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Learn to concentrate again

Book Review: Regain your ability to accomplish deep work

Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group). By Cal Newport. 296 pp. Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group). By Cal Newport. 296 pp.

Beep. Vibrate. Ping. The symphony of office life today.

For at least five years, I have been aware of my decreasing ability to concentrate as well as I once did … or, at least, think that I did. Around the time that I began feeling especially frustrated by this trend, I learned of Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World.

Two ironies here. First, it took me over six months to finish Newport’s very interesting and very helpful (I hope) book. Had I locked myself in a room the day I bought it and read it through, I think January through June would have been more fruitful months.

Why we work

Why do I say “fruitful”?

Because that’s the point of being able to concentrate, to perform “deep work.” Newport puts this succinctly in his book’s conclusion:

“A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement—it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.”

Increasingly, Newport relates, we work in a world full of distractions that often seem important. Many of these arise through the internet: the bottomless email inbox, web searches, social media, finding distracting entertainment online. Not all are electronic. Meetings and chatter also play a disruptive part. So does multi-tasking.

Much of this results in time-consuming “shallow work.” Newport defines this as: “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

The typical workday is crammed with these traps, not all of them avoidable—at least, not until you give them a hard and honest assessment.

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Early in my career I worked for a publisher of a banking monthly who had been a lieutenant in Patton’s Third Army. Ranald Sclater was a tough but understanding man, and he made time to discuss business with the young people who worked for him. He once remarked, after I had recited a long list of frustrations of the week, that only two things counted at the end of every month. He held them up. One was the magazine’s operating statement—its P&L, and back then it was on green accounting paper. The other object he held in his hands was the magazine itself.

“No one wants to know about the sturm und drang that went into producing these,” Sclater said. “They only care about the end products.”

Not for everyone, but most need it

As I read Deep Work over the months, I would discuss what I’d read so far with bankers here and there—CEOs, tech experts, and others.

One of the best community bankers I know told me that deep work was not his specialty. That took me aback at first. But this CEO explained that his role was shepherd-in-chief. His job, he said, was to make it possible for his staff experts to do the deep work that his bank needed. And around the same time I came to Newport’s own explanation that deep work was not a universal need, that often leaders couldn’t do it, shouldn’t do it, but that they needed people who could do it.

Still, I don’t see any discipline in banking where the ability to have periods of deep work wouldn’t help. If bankers ever had to concentrate on their key challenges, it is now.

Deep Work does not promise to make you a more productive person in 30 days. Newport spends a good deal of the book on the reasons for deep work. By that I mean, what is it that you really need to accomplish, want to accomplish? And are you doing it? Or are you getting to the end of each day increasingly feeling you have done everything but what you set out to accomplish?

Newport doesn’t promise instant results. In fact, he often proposes periods of experimentation. Try this for a week. Try this for 30 days. Much of the book reports on his reading on deep work from an eclectic mix of sources, but also on his own experiments in deep work.

Overall, Newport’s self-application of what he discusses has paid off beyond his hopes. As a professor in computer science at Georgetown University, for example, a key goal for Newport was finding time to be able to publish extensively, both academically and commercially, without his work life or his family life going haywire. He takes pride, understandably, in the fact that, unlike many other academics, his job has not taken over his life.

I know many bankers who cannot make that claim, and, as a banking editor, I identify with their challenge.

“Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work,” warns Newport. He later adds that “to succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff that you’re capable of producing—a task that requires depth.”

Newport also writes that “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

Newport opposes the notion, as he headlines one section, where busyness is a proxy for productivity. In example after example, he shows how really productive people don’t buy into the things they “should be” doing, and find ways to concentrate on what they really should be doing.

Focus. In one word, that is what Deep Work is all about. Running your day out of your email inbox, getting through the day’s dose of connectivity, may seem productive. But is that what you are really being paid for?

The practical application part of Deep Work comes in four sections that each proceed from a rule. I’ve summarized some key advice below:

Rule 1: Work deeply

Today, in Newport’s words, most of us “find ourselves in distracting open offices where inboxes cannot be neglected and meetings are incessant—a setting where colleagues would rather you respond quickly to their latest e-mail than produce the best possible results.”

A number of historical and modern examples cited by Newport concern people who devised opportunities to isolate themselves, both physically and electronically, to accomplish deep work. For some, this takes the form of a literal place. For others, this takes the form of shutting out the world. This may mean answering emails only at certain times of day.

One thing that Newport opposes is the mistaken application of the idea of collaboration. The open office plan has its place, but he insists that some of the pioneering uses of this concept were misunderstood early on. Tearing down walls became the rule, but the opportunity to retreat to think independently has often been forgotten. Newport explains how the early efforts at collaborative space succeeded because they also afforded time and place that allowed for gestation of concepts generated by collaboration—even entailing soundproofed doors.

Newport stresses the need to work at deep work. Taking advantage of every opportunity for it is part of it, but he also stresses scheduling it. If plans go awry, remake your plans on the go, he advises. Constantly revisit how to come back to the blocks of time you set aside to engage in deep work.

