How focus at work prevents dull life

Veronika Nesverova

I almost never work for more than 8 hours each day. And even though I can get a lot of things done the level of satisfaction from my work varies a lot. However, I was never able to pinpoint what exactly during my PhD in biochemistry makes it that some days I leave work more satisfied than others. I thought it was just arbitrary, depending on my mood or on the number of things I checked off my to-do list. Having just finished reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, this became so clear and it is this revelation that I want to share with you.

Cal defines deep work as

“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

He claims that by extending the time in deep focus we can maximalise our feeling of satisfaction and meaningfulness at work and at life.

Here is the answer to my question! Here is why I enjoy some tasks more and some less! I was rather ambivalent about lab work, not sure whether I would like to do some in my future job. This concept made me realize I don’t feel the satisfaction from a task that is not pushing my thinking to its limits (which routine experiments truly don’t but developing a new method does). This is also why I enjoyed some parts of being an entrepreneur (coming up with ideas, planning strategies, learning new skills like book-keeping and customer management) and really didn’t enjoy other parts (routine book-keeping once I learned it).

Some degree of shallow work will of course always be necessary. There will always be some paperwork to do and even keeping good relationships with your colleagues is worth your time. Moreover, Cal states several times that even the sharpest minds cannot work on the deepest possible level for more than 4 hours each day. That makes me feel less guilty when leaving work earlier after a bunch of really focused and productive hours.

How deep is deep?

It’s appropriate to mention here the author’s way of measuring the deepness of work that a certain task requires. I just love his way. Imagine a fresh graduate who is bright but without a training in a particular field. How long time would it take to train this person to perform the task well and independently? It would probably take a few hours to train somebody to run an SDS-PAGE gel in a lab, couple of weeks to purify a protein and quite some months or years for them to develop a new method. How long would it take to train somebody to write a PhD thesis? Right, 4 to 5 years.

Writing a doctoral thesis, summarizing one’s research and discussing it in a context of the whole bundle of current scientific knowledge requires deep focus and thinking to the limits. I’m just about to start writing and realizing it will be very difficult, I also expect it to be a very rewarding and satisfying experience.

The difference between satisfaction and pleasure

There is a counteracting force though, the one that sometimes make you feel like “maybe I should just become a … (fill this in yourself) and have a simple life”. I felt like this too sometimes, when struggling. I believe this is what Steven Pressfield calls the Resistance in this book The War of Art. Shallower work (like scheduling meetings, cleaning the toilets and keeping the books) often does not create new values, one doesn’t have to focus too much and is easy to replicate. The appeal is in that the task is very clear so that it is easy to judge whether I have succeeded or not. During shallow work I can rest my lazy brain that is used to the instant pleasure of finding a new email in the inbox or a new heart on Instagram.

Deep work is a hard work, for most of us. In this age, more people than ever have problems with keeping focused. According to Cal Newport the ability to work deeply will become more and more scarce and at the same time more and more valued by companies. Sadly, companies are not actively promoting deep work, quite the opposite (think open offices or Slack) and that’s probably because it is so difficult to calculate the economical value of deep thinking. This book has however convinced me and so I am now committed to practice deep work as much as I can. Furthermore, I believe my brain is capable of more complex thinking than I nowadays think possible. It would be a shame not to use its full capacity.

Using deep work as a criterion for deciding what job I would enjoy doing in the long run

I will be looking for a job in the spring 2020. Certainly, job hunting is much easier if you know what exactly you want to do. As a classic millennial this is a tough one for me.  This book made it slightly easier as it will help to narrow down opportunities to apply for based on how much shallow or deep work they would comprise of.

“Whenever you squander attention on something that doesn’t put your brain through its paces and stimulate change, your mind stagnates a little and life feels dull.”

Winifred Gallagher

The last thing I want is my life to feel dull.

Is this something you think about?

Some practical ideas for you:

  • Which tasks give you long-term satisfaction and which give you instant pleasure?
  • What percentage of time do you spend doing deep/shallow work at your job? (According to Cal 30-50% of shallow work is reasonable.)
  • How’s your ability to focus?