Real Productivity Isn’t What You Think It Is

“Shallow work is what prevents you from being fired. Deep work is what gets you promoted.”

Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, and the author of Deep Work, a book which argues that focus is the new I.Q. in the modern workplace, and So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which debunks the long-held belief that “follow your passion” is good advice. He recently joined David Burkus, award-winning podcaster and author of Under New Management: How Leading Organizations Are Upending Business as Usual, for a Heleo Conversation on why presence doesn’t mean productivity, the difference between shallow work and deep work, and why we need to ditch email.

David: How did you start learning to turn off the distractions and focus on getting the maximum return on your time? How did you start learning to work deeply?

Cal: The advantage is that I come from this unusual intersection between two different worlds. I’m writing in the business advice development space, yet my job is as a theoretical computer scientist. Deep work, the ability to concentrate very intensely, is talked about as a tier one skill in the rarefied world of theoretical computer science. If you’re going to solve theorems for a living, that’s by far the most important skill.

I grew up surrounded by deep work being something that was really important, that you respected in other people, and that you honed and developed. It was at the core of your craft. And when I looked around into the broader world of business, I was surprised by how much it was underappreciated.

David: That’s a longstanding symptom of assuming that presence means productivity. You’re being watched by the boss, so you’ve got to look busy. Doing deep work doesn’t seem productive to the average manager who’s just checking to see when you reply to emails and when you’re in the office. At the same time, I feel like we’re at the beginning of a trend towards the recognition that that deep work is what matters.

Cal: I think that transition is inevitable, and what’s useful when considering the knowledge economy is remembering how new it is, relatively speaking. If you go back and look at, for example, the Industrial Revolution, you see it took a long time to figure out how to do industrial manufacturing right.

This is exactly what’s happening with knowledge work. It’s very new. We don’t know yet the right way to do this, and we’re in the early stages of figuring out what’s important and what practices should we focus on. This idea that you’re just in an office and trying to show busy-ness—we’re going to look back at that 20 years from now and say, “That was embarrassing. We hadn’t figured it out yet.” We’re going to see a lot of major shifts, and an increasing focus on concentration as a tier one skill is going to be one of them.

David: The rules of how we’re leading and managing organizations were written for an industrial time. Pre-Frederick Taylor, we had no idea how to manage a factory, and we look post-Frederick Taylor and say, “Wow, it’s clear we didn’t know what we were doing.” We’re in the same capacity here. Dilbert, Office Space, and The Office wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t for the mismatch between how to manage knowledge workers and how to manage things where deep work becomes a tier one skill. We’re borrowing from an old, outdated playbook. But we’re making progress.

You’ve got a great piece in HBR about a “modest proposal” to ban email. But [when] I talk about the companies that are actually doing it, drastically reducing email connectivity, and the benefits of it, I still get some resistance. How do you respond to people who say, “No, there’s no way you can have my smartphone. I won’t be able to work”?

“This idea that you’re just in an office and trying to show busy-ness—we’re going to look back at that 20 years from now and say, “That was embarrassing. We hadn’t figured it out yet.”

Cal: With email, the technology itself is not that interesting. It’s a set of protocols for doing asynchronous messaging with universal addressing. What’s important is not the tool, it’s the underlying workflow. This is the key issue. If you just focus on, “You should use your email inbox less,” without changing the flow that demands constant messaging, then you’re not going to fix anything.

The underlying workflow I call the “hyperactive hive mind.” It’s based on this notion that we don’t want a lot of processes in place, we don’t want a lot of logistical overhead. [Just] give an inbox to every person, associated to their name, and message back and forth. We’ll have this ongoing conversation that happens throughout the day, and we can be flexible and figure things out on the fly. This is the dominant workflow that knowledge workers are doing today: work everything out in an ad hoc, ongoing conversation.

Though this is really convenient, it’s disastrously unproductive. We have to evolve past it and come up with new workflows. If we just say, “Use email less,” it’s never going to work, because as long as the underlying workflow is this hyperactive hive mind, if you tell people to check email less, or to wait till noon to check email, it’s destined to fail because the workflow depends on constant communication. It’s going to make them worse at their job. So we do need to eliminate email, but to do that we have to get to the deeper root, which is the underlying workflow we use to run knowledge economy workplaces.

David: What do you think would be a good protocol to replace it to? What do you think is the ideal workflow?

Cal: It’s a question I’m working on. The key is not to focus on, “What communication technology would I use instead of email?” which is the mistake a lot of people make. They say, “What would the technology be instead? Would I use Slack?” Which is not the right way to think about it. The question is, what workflow would we use to replace hyperactive hive mind? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but it comes back to what we saw in the Industrial Revolution: process engineering. What are the processes in our company? What is it you can do to produce value? Let us build processes for you that optimize the amount of value you produce and make the job as sustainable and satisfying as possible.

How I interact with people might be different than how you interact with people, depending on what we do for the company, and we move away from this more generic approach of everyone on essentially one giant party call, [where] through unstructured conversation we try to figure it all out, schedule everything, check up on everything. That doesn’t work with our brain.

“Shallow work is what prevents you from being fired. Deep work is what gets you promoted.”

David: I’ve managed to adopt a two-device strategy, so while I’m still plugged into email when I’m in work mode, I switch my phone for an iPad that doesn’t have email and social media on it in order to transition out of work mode. What’s your advice to the individual person who’s like, “I can’t unplug entirely, [but] what can I do to push back against this and have a better workflow?”

Cal: First, the terminology “deep work” is useful, because it segregates that particular activity from everything else. Recognize that deep work is when you’re focusing on something for a long period of time without distraction, and it’s cognitively demanding. Everything else we can call shallow work.