One key point is: “Focus on the wildly important.”

Another is to build in downtime, to help recharge mental energies. And that includes deciding that past a certain hour, you will not check email.

Rule #2: Embrace boredom

How often during the day do you stop to check Twitter or LinkedIn? Or sports scores? Or answer the five latest emails to come in?

Why are you doing that right then? Often it is for a change of pace, or a distraction from what you are working on.

Newport argues that this is the wrong end of working. To get things done, people must train themselves to not succumb to on-demand distraction.

A good example is the “essential” internet search. Rarely does it end with what you “had to” check.

Newport suggests scheduling time for internet research where possible, to be taken up only when that scheduled time comes.

“Until you arrive at that time,” he writes, “absolutely no network connectivity is allowed—no matter how tempting.” This rule applies at work, at home, and even when you are waiting on line and have a smart device at hand. To Newport, this is a matter of training the mind to resist the need for distraction.

“To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life,” writes Newport, “but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.”

Rule #3: Quit social media

Newport has successfully published a number of books, but unlike many self-marketing authors, he doesn’t tweet. He doesn’t have a Facebook page. Not everyone can avoid social media, but he doesn’t buy the argument that social media is a “must do.”

For those who must expose themselves to this time-sucking family of media, Newport suggests treating social media like any other tool in your office toolbox. Assess the tool’s true utility, and ration yourself to that.

“These services are engineered to be addictive—robbing time and attention from activities that more directly support your professional and personal goals (such as deep work),” writes Newport. “Eventually, if you use these tools enough, you’ll arrive at the state of burned-out, hyperdistracted connectivity …”

Rule #4: Drain the shallows

People resist it, but Newport emphasizes the need to schedule relentlessly. To be truly productive, he writes, we must stop living our workdays on autopilot. One of the obstacles to making this work for many is email.

Early in the book Newport summarizes research done on the huge cost in employee hours that businesses “spend” on email and related communication. In this section he moves into practical advice on how to better use this now-ubiquitous business tool more intelligently.

Being harder to reach may not be practical for many readers, though it was for Newport.

However, he writes, “Just because you cannot avoid this tool altogether doesn’t mean you have to cede all authority over its role in your mental landscape.”

Newport presents three rules that I found to be worth the price of the book. They are truly liberating, and yet, they demand effort and perseverance on the reader’s part.

• First, make those who send you emails do more work in putting the emails together. Email has become a very casual way of communicating, especially emails from outside your organization proposing wholly new matters. Newport suggests establishing filters—rules on your website or elsewhere that state what outsiders need to include so you can answer an email intelligently.

• A corollary to this comes in his second rule: Work harder on your own emails proposing new matters to others.

Instead of following up from a convention with a note, “Can we discuss this idea soon?” propose some days and times to do so. The idea is both to be more formal and earnest in the communication, but also to save the huge time wasting that goes into back and forths that email generates on mere logistics. Being concrete and specific up front will save huge amounts of time.

• Another corollary to the first rule is simply, don’t respond.

Some find this difficult. But Newport says that if a sender fails to make a convincing case that the recipient should respond to their email, why should the recipient feel any burden at all to respond?

This idea is not easy to accept at first. Bankers must approach this with care due to the importance the industry—and its regulators—place on responding to complaints, and on tracking them.

Newport notes that his three rules represent an aggressive approach.

However, he adds, adopting these rules “will significantly weaken the grip your inbox maintains over your time and attention.”

At the beginning of this review, I mentioned that there were two ironies. But I only mentioned one.

The other is that I first learned of this book through a Twitter message promoting a blog that mentioned the book. I tend to be more outbound focused than inbound on social media, though I have found some valuable things, such as Deep Work.

I suspect the final answer lies in moderation, but measured through the filter of Newport’s relentless focus on getting the most important tasks done through concentration.

When I began to read this book, I actually proposed to Newport, who is not generally easy to reach via email, that we also do an interview (which he had been willing to do). Since finishing it, I have proposed to him instead that I will try applying the book’s suggestions, and come back to him in six months with questions. Stay tuned—and go work deeply.

Please share your own ideas on how to find time, space, attention span—whatever it takes—to accomplish deep work on your banking job. Use the comment space below.

Steve Cocheo

Steve Cocheo’s 38 years in financial journalism have taken him to all 50 states and nearly every corner of financial services in companies from fintech startups to community banks to regional and national giants. He is executive editor of Banking Exchange and digital content manager of Previously he spent 36 years on the staff of ABA Banking Journal and 22 years concurrently as editor of ABA Bank Directors Briefing. He is the only journalist to have sat in on three federal banking exams, was a finalist for the Jesse H. Neal national business journalism awards, and a winner of multiple awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. A year ago he finally gave up his cherished Blackberry for an iPhone, recently tried Uber, and has made it by Citibike from Battery Park to the Washington Bridge… and back.

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