Deep Work in a Distracted World

by James J. Caruso, CPA, CGMA | Oct 13, 2021


This article was originally printed in the summer 2018 Pennsylvania CPA Journal. 

I was living a professional life best described as 10 miles wide and a millimeter deep. I was “busy” all the time, but was I really accomplishing anything? What could I possibly create in the scattered half-hours between meetings, with only enough time to check the emails that I hadn’t already distracted myself with during those same meetings? That’s when I stumbled upon Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. I was drawn to the book’s title: “Deep Work.”

Newport defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” Only when working deeply can we experience “flow,” a mental state in which we are fully immersed in the moment with any task that requires skill and concentration, but not so much that it overwhelms.

Shallow, distracted work, on the other hand, gives the illusion of productivity, but in fact destroys it. Newport explains the concept of attention residue, citing a 2009 paper by Sophie Leroy titled “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work? The Challenge of Attention Residue When Switching Between Work Tasks.” Essentially, when you switch from one task to another, your mind is still thinking about the original task for a period of time. Attention residue is the human brain’s version of the financial concept of “switching costs.” I had heard anecdotally that the cognitive cost of interruptions can be up to 15 minutes to get back on task. It became clear I was doing this to myself every time I checked email during a meeting, or when I took a peek at my inbox while working on a document or report.

Daniel J. Levitin, in The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, corroborates the productivity hazards of attention residue and multitasking with his description of attentional switching: “Increasingly, we demand that our attentional system try to focus on several things at once … [But] once on a task, our brains function best if we stick to that task.” Also, Levitin warns that attentional switching leads to anxiety, and has a biological impact on the brain’s use of energy – a metabolic cost. Nicholas Carr, in his The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, argues that when we multitask we work superficially. Not only are we sacrificing depth and mindfulness in the moments we are distracted, we are also sacrificing our ability to work deeply and be mindful when we finally want or need to.

It soon became clear to me that deep work is not necessarily synonymous with focus. One can focus on anything that’s right in front of him or her. The problem is that what is in front of us is increasingly unimportant rather than something of true value. We are distracting ourselves by focusing on the wrong things. More significantly, creativity and innovation – discovering new ideas by connecting seemingly unrelated dots – requires time spent not focusing; it requires more of a daydreaming state, which we are losing by distracting ourselves with our mobile devices. Problem-solving requires alternating between focus and daydreaming. After a period of concentration on a problem, the subconscious mind needs time to work on it. Turning information into ideas and creating value requires turning inward, time to think. If you never pause to allow a thought to blossom because you just move on to the next task that appears on your screen, you are missing out on a necessary mode of thinking for creativity.

According to Newport, “Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.” This was one of his points that concerned me the most. If you lose the ability to focus intensely without distraction, you cannot quickly learn new and complex things or produce at an elite level – Newport’s two core abilities for thriving professionally. It was an epiphany. My habit of looking at my cell phone every time I was waiting in a line at the store or waiting for someone to arrive at a lunch meeting was actually rewiring my brain. If your brain needs constant stimulation and can’t stand a single moment of potential boredom, you will lose your ability to concentrate when needed.

So, how do all of us in the tech age respond to this? How can today’s always-on professional combat the forces arrayed against him or her to work more deeply and transcend the tendency to work in a distracted state of shallowness?

An awareness of the problem is a critical first step. Then, think twice before whipping out your phone during every moment of downtime. Live in the moment. Avoid the temptation to “multitask.” You are fooling yourself if you think you really can do two things effectively at the same time. Aspire to work differently, and break today’s paradigm that says being connected is good while being disconnected is bad. Turn off email notification and check your inbox only at set times of the day, scanning for important emails and leaving the rest to deal with in a dedicated block of time. Most importantly, make time to think; make it part of your work time and part of your leisure time. The subconscious mind needs time and space to work on certain problems. Go for long walks and let your mind wander. Turn off the radio in your car and use your commuting time to think through a problem.

If you have difficulty staying organized, consider a personal productivity system that lets you control your agenda. Reacting to every email gives others control of your priorities. Personally, I follow David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” methodology, known as GTD. A key component of GTD is the need for a “weekly review,” which is quality thinking and planning time (deep work) that helps define projects and tasks. When beginning a new project that seems ambiguous and difficult to start, the first task is to simply think about it, to envision the outcome, and to brainstorm what needs to be done (more deep work). Another interesting feature of GTD is that tasks are organized by “context.” Many GTD followers define context primarily in relation to the tool required for the task or where it can be done. For me, a more important context is the mode of working: there are big cognitive differences between building a spreadsheet, creating a project plan, or facilitating a meeting. People underestimate the psychic energy required to sit down in a quiet office and focus on the minutiae of reviewing a set of financial statements right after having just actively engaged colleagues in a meeting.

Control your daily calendar. Learn at what times of the day your energy levels are highest, and set aside time for your deep work. Three to four hours each day of uninterrupted concentration can produce a lot of valuable output. For me, it’s the early morning. I try to protect that time by keeping it free of meetings or phone calls. Also, try not to allow your schedule to be chopped up by meetings that leave only half-hour fragments of the day that are too short to get any meaningful work done, and purposefully set aside larger work blocks. Advance planning in this area will positively affect how you manage and lead others, enabling them to also work deeply. Make deep work a routine, and build rituals around it. Jerry Seinfeld used to put an “X” on his calendar every day that he spent time writing (his “deep work”). The visible handwritten X’s on his wall became a chain that he simply did not want to break.

Making the conscious decision to work differently is one thing; having the discipline to do so is quite another. To succeed, avoid the temptations of digital distraction and multitasking, and ensure that you have the time to work more deeply so your mind can wander and work its creative magic.



James J. Caruso, CPA, CGMA, is chief financial officer for Simplura Health Group in Valley Stream, N.Y., and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at jcaruso@simplura.com or on Twitter @jamesjcaruso.

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