Even recognizing that those are two different things is a huge step in how you think about and plan your day. It means saying, “I was busy today,” is no longer a meaningful statement, because that tells you nothing about how much deep work you did. Shallow work is what prevents you from being fired. Deep work is what gets you promoted.

The right question to be asking is, what’s my deep to shallow work ratio? Once you start thinking like that, you start building flows that are able to keep you on top of the shallow stuff that’s demanded by your company, but still do the type of deep stuff that’s going to move the needle.

David: You advocate that embracing boredom and pulling away from the stimulus has value because it allows us to focus. What happened? How did we get here?

Cal: Deep work is hard. We’re not wired for it—it eats up a lot of cognitive energy, so our brain tries not to do it if it can get away with it. That’s a survival skill back from our evolutionary history.

Our brains are not wired to be in states of deep concentration, so we’re more drawn to a work day that’s built around shallow hits of information. Social media, back to my inbox, let me post a quick thing here, let me go back to my inbox, jump to this meeting while looking at my email—that’s much more satisfying to our brain, because it gives us these little pops of dopamine. It keeps you away from, “I have to concentrate hard for three hours.” Just like if you said, “I need to go run for three hours,” your brain’s going to say, “If we can get out of doing that, I’m going to try to.” It’s not an easy battle, and that’s very important to recognize.

David: This is what’s at the core of people’s feeling like an office environment is so productive: you’re getting those little hits of dopamine. You’re working on something and then see a friend, have a brief conversation, get back to work, and don’t see the effect that that’s having on your productivity, because you’re swimming in dopamine from these interactions. Certainly, that’s more likely if you’re an extrovert than an introvert but these are interactions that you like. That’s why you’re allowing yourself to be distracted with them.

Cal: Even if you’re an introvert, still probably the first thing you do is open up an email inbox. It’s the same dopamine hit of busy-ness, which is why I keep emphasizing that it’s the hard concentration that pushes your skills to your limit, that makes you better. That’s the only stuff that moves the needle. That’s the only type of activity that the market really values.

Think: how replicable is an activity? If what you’re doing would be easily replicable by any bright, recent college graduate, then by definition it’s not going to be valued much by the market. Most shallow work satisfies that property: moving messages back and forth in an inbox, doing social media posting. But when you’re pushing your hard-won skills to the limit and improving, that’s when you’re doing the type of thing that creates value, that makes you unambiguously too good to be ignored, that opens up new opportunities, moves you ahead.

I try to shift people into thinking about anything that’s not deep work as a necessary evil. There’s paperwork that has to be done. But where you get excited, where you find your pride in a day well-worked, where you find your motivation, is in the deep efforts.

“People think about focusing like a habit, like brushing their teeth: “Of course I know how to focus. I just need to find more time to do it.” But the reality is, focusing is a skill. It’s much more like playing the guitar. If you haven’t practiced, you’re not going to be very good.”

David: How do I get better at doing deep work?

Cal: Productive meditation is a technique for increasing your ability to concentrate. Go for a walk, hold a professional problem in your head, and try to make progress on the problem as you walk. Just like in mindfulness meditation, if you notice your attention has wandered, bring your attention back to the problem. It’s like pull-ups for your brain. It’s hard at first, and then, as you do more of it, you find it easier to think deeper thoughts and for longer periods of time. It’s great training.

You have to recognize that deep work is a trained ability. This is an important distinction that a lot of people miss. People think about focusing like a habit, like brushing their teeth: “Of course I know how to focus. I just need to find more time to do it.” But the reality is, focusing is a skill. It’s much more like playing the guitar. If you haven’t practiced, you’re not going to be very good. If you’re going to cultivate a deep work habit, the first thing you have to do is hone your ability to concentrate at a high level of intensity. Because, if you haven’t done this training, even if I lock you in a Faraday cage and you’re stuck in there for five hours, you’re not going to produce much of value if your mind is not trained to concentrate intensely.

Once you’ve honed this ability, how do you make sure that you regularly have a lot of time to do deep work? You have to do both of those things if you’re going to succeed at embracing the type of deep life which can be orders of magnitude more productive.

David: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Cal: Steve Martin was asked, “What’s your advice to aspiring entertainers?” And he said, “People don’t like to hear it, but what you should do is be so good they can’t ignore you. If you do that, good things will come.” That has been transformative to the way I think about my life. It’s not about the hacks. It’s not about having the right systems. It’s not about cultivating your network to be the right mix of primary and secondary links. It all comes down to, “Be so good at what you do that you can’t be ignored. If you do that, good things will come.”

David: Totally, and deep work will get you there. What do you believe that most people don’t?

Cal: The two things that I say that upset people the most are, “‘Follow your passion’ is bad advice,” and, “Almost everyone should not be on social media.”

David: I’m totally fine with both of those. It hearkens back to an Abraham Lincoln quote: “Show me a man who has no enemies, and I’ll show you a man who has no resolve, who’s never taken a stand for anything.” It’s cool to be annoying people. It means you’ve taken a stand.

Cal: Yeah. That social media stand’s a lonely one: [I’m like] the only millennial in the country that’s never had a Facebook account. But you survive.

David: In your view, what makes someone a leader?

Cal: Be willing to go to first principles. Use what Lincoln called purposive intelligence, where you put your mind to work to get down to the first principles, and then be willing to build back up. Where you end up might be a place that puts you out on a limb, but that’s what leads to change that matters. Otherwise, you’re just rearranging the deck chairs, playing around with what’s already going on. Where you end up could be far from where you started, but you have the confidence, because you built that foundation from scratch, to say, “I’m comfortable being out here by myself, because I know how I got here.”