freight train. Sure, I’d come up with tons of writing ideas during my deep work sessions. But when I pitched them to editors, they’d often fall flat. I started to realize that by putting on blinders, I was letting my tacit, implicit understanding of the world fade. I was reading plenty of books, but had very little exposure to new, cutting-edge ideas and conversations. Not only that, I had no place where I could challenge my assumptions, gut-check my sense of thinking, and refine my arguments.
Right now, with many of us working from home, it’s becoming easier to shut out the chatter of people around us simply by deleting apps or turning off notifications. This can be a great thing, yes, but there’s also value in staying…