The necessity and guilt of doing deep work

Today I was unsure what to write about. Which is interesting by itself. After all, there are many subjects that interest me and are of interest to me, there are many ideas sitting in lists in my Roam Graph (and yes, that is a shameless plug for Roam Research, do check it out if you do any writing.)

Writing requires calm. It requires a steady focus on an idea I want to develop. It does not work when my email application and our corporate chat application are open. Writing is deep work, as Call Newport defined it in his book “Deep Work”. Newport is the author of another book “Digital Minimalism” where he posits that our enthusiasm to adopt new tools without considering their impacts reduces our capability to deliver high value work.

As a director and member of the executive committee it is my responsibility to ensure that I spend enough time thinking about where we should be going with the organisation I am responsible for. To be able to do that, I need to ensure that:

  1. I reserve time in my agenda to talk about the future with my team members. That can be challenging, because I need to create a space where our discussions will not be about now or about yesterday, but about tomorrow and the day after. The challenge is to take managers that are managing the day-to-day of a complex product and let them look up. It is my responsibility to create the space in which they feel empowered to look up. Because, as Newport states, “For some types of problems, working with someone else at the proverbial shared whiteboard can push you deeper than if you were working alone”
  2. In addition, I need to take the time to look outside, to competitors or companies in adjacent sector to understand how they are thinking about the future. Ideally, I take the time to go beyond that and think about sectors that appear to have nothing to do at all with what I do, to discover whether they have ideas and concepts that could prove useful for our own future.
  3. And finally, I need to gather all that information and start asking the right questions to synthesise, to distill all those ideas into a realistic but ambitions roadmap that keeps us moving forward.

This is hard work, and it is mainly deep work. It is also, at the most fundamental level, what I am paid to do. Again, Newport: “Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.”

And yet, doing this is difficult and even gives me a feeling of guilt, on occasion, because I am not top of every issue that crops up in the day-to-day. The temptation to check Teams or Outlook is constantly nagging in the background.

All this confirms Cal Newport’s “Deep Work Hypothesis” which states: “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.”

If you want to know more about Cal Newport’s work, I can heartily recommend reading both Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. And ask yourself the question … when was the last time you immersed yourself in deep work? Can you really afford not to?