Deep Work in a Global Context

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In the last blog post I touched upon the topics of internet addiction, digital distractions, and the harmful influences of our online lifestyles, in general. Following up on the topic, let’s look at the notion of deep work, a term coined by a computer science professor at Georgetown University, Cal Newport.

In his bestselling book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal defines deep work as the ability to focus without distraction for a long period of time on a cognitively challenging task, thereby producing outcome that is valuable and difficult to replicate. What is not deep work, is called shallow work, which constitutes tasks that are not that cognitively demanding, which we can do whilst distracted, and results of which are easy to replicate. Cal argues that our ability and skill to perform deep work is becoming rarer, whilst at the same time the need for such type of work becomes increasingly important. This hypothesis seems quite accurate to me.

As discussed in the previous blog post, nowadays the majority of us are familiar with constant distractions and smartphone addictive habits, which would definitely go in line with shallow rather than deep work. It doesn’t take much effort to notice how often we check our e-mails, are distracted by phone calls, and give in to our temptation to scroll our social media walls. We even seem to excuse our comfortable modes of distracted work, for example by holding on to the belief that multitasking is possible and makes us more efficient. Yet, looking at the expected outcomes of deep work, generating something that is valuable and hard to replicate, isn’t this exactly what the present and future job market demands?! The majority of what is easy to replicate seems to a candidate for increased automation of work, leaving humans with the creative, unique, and cognitively challenging tasks.

It seems to me that the much-needed deep work is especially relevant to global work contexts, because apart from digital technology itself, the structure of multicultural work can promote distractibility as well. Take for example the different time zones people need to communicate across, expectations of 24/7 availability, or the amount of business travel prevalent in global business.

According to the main rules of deep work, the state of deep focus doesn’t come particularly naturally, but rather requires specific routines that help create better opportunities for such a demanding type of concentration. Given such requirements, managers of multicultural teams would be well advised to implement uninterrupted intervals of work for their employees. Interestingly, deep work doesn’t necessarily mean individual work, as it can be done also in teams if there is clarity about what matters and what a team’s productivity of should look like. Coming back to the notion of different time zones and 24/7 availability in a global business environment, it seems necessary to create some helpful downtime agreements as well. As Newport highlights, deep work is not only about helpful uninterrupted work routines, it is also about recharging and giving opportunities for deeper insights during periods of rest. Although after-dinner e-mails, weekend follow-up calls, or ‘unofficial’ work chats through social media can help finalize some bits and pieces of work tasks, and create the feeling of efficiency, Cal’s research suggests that in the long run, it deprives our brains of needed relaxation, as well as strengthens our habit of ‘diffused’ attention at the cost of deep focus skills…

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