What are the two core abilities that you must have to thrive in the new digital economy?

According to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focussed Success in a Distracted World they are:

1. The ability to quickly master hard things. To put it bluntly, if you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.

2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.

And how do we cultivate these core abilities? Surprise, surprise—they depend on our ability to perform deep work, that is the ability to concentrate for long periods of time without interruption or distraction.

Newport uses the example of the hyper-productive Wharton Business School professor, Adam Grant, to prove his point. Grant’s secret is “the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.” He accomplishes this by ruthless organization of his schedule, email auto-responders, and blunt signs on his office door. He exemplifies the law of productivity:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus).

By maximizing his intensity when he works, he maximizes the results he produces per unit of time spent working.

Newport’s research into high-scoring college undergraduates discovered that the best students actually worked less hours than the next group of students in the rankings. “That’s because the best students understood the role intensity plays in productivity and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration.”

Attention Residue

So what is it about deep work that makes it so productive? It’s the lack of “attention residue.” That’s the effect that Minnesota University business professor Sophie Leroy discovered in her work on multi-tasking—trying to accomplish multiple tasks simultaneously.

When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task…People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on the next task.

“By working on a single hard task for a long time without switching, we can minimize the negative effect of attention residue from other obligations, allowing maximal performance on one task.” The attention residue concept implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to performance.

“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.”

  • Gordon Woods

    It’s articles like this one, particularly points 1 and 2 (you can’t and won’t thrive), that make me glad I’m 80. ;-)