I recently read Deep Work by Cal Newport and it left me feeling inspired to build greater depth in my own life and work.
The premise of the book is simple – ‘deep work’, or work where we give our complete, undivided attention to something over significant stretches of time, is worth doing. It has increasingly become rare in today’s world of fractured attention. But it’s essential because it helps you improve performance without having to increase time spent, helps you produce significantly higher quality output, maximizes learning, and makes you a more valuable worker in today’s knowledge economy.
Almost equally importantly, deep work is worth doing because it is an essential ingredient of a good life. Being able to skillfully manage our attention in itself improves the experience we are engaged in. Neuroscience shows that when we lose focus, our brain tends to fixate on what’s wrong rather than right. Conversely, sharp focus is conducive to engagement and finding flow. Our approach to work, therefore, is key to flourishing and finding meaning in life.
As I thought about the book from the perspective of leadership, there are three big messages that stood out for me:
- The importance of clarity on values and goals
Being able to engage in deep work requires crystal clarity on what we really want, and therefore what we need to focus on – both at work and in life. Deep work requires us to ruthlessly cut down on the number of things that we do, and deeply focus on the ‘wildly important’.
As I thought about applying this principle in my own work, it forced me to ask myself what I really value, and what my most important goals in life are.
What made it to the top of my list? Thought leadership, coaching and continuously getting better at it, and building an amazing organization. This then provides me with a frame to evaluate all the tasks that take up my time – something is worth doing only if it truly helps me to move forward on one of these three. (I did the same exercise for my personal life too – my top three there are connection, adventure and learning. Gives me a wonderful lens to think about what I pursue in my leisure time as well).
So many of my coaching conversations come back to this principle. Leaders find themselves reflecting back wistfully on periods where they were truly at their best and wonder how to bring back that magic. Very often, they realize that at the heart of it is being able to know what they really want – what they are truly longing for in life – and once that is clear, everything else falls into place. The path becomes clear, time gets created, and the resources that are needed somehow materialize.
The default option is to keep going, keep following the set path, without asking ourselves these difficult questions about what we really want. But it’s only through searching for those answers that we can create an intentional, purposeful life.
- The magic of presence and connection
As I read the book, I found myself naturally applying the deep work principles to that activity itself (it would be a bit ironical to be reading a book on deep work in a distracted state of mind!) My phone was silent and somewhere far away, if I thought of something else, I just made a note of it and came back to it later, and I truly immersed myself in the book.
This experiment proved quite interesting. I finished the book in a day (I read slowly and usually take longer), and I truly thought about what I was reading – proving Newport’s points about maximizing learning and optimizing time.
I also really enjoyed the day, because I was truly present. It reminded me of the hours I spend coaching. My attention is spectacularly focused on the person in front of me. I realized I find fulfilment in those hours not only because helping my coachee grow and find their own power aligns with my own life purpose, but also because presence in itself is magically satisfying. And deep presence is what leads to deep connection – with the other, with our work and even with our own selves. That for me forms the bedrock of true leadership.
The magic of presence brings together science and spirituality. What we’ve learned about the potential of focused attention from neuroscience. And what our spiritual gurus teach us about the power of now – of living in the present moment and treating it like the gift that it is.
- The deep life is truly a good life
And that brings me back to where I started – Newport’s central premise. The fact that depth is worth pursuing for its own sake, not only for the outcomes it creates. I truly believe that to live a good life, we need to savour the journey as much as we enjoy the milestones. And depth – with all its potential for engagement, flow and meaning – is a critical ingredient to do so.