Why are people so unhappy in their work? No matter how much they are paid, so few people seem to have any satisfaction in what they do.
In Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport argues that the main reason for so much unhappiness at work is that people are spending way too much time on shallow work and way too little on deep work. (See previous posts about this here, here, and here).
Before diving into a detailed descriptions of his rigorous program for transforming one’s professional life into one centered on deep work, Cal Newport makes three arguments for more deep work in our lives. He admits his first two arguments are essentially pragmatic and market-based: pursue deep work because it is becoming increasingly valuable and at the same time increasingly rare.
His third argument, however, is more about human flourishing. It is that a life devoted to deep work is the most satisfying and meaningful. To put it bluntly—the deep life is a good life. he makes this argument first from a neurological perspective.
Newport references scientific studies which have demonstrated that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non (the essential condition) of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of our experience.
This is because our brains construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on. Therefore by skillfully managing their attention, people can improve their world without changing anything concrete about it.
If your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to, consider for a moment the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors. There’s a gravity and sense of importance inherent in deep work. if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.
If you keep your email open these issues will remain at the forefront of your attention, leading to a working life dominated by stress, irritation, frustration and triviality.
Therefore if you are a knowledge worker, the more time you spend in a state of depth is maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life.
A psychological perspective also supports Newport’s thesis. Psychologists have found that the best human moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. This is often call a “flow state” and includes stretching the mind to its limits, concentrating and losing oneself in an activity. Such flow states, which can be achieved via deep work, generate maximum happiness and satisfaction.
I’ve certainly found this true in my own experience. When I set strict boundaries around my deep work hours, go to war against distractions and interruptions, and make every effort to concentrate on one task, my job satisfaction (and productivity) goes through the roof. However, if I spend my whole day with my email open, my phone pinging and buzzing, checking social media, dotting from one thing to another, and interrupted constantly, then I am not only miserable, I am totally unproductive. And sinning.
For me, deep work is not just a personal preference but a matter of conscience. I have to answer not only to my employer but also to my God for the talents and time he has given me. Deep work is the way I try to multiply God-given talents for the glory of God and the good of others.