Why Embracing Deep Work Gives You a Competitive Advantage

2 years ago   •   5 min read

By Colton Hicks

Deep work is not a priority in today's business climate.

Professionals want to prove that they're productive members of a team or organization, but they're not always clear about how to do this. As a result, these workers turn to the easiest indicator of productivity: Shallow work. This makes you feel satisfyingly productive in the short-term, but has detrimental consequences on your long-term success.

The appeal of shallow work makes depth rare.  But if you embrace a deep work philosophy, you'll have a competitive advantage in the workforce.

Opportunities Exist for Those Who Can Focus and Work Deeply

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It allows you to quickly learn hard skills and produce results at an elite level.

In spite of this, depth is becoming increasingly rare.  People are more attracted to shallow work because it's easier, provides instant gratification, and lets us fit into a business culture that values constant connection.

Cal Newport expands on this in his book, stating:

“Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly."

By technopoly, he's referring to a society that worships and deifies technology.  Newport continues:

"[Deep work] builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and nontechnological. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech.”

Deep work is a lost art in the modern workforce. But this is good news for those who see the opportunity gap.

If you're able to focus and work deeply, you'll have a competitive advantage over those who prefer shallow work.

To understand why deep work is so rare, let's look at what makes shallow work so alluring.

In Newport's words, we live in a "culture of connectivity." And this has given birth to three business trends:

  1. Serendipitous collaboration
  2. Rapid communication
  3. Active presence on social media

The intent behind these trends is positive. Collaboration, communication, and connecting with others are vital for work (and life). But when they're prioritized above deep work, problems arise in your professional life.

Serendipitous Collaboration

Serendipitous collaboration is when two or more people have a chance encounter that leads to an idea or solution.  The hope is that, by increasing the odds of people running into each other, they'll exchange ideas and come up with innovative solutions.

This is why open floor plans became popular in Silicon Valley. Soon, other parts of the world followed suit.

The challenge with serendipitous collaboration is that it's unpredictable and unreliable. You can't force it to happen. And even when it does occur, there's no guarantee that it will lead to anything productive.

Though open-floor offices are designed to increase collaboration, they're a massive distraction.  And this makes it difficult to generate enough focus to learn hard things fast and perform at an elite level.

Rapid Communication

Many businesses value rapid communication because it allows them to respond to requests quickly. This trend explains the popularity of instant messaging platforms like Slack and Discord.

Rapid communication has many benefits. For example, if you need input from a colleague on a project, you can quickly get feedback to help move the task forward. You can also talk with customers in real-time using a chatbox on your website. This can be done with tools like Zoho Desk and Intercom.

However, there are drawbacks to rapid communication.

It creates an environment where people expect you to quickly reply to their messages or emails. This puts pressure on us to be "on" all the time, making it difficult to concentrate on cognitively demanding tasks. It's culturally acceptable, and expected, to be interrupted throughout the day.  As a result, we're always checking our phones, messaging platforms, and social media DMs for the latest update.

Naturally, this makes it hard to focus and do deep work.

And this leads us to the third connectivity trend in business.

Active Presence on Social Media

The purpose of having an active presence on social media is to gain more exposure.  By using platforms like Twitter, you can share your work, promote your brand, or connect with other like-minded people.

But the challenge with social media is that it's designed to be addictive. Each platform's algorithm is fighting for your attention by displaying content tailored to your interests. Before you know it, you've spent hours distracted and unable to focus on important work.

Now, there's nothing wrong with posting content on social media.  And I'm not suggesting anyone delete their social media profiles, as it plays a beneficial role in our lives.

But when we look at our social media habits, it's no wonder why deep work is so rare.

We enjoy the likes, comments, and shares that our posts receive. And we have this fear that, if we don't participate on social media, then we'll get left behind or criticized for being "out of touch."

There's no denying that social media distracts us from entering a state of deep concentration.  Media contributor and author George Packer shares this sentiment, stating:

"Twitter is crack for media addicts. It scares me, not because I'm morally superior to it, but because I don't think I could handle it. I'm afraid I'd end up letting my son go hungry."

Spending the majority of your time on social media can have negative effects on your ability to focus and think deeply.

How Does This Impact You?

To be clear, there's nothing inherently wrong with these business trends—serendipitous collaboration, rapid communication, and having an active social media presence.  They each have value, depending on how we use them.

The problem occurs when we prioritize them above deep work, as they hinder our ability to concentrate on what matters most.

So, how do we find a healthy balance between deep and shallow work?

Be aware of when you're using, in Newport's words, "busyness as a proxy for productivity."  He explains:

"In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner."

In other words: When we're unclear about what matters most, we fall back on shallow work—sending emails, attending meetings, responding to numerous message, etc.  It's simply easier, and the visible busyness that comes with it becomes self-preserving.

The antidote is to become clear on what it means to be effective, and then enter a state of deep work.

Only do shallow work when it's absolutely necessary. Don't allow yourself to be a victim of busyness.  

Next Steps

The business climate expects serendipitous collaboration, rapid communication, and an active social media presence.  The gravitational pull of these trends is so strong that deep work is becoming increasingly rare. But this can also give you a competitive advantage, if you choose to seize the opportunity.

Want to learn more about deep work? Check out our article: Why Deep Work Is So Valuable in the Modern Workforce.

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