In late-2007, JK Rowling was trying to complete The Deathly Hallows, the last book in her Harry Potter series, as hundreds of millions of her young fans waited all over the world. But Rowling was not able to concentrate easily in her home office in Edinburgh (Scotland). “As I was finishing Deathly Hallows, there came a day where the window cleaner came, the kids were at home, the dogs were barking,” Rowling recalled in an interview.
This was a turning point, almost. She decided to do something about it. She checked into a suite in the five-star Balmoral Hotel, one of Scotland’s most luxurious hotels, a classic Victorian building of ornate stonework and a tall clock tower. It is also located only a couple of blocks away from Edinburgh Castle—one of Rowling’s inspirations behind Hogwarts. She was planning to spend a day.
But the first day’s writing went off very well. So, she kept coming back and ended up finishing the last of the Harry Potter books there.
Peter Shankman is an entrepreneur, social media pioneer and a popular speaker for which he needs fly a lot. He discovered that “locked in a seat with nothing in front of me, nothing to distract me, nothing to set off my ‘Ooh! Shiny!’ DNA, I have nothing to do but be at one with my thoughts.” He was highly productive in that environment (as this writer also discovered, some time ago).
Sometime after this, Shankman signed a book contract that gave him only two weeks to finish the entire manuscript. This, of course, demanded incredible concentration and productivity.
To pull it off, Shankman booked a round-trip business-class ticket to Tokyo. As Carl Newport writes in Deep Work, “He wrote during the whole flight to Japan, drank an espresso in the business-class lounge once he arrived in Japan, then turned around and flew back, once again writing the whole way—arriving back in the States only thirty hours after he first left with a completed manuscript now in hand.” Shankman said that the trip cost $4,000 and was highly worth it.
These are among the many fascinating examples in this book on productivity, quite an expanding sub-genre of books under the ever-popular genre of self-improvement. (I have just finished reading The One Thing by Gary Keller and am now reading Mindset Carol Dweck, both of which I will review in the forthcoming issues).
Newport calls Rowling’s decision to check into a luxurious hotel or and Shankman’s idea of using the first-class cabin as a workplace, examples of a “curious but effective strategy in the world of deep work: the grand gesture. The concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.” The grand gesture is among the different rules Newport prescribes in part 2 of the book for you to work deeply, “strategies for training your concentration ability and fighting back encroaching distractions.”
What Rowling and Shankman have done may seem egregious but fighting distraction to get important work done has been an imperative, through centuries. Here are some examples from the book. The 16th-century writer, Michel de Montaigne, built a private library in the southern tower guarding the stone walls of his French château.
Mark Twain wrote most of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a wooden cabin, which was so isolated from the main house that his family had to blow a horn to attract his attention when needed, such as for meals. Between 1969 and 2013, the extraordinarily productive screenwriter and director, Woody Allen, wrote and directed 44 films that received 23 Academy Award nominations. Throughout this period, Allen never owned a computer; instead he completed all his writing, free from digital distraction, on a German Olympia typewriter.
Peter Higgs, a theoretical physicist, who work in such disconnected isolation that journalists couldn’t find him after it was announced he had won the Nobel Prize. Neal Stephenson, the cyberpunk author who helped shape our ideas of the Internet age, is impossible to reach electronically. His website has no e-mail address and has an essay about why he is purposefully bad at using social media.
He said once: “If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time… there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.”
All this sounds so quaint today, given the typical behaviour of most modern ‘knowledge’ workers who are losing the ability to do deep work thanks to “network tools.” This includes communication tools like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and “the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit.”
The rapid spread of these tools, combined “with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers,” writes Newport.
We Are Busy—with Shallow Work
Newport quotes a 2012 McKinsey study that found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60% of the work-week engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching; close to 30% of a worker’s time is dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone. This does not the help in deep work, although modern knowledge workers report that they are as busy as ever. “What explains the discrepancy? A lot can be explained by another type of effort, which provides a counterpart to the idea of deep work: Shallow Work. This is work that is undemanding and can be done while distracted—constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction.”
While this book is fascinating, the argument about why we should focus on deep work could have been sharply focused, to appeal to the masses. Newport laments that shallow work “tend(s) not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate… Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality.” That’s a moral or a philosophical argument. Newport’s argument that the shift toward shallow work is not a choice that can be easily reversed; it permanently reduces your capacity to perform deep work – may be correct. But the vast majority of the population may not simply be interested in ‘deep work’, a rather daunting prospect.
Instead, Newport’s argument—that those who shift away from the shallow will be missing out on “massive economic and personal opportunity” could have a broader appeal. It is a pity that the book is not pitched this way—as a productivity tool. What drives people is not so much scope to do deep and creative work but certainly a desire to do better than their neighbours and colleagues, improve productivity, achieve more in less time and have more hours to spare to have fun and spend time with the family. But Newport does not drive home these appealing benefits which, ideally, should have been in the subtitle.
He does make the point that “Deep work is not, in other words, an old-fashioned skill falling into irrelevance. It’s instead a crucial ability for anyone looking to move ahead in a globally competitive information economy that tends to chew up and spit out those who aren’t earning their keep. The real rewards are reserved not for those who are comfortable using Facebook (a shallow task, easily replicated), but instead for those who are comfortable building the innovative distributed systems that run the service (a decidedly deep task, hard to replicate).” Most people are likely to miss this point. A must-read book for anyone trying to make their efforts more productive